Elegy to the Dead
By Arsh KS
The figure of the re-animated cadaver has emerged as a metaphor that lends itself to a multiplicity of deployments for social commentary and critique. These range from George A Romero’s breakthrough entry within the folds of Hollywood cinema — The Night of the Living Dead — to multi-platform franchises such as the Resident Evil series, which draws from Japanese video game influences while simultaneously establishing itself as a big budget movie franchise in its own right. The times have irrevocably inflected the object of what this critique may have been directed to, from the initial allusive critiques of racism in Romero’s films to the emerging fears of the power of corporations in their militarisation of economies, particularly the surge investments in chemical and biological weapons in a spooky case where reality seems to mirror fiction, a la Umbrella Corporation, drawing from the Resident Evil series.
Perhaps the first living dead in video game : Resident Evil
To adequately grasp the emergence of such a malleable symbolic device, however, it may be necessary to draw on the historic roots of its emergence within the Anglophone world, and here we cannot ignore Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein (1818). The story of Frankenstein, which was initially subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’, indicative of the scope and breath of Mary Shelley’s epochal vision for the character, is however bearing of a certain tragic quality which often alludes Hollywood action flics. Most noticeably present is the creature’s ability to speak. It is the daring of Mary Shelley which is testament to such a depiction, for within contemporary portrayals, this question has re-emerged. In the TV franchise The Walking Dead, for example, a doctor called Milton conducts a series of psychological experiments on restrained zombies, to determine whether any trace of consciousness remains within what appear to be brute fiends driven merely by the need to feed.
In providing Frankenstein’s creature, not merely with communicability but a profound lucidity that often escapes even cinematic renditions, Mary Shelley risks asking perhaps the most crucial question that Modernity had breached, a question not merely wound up in a philosophical dissection of how the other impinges on our symbolic reality, but one that dares to provide a voice which can speak their truth. The passage emblematic of this is the encounter between Victor Frankenstein, the doctor who created the creature, and him. For it is only in retrospect that we see what an irrevocable loss the symbolic device of the zombie has suffered in its transmutation into a mindless walking automaton debased beyond even an animal — which would still posses the faculty of fear and self-preservation.
It is from this dimension that the creature is retroactively redeemed by being granted a name, the first signification of the appeal to humanity and personhood that he struggled for throughout his existence.
In recollecting his tale, the creature who remains unnamed in Mary Shelley’s novel recounts his encounter with civilisation, how he deciphered the relations between the family he provided fire wood for, guided by his observances of how they lived. His feelings of joy at the music that the old man played and his sensitivity to Felix and Agatha bring forth the aspect of humanity so absolutely denied to his later renditions in the genre of the zombie franchises. In fact, this is emblematic of the desubstantiation of the tragic quality that permits Mary Shelley to vie for a title bearing with it the weight of Greek tragedy (‘The Modern Prometheus’).
George A Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
A curious and contagious oversight in popular imagination is that of believing the creature to be named Frankenstein himself, yet in this very mis-recognition is there not a grain of the traumatic truth of cultural appropriation ? In killing his creator, the creature arrogates for himself the name of the man who made him, yet this appropriation is recognised only beyond the narratorial form of its genesis, Mary Shelley’s novel. The truth of this mis-recognition in popular imagination may be read as a variation of the institutionalisation of a name becoming a title, just like the cry ‘the king is dead, long live the king !’ In killing his creator, the creature arrogates for himself his very name — Frankenstein — yet what is fascinating in this act of appellation is that it arrives from a real exteriority to Mary Shelley’s novel, an exteriority which is not merely a context, historical or otherwise but the very genre of Frankenstinian cinema, the historical dimension which such a work opened up to the world. It is from this dimension that the creature is retroactively redeemed by being granted a name, the first signification of the appeal to humanity and personhood that he struggled for throughout his existence. The invisible tragedy of this transformation, however, and what frames this exteriority is what it subtracts from the original character. In his christening as Frankenstein, he is denied the very speech that allowed him to explain his loss to his real creator, Victor.
When the genre of the zombie movie solidifies into a delimited set of characteristics fuelled by the infectious nature of the virus/plague that creates zombies, what is replicated is this very condition of loss. It is almost as if, for such a replication to be possible on a scale that can embody the catastrophe of an apocalypse which can threaten humanity, it is humanity itself that needs to be subtracted from the creature of Frankenstein.