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  • Philosophy of the Living DeadAt the Origin of the Zombie-Image
  • James McFarland (bio)

At first sight, the image does not resemble a cadaver, but it could be that the strangeness of a cadaver is also the strangeness of the image.

—Maurice Blanchot, “Two Versions of the Imaginary”


The zombie-image, familiar from cinema, television, video games, and comic books, has many sources. The American military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 stimulated popular interest domestically in the subaltern Christianity of the island’s inhabitants, one element of which was the legend of the corpse reanimated to endless labor by a voodoo sorcerer, and this interest was soon reflected in magazine stories, stage plays, and films that featured “zombies” as servile and uncanny revenants.1 At the same time and independently, vampires and homicidal somnambulists populated the French and German silent cinema of the 1920s and lent the zombie-image elements of its visual iconography. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Cold War anxieties motivated such movies as Invisible Invaders (1959) and The Last Man on Earth (1964), in which aspects of the zombie scenario can easily be recognized.2 Yet though all of these deserve to be understood as generative sources, this does not change the fact that the zombie-image has a single, unique origin: George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. It is in this film, a film in which the word “zombie” does not occur,3 that the elements of the image assemble in their significant potency and begin their remarkable historical career.

To say that the zombie-image has an origin beyond its many sources is not simply to credit Romero with particular originality or to ascribe [End Page 22] unusual insight to the film he directed. It is to make a philosophical-historical claim about the nature of this image. As the millions of people who have seen it can testify, Night of the Living Dead is an effectively disturbing film, and Romero’s unexpected aesthetic skill and the movie’s considerable commercial success no doubt contributed to the rapid dissemination of the zombie-image. But the image is not the same as the film that discovered it. Lurid as it may be, the zombie-image has no necessary affinity to horror as a genre,4 and its truth is only indirectly related to any particular film in which it appears. The zombie-image is historically original; the films in which it appears are intended works. The theoretical truth of a historical origin is utterly different from the abstract knowledge generated by intentional works. “Origin,” Walter Benjamin famously wrote, “although an entirely historical category, has, nevertheless, nothing to do with genesis. … Origin is an eddy in the stream of becoming, and in its rhythm it swallows the material involved in the process of genesis.”5

The metaphor of an eddy in a stream suggests the different relation between time and truth that this philosophical-historical notion of origin invokes. In the stream of time, an origin is not composed of a substance different from the flowing temporal material, and yet its relatively stationary durability distinguishes it from the ceaseless flow of events in time. That relative permanence is its truthfulness; the eddy is stable with reference to what lies beyond the bank of the stream, hence to a horizon outside time. In characterizing that stable relationship between the eddy in historical becoming that the origin represents and a horizon beyond becoming where truth has its absolute being, Benjamin resorts to an ancient terminology from the dawn of Western thinking, the Platonic notion of an ιδέα. Temporal phenomena, and the intentional concepts that give knowledge of them, are all continuous with the stream of becoming; an origin, and the truth toward which it points, by contrast, manifest an idea. “Philosophical history, the science of the origin, is the form which, in the remotest extremes and the apparent excesses of the process of development, reveals the configuration of the idea” (Benjamin, 47; 227). The zombie-image has a unique historical origin to the extent that it registers an objective historical rupture in the cultural traditions of human self-representation...


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pp. 22-63
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