Friday, December 4, 2009

Juxtapose My Zombie

At the Gothic conference last July I was lucky enough to be in the audience for Elisabeth Bronfen's plenary presentation, titled Gothic Wars - Media's Lust. This was particularly interesting to me as it involved one of my favourite pop cultural figures: the zombie. Bronfen drew together two seemingly disparate texts, Rupert Brooke's war poem 1914 and George Romero's zombie film Diary of the Dead, to argue that the figure of the zombie is deeply implicated by the politics and imagery of war. She explains the process by which the soldier and the zombie came together in her mind:

"I began to think about the dead soldier Brooke's invokes precisely along the line of a zombie, dislocating the boundary between the living and the death. I saw him as part of an invading army, come to contaminate a country, whose boundary this force has also crossed."

And further:

"[Brooke's poem] invokes a body, left to rot in a foreign field that will, by virtue of physically merging with the soil, impregnate this foreign site with English culture. While I am fully aware that this was not Rupert Brooke's intention, one can, by cross-mapping his lyricism with the lore of voodoo zombies, see an uncanny infestation being anticipated. The foreign field will forever be a double, hybrid cultural site, conjoining over the dead body of the English soldier two cultures that were at war with each other."

The dead are not gone, they rise. Killing is not the solution to invasion, for the bodies of your enemies embed themselves within the physical and ideological landscape, never to be erased. In turn, the survivors of war also experience a kind of living death. They have witnessed horrific carnage and performed outrageous acts: "those who return from the war are revenants of themselves, and their visions are monstrous spectacles."

Bronfen also spoke of the racial politics of the zombie as an image of the 'other.' In the context of American military strategies, "the zombie proved useful to a crude propaganda of the occupation forces; he became the emblem for anxieties and fantasies about the other 'black' body of the Caribbean people." This point reminds me of the controversy surrounding this trailer of Resident Evil 5. RE5 is an installment of the popular first person shooter series Resident Evil, which chronicles the spread of an infection that turns normal citizens into hoards of highly contagious, flesh eating undead. It is the player's task to kill as many as possible, a task that becomes more disturbing as the location of the disease shifts from white America to African shanty towns.

One of the first to comment on the trailer in question was Kym Platt from the Black Looks blog: "This is problematic on so many levels, including the depiction of Black people as inhuman savages [and] the killing of Black people by a white man in military clothing."

Gamers violently denied the game was racist, and game developers quickly made new trailers that focused upon other game elements and a new African heroine.

Bronfen's work helped me to observe the historical connection between zombies and war in this controversy. It is not 'simply' racist imagery that informs the trailer, but a specific relationship between violence, boundary crossing and zombie 'others.' The juxtaposition of zombie/soldier made me consider both figures in a new light.

You can read Bronfen's paper here. I highly recommend it.

(pics from MapIt1418 and

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