- Dead SubjectivityWhite Zombie, Black Baghdad
With few exceptions, the contemporary cinematic zombie is a post-modern creature that reflects back the deadening effects of “first world” consumerism and its attendant evils. Zombies, writes Steven Shaviro, “don’t have an origin or a referent: they have become unmoored from meaning. They figure a social process that no longer serves rationalized ends, but has taken on a strange sinister life of its own” (1993, 84). For example, in George Romero’s famous trilogy, to which Shaviro refers, zombies are not only “monstrous symptoms of a violent, manipulative, exploitative society”; they are also, with their destructiveness and cannibalism, “remedies for its ills” (87). In a curious contortion of the democracy of consumption, the zombie “potlatch” in Day of the Dead—in which zombies tear apart and eat the flesh of American soldiers—“marks a democratic, communal leveling of all individual distinctions.” Watching this scene of “cannibal ferment,” Shaviro [End Page 81] revels in the “unavowable delights of exterminating the powerful Others who have abused me” (103). Romero’s zombie trilogy is an explicit commentary on the dead ends of the American family, post-Fordist consumerism, and the barbarism of the military-scientific complex. And as Shaviro’s confession makes clear, we spectators would rather identify with the zombie and its savage, unthinking cannibalism than avow our resemblance to the violent but rational humans and the institutions they represent.
As redemptive and democratic entities, these zombies represent a version of liberal politics in which revivified death conveniently obscures racial, class, and gender differences. In Romero’s republic, the dead may not be gainfully exploited, and all are equally compelled to consume the flesh of the living. At the film’s end, the few remaining humans take refuge on a deserted tropical island. There, stranded without hope of liberation, they await their inescapable zombification. Though Romero’s walking dead seem to have no origin, the human characters find themselves, in the end, in the Caribbean region where the American fascination with zombies and imperiled democracy began.
The zombie does, of course, have history in the U.S. cultural unconscious that connects it to colonial rule, unpaid slave labor, and the democratic injustices of American empire. The first feature-length zombie film, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, premiered in 1932 when the U.S. occupation of Haiti was in its seventeenth year. Haiti had long been associated with the exoticism of voodoo, especially as travel writers and marines published quasi-anthropological accounts of the country, including White Zombie’s primary source, W. B. Sea-brook’s The Magic Island (1929). But it was White Zombie that first cinematically presented the Haitian zombie and connected this undead character to the “occult economy” and political magic driving America’s hemispheric project.1 In response to mass strikes and demonstrations in Haiti against the occupation, which began in 1929 (see Suggs 2002, 74–76), the United States was finally beginning to withdraw from this unpopular and, by all accounts, unsuccessful mission of democracy when White Zombie opened.
The zombie, a perennial favorite of American horror, refers chiefly to its own cinematic iterations. “At once so repeatable and so specific, . . . so timeless and so timely,” writes Meghan Sutherland, it may well represent the [End Page 82] cadaverous “physicality of memory” itself (2007, 67, 69). But this essay argues that as a figure of memory the zombie actually has much to tell us about the culture of occupation in which it’s buried. Halperin’s film, which takes place in Haiti during the occupation, makes only oblique reference to U.S. foreign relations. But the film offers a fantasy of the cultural and psychological effects of occupation through this cinematic trope of the zombie. Or, put differently, though it evades any forthright engagement with the U.S. invasion, the film stages the experience of occupation as the loss of sovereign subjectivity. Displacing politics with horror, the film also performs curious racial reversals that implicate Americans in a colonial economy and suggest that U.S. citizens may themselves be susceptible to America’s degrading Haitian policy. On the other hand, the film enacts these tensions only to expunge...