- Zombies and Diseased Bodies:A Discourse on the Living Dead
Editor's note: The following is a transcript1 of an interview conducted by Dr. Asijit Datta (The Heritage College, University of Calcutta) of Dr. Sarah Juliet Lauro2 (University of Tampa) for a webinar called "Zombies and Diseased Bodies," that was held over Zoom on June 19, 2020, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic. In republishing this here, we have two hopes: 1) that it provides a kind of snapshot of the ways that we were already reaching to the zombie myth to make sense of our changing world only a few months into "lockdown," and 2) that it might serve as a companion piece to Christina Connor's interview of author Justina Ireland, whose zombie novels play upon the racial inequity and colonial abuses that undergird the myth. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
This interview below is an extended and exhaustive effort to weigh the pressing concerns of zombie life, philosophy, and history, beginning from the colonization of Africa down to the diverse socioeconomic crises emerging out of the COVID pandemic. The figure of the zombie, since its origination, has been an undead critter arising out of an unnatural birth. Historically, it has journeyed from the voodoo legends of the Haitian witch doctor reanimating a corpse to its modern variations as machinic symbols and medical metaphors. The American zombie walks as a personified symbol for racial violence, insatiate consumerism, technological excesses, anti-Christian rituals, and necromantic desecrations. From a broader perspective, zombies should be read as critiques of anthropocentrism or species exceptionalism. They are the inevitable sequela of the human tendency to invade and violate the natural, the animal, and the indigenous. Zombies must be interpreted not only as a posthuman phenomenon (humans as living-dead existents before the end of human as a phase in biogenetic evolution) but also as pre-human entities that have not yet settled the distinction between the flesh of the [End Page 96] self and the other. Why be a cannibal after all, if not to assimilate all others within, and consequently end all dualities? Or, is it the manifestation of the human denial of death where the dead return to claim the living? Eating human flesh is a reminder of its decayability, that flesh is ultimately subject to putrefaction. Therefore, zombies set the human-towards-extinction in motion, the phase of the Anthropocene that needs immediate scanning and scouring if we are to exist in the foreseeable future. The mainstream and traditional zombie is usually an aftereffect of a viral outbreak and falls under epidemiology. The coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying overwhelming number of dead bodies, government manipulation of mortality rates, clandestine burnings and burials, blaming of minorities, and manipulating religion to escape vaccination, have all made concrete the distant reality of the zombie.
The rationale behind the zombie plague in Indian cinema mystifyingly ranges from the depths of loneliness and despair of the protagonist (Rise of the Zombies, dir. Luke Kenny and Devaki Singh, India's first zombie film in 2013) to a spilling of nuclear liquid brought in from Eastern Europe that affects the "evil" part of one's brain (Miruthan, dir. Shakti Soundar Rajan, the earliest zombie outing from Tamil film industry in 2016), and finally to a bizarre biochemical weapon in 2030 resulting in a zombie apocalypse (Zombiesthaan, dir. Abhirup Ghosh, 2019 from Bengal). Physiognomically, American zombies are represented with bloodshot eyes, disintegrated shoulders, bare fangs, loss of consciousness, dragging feet, animalistic violence, perpetual hunger for human meat, slowness, deafness, or blindness, and an atypical disposition to move in groups and remain united. The Indian zombie borrows from the same template and strives to ground and localize the living dead in a specific sociopolitical space. However, if zombies are culture-specific, then the primary concern is to imagine the awakening of the dead in a country where the majority indulges in burning the departed rather than interring. Accordingly, the Indian filmmakers, by a strange patterned reflex, import either a virus or drugs from the West as the cause of the zombie infestation. The BBC article "Who Is...