Zombie Evolution:
Stephen King's Cell, George Romero's Diary of the Dead,
and the Future of the Human

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2012, Volume 11, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2012/keetley.htm

 

Dawn Keetley
Lehigh University


On one hand, the zombie materializes our past. It hearkens back, as Peter Dendle notes, to "promordial eras of protists and worms" (186). On the other hand, ever since radiation from a Venus probe was offered as the cause of the apocalypse in Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the zombie has also embodied the consequences of our unbridled experiments in science and technology, thus realizing a possible catastrophic future.  The zombie forces us to wonder, moreover, whether that future will, as Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro put it, "house a more evolved post-humanity” or "the graves of a failed civilization" (2).  As threshold figures, then, zombies not only contain the more obvious border between living and dead, they also mark the liminal space between past and future.  Are their relentlessly violent and predatory urges part of our human prehistory, buried deep in our brain structure and for the most part surpassed by millennia of civilization?  Or does their mindless violence prefigure our future, the path the human race is, for better or worse, inexorably set upon - a path that never really transcended primitive violence but just reinvented it in ever more creative ways?

Stephen King's 2006 novel Cell and George A. Romero's 2007 film Diary of the Dead both represent zombies as figures of human evolution.  Both raise important questions about human nature and the future of the human race.  Cell's zombies at first appear to be atavistic throwbacks, exemplars of William James’s famous proclamation in the Principles of Psychology that "our ferocity is blind, and can only be explained from below."  It is, James adds, a "fatal reflex response," only very slowly overcome by the civilizing process (414).  While the "normals" in Cell strive to maintain the line separating themselves from the zombies, that line wavers as zombie and human seem finally to partake of a more-or-less equal share in the violence of the novel.  But there is, nevertheless, a certain comforting reassurance in the efforts of the characters to consign the zombies to the past and to "below" - to a "fatal reflex response" we've mostly managed to transcend.  The primordial savagery of the zombies is markedly different from our own - or so the "normals" tell themselves. 

The containment precariously maintained by the humans in Cell finally fails, though, and I argue that the novel joins Romero's Diary of the Dead in the project of representing zombies as our bleak evolutionary future.  In this future, the zombies mobilize the outcomes of our own reckless embrace of technology and its particularly virulent contagiousness, allegorized by the cell phone signal in Cell and by proliferating media images in Diary. Both Cell and Diary explore what William James dismisses in his conviction that violence comes "from below."  James denies that violence can move "from above downward," that it can emerge from "the contagion of a crowd" (414).  Both Cell and Diary, though, suggest that our demise might lie precisely in that crowd and in its active, infectious practices: the zombies of both novel and film finally embody contagion more than they do primordial savagery.  They also suggest that the distinction between past and future is spurious.  Consigning violence to an atavistic past is a consoling lie we tell ourselves, and the zombies of Cell and Diary figure a reimagined temporality in which past, present, and imminent futurity co-exist, marked by a violence continually incited by our own technologies.

Stephen King's Cell opens at 3:03 on October 1, on a sunny weekday in downtown Boston, as people get a devastating call on their cell phones.  The call drives them to attack anyone or anything in their vicinity.  Chaos erupts, and only later that night do the few survivors wearily evacuate the burning, battle-scarred city.  The story centers on a core group of survivors, Clay, Tom, and the fifteen-year-old Alice, who travel north toward Maine in search of Clay's wife and son.  Along the way, they stop at a prep school and meet the headmaster, Charles Ardai, and one of his pupils, Jordan.  A significant turn in the novel is that the "phone crazies," as the protagonists dub them, change quite dramatically - becoming more peaceful, engaging in flocking behavior, and developing a powerful telepathy.  Every remaining "normal" gets insistent messages that they must go to Kashwak, Maine, where they are given another dose of the cell phone signal and turned into a "phoner" - becoming drained of all apparent individuality. The protagonists fight this transformation, burning a flock of "phoners" in order to escape.  The novel ends ambiguously as Clay, having found his son (now  a "phoner"), exposes him to the cell signal on the theory that it is mutated and might actually restore him.  We are left not knowing whether the theory worked - whether there is any way to reverse what the cell signal began, whether, in other words, humanity-as-we-know-it can be saved or is on the verge of irreversible mutation.

Cell isn't exactly about zombies, since the victims of its apocalyptic event do not die, at least not right away. In his categorization of zombies and zombie narratives, Kevin Boon puts Cell in the category of "zombie channel" - "the zombie channel is a zombie that has been taken over by another consciousness" (58).   Dedicating his novel to George Romero, King clearly wants Cell to be read in the tradition of the zombie apocalypse, and, indeed, the victims of the cell phone signal are routinely cast as zombies. "It's like the...Night of the Living Dead," a police officer succinctly notes, in the midst of the initial mayhem (30).  Later, Alice evokes Romero’s second Dead film, Dawn of the Dead, and the crowding of its zombies around the dimly-remembered shopping mall, as she points out how the suddenly less savage phone crazies have started flocking (137-8). Other references to zombies dot the novel: watching the phone crazies begin to flock, Tom remarks, "Christ, it's zombie heaven"; "The people out there weren’t exactly zombies," the protagonist, Clay Riddell, thinks, "but Tom was pretty close, just the same" (124); later, when the phoners begin to demonstrate their new telepathic abilities, Clay proclaims, "They're brainless, for Christ's sake, zombies!" (187).  And when their telepathic abilities are confirmed, another character notes that they are no longer "just zombies with a flocking instinct" (244). 

The zombies of Cell, indeed, do appear at first to be like the zombies of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, impelled by a relentless drive to kill, an unregenerate savage instinct.  Indeed, the Pulse, as the deadly cell phone signal comes to be called, seems to wrench the wheel of evolution violently backwards, inciting an abrupt regression to humans' primitive origins - the characters consistently describe what happened on October 1 as an event that wiped out people’s long- and painfully-learned structures of civilization, leaving only a primal "red core," something "pure and terrible" (206-7).  That core is an intertwined drive to survive and to kill (206, 438).  As Charles Ardai puts it: "man has come to dominate the planet" thanks largely to his "absolute willingness to kill anyone and anything that gets in his way" (207).  The "phone crazies" certainly incarnate this imperative.  "The fact is," Clay thinks, "most of us had sublimated the worst in us until the Pulse came along and stripped away everything but that red core" (207).  Of course, while that which once made the phone crazies "human" has been wiped out, what is left is equally although more troublingly human, and Cell suggests that our "humanity," our "civilization," may have been nothing more "than a thin layer of shellac," as Clay puts it, over the violence that is what's really human about us (107).  King ensures this point is not missed by providing epigraphs from Freud (about the impulses of the id) and from Konrad Lorenz ("human aggression is instinctual").  Ardai reinforces the author's apparent vision of the human, describing how most theorists of behavior - Freud, Jung, Adler - build on Darwin's central insight that survival is the "prime directive" - and that survival is inevitably brutal (205-6). 

That the Pulse may have returned humans to their primitive roots is supported by the fact that even those spared the Pulse, even the protagonists, end up displaying a savagery different only in degree (and that only sometimes) from the phone crazies.  The line between "crazies" and humans, in short, becomes increasingly unclear as both groups end up displaying a similar violence.  When Clay, Tom, and Alice arrive at Gaiten Academy and meet Ardai and his surviving pupil, Jordan, they are easily persuaded to help with their plan of burning the "flock" of thousands of phone crazies "roosting" in the school's athletic stadium. For Ardai, the justification is that they are at war, thus invoking the principal way that humans have channeled their ferocity (196-197).  The fifteen-year-old Alice has a slightly different reason, and she won't even admit to "killing" them because she refuses to believe that they are human.  She says she wants to "wipe them out" to avenge her dead mother and father (210).  Her reasoning anticipates Jordan's when the group decides later in the novel to burn a second still larger flock of phone crazies: "I wanted to make them pay," he says, consumed with anger at the death of Ardai (419).  Clay alone admits some of the ethical complexities of burning alive thousands of "phone crazies" who "had once been human beings" (226).  He acknowledges, before he burns them, that they are in fact "living," just as he is (231).  After they burn the flock at Gaiten Academy, and hear the agonized screams of something "aware," Clay is convinced that they made a mistake - even thinks of himself as a "mass murderer" (237-38), but he nevertheless burns thousands again, at the end of the novel. King suggests, then, that the phone crazies' violence is at bottom akin to mundane human violence: after the initial frenzied attacks, the novel represents both groups as equally violent.

Indeed, while it is unequivocally the phone crazies who erupt into violence at the beginning of Cell, from that moment on, the aggressor becomes increasingly unclear, as the phone crazies seem only to reflect the violence that is done to them. Even early in the opening mayhem, there are moments of disquieting doubt about the normal/crazy divide. Clay watches, for instance, as three young men "pelted past on the sidewalk, laughing and hurrahing." One had a Panasonic carton clutched to his chest and steps with complete indifference into the blood seeping from a woman’s body (17).  Since they are laughing, they are not "pulsed" - but their running and indifference to the slaughter around them induces a momentary uncertainty as to their humanity.  Slightly later, Clay and Tom are "assisted" by a police officer who taunts a phone crazy, so he can shoot him. The officer frankly tells Clay that his "assistance" is more or less a cover for another motive: "we're putting as many of them out of their misery as fast as we can," he tells Clay, but Clay knows that beneath even this confessed motive is a still more deeply buried desire: he "wanted to kill him" (29; emphasis mine).  King thus lays bare, from the beginning, the primal aggression that lurks within "normal" and "crazy" alike.

Later in Cell, a congruent pair of scenes discloses how the phone crazies may be mirroring non-pulsed humans. When Clay, Tom, and Alice are leaving Boston on the night of the attack, they come across two men, both bleeding, "battering" each other over a keg of beer looted from a nearby store.  The winner disappears with the keg: "he could have been a caveman carrying a club," and he "merged with the shadows" - a perfect image of regression (89).  Clay thinks, though, that there is something "reassuring" about the brawlers because, while they are certainly "enraged," they are at least not "crazy" - not "like the people back in the city" (87).  This reassuring distinction gets eroded, however, as he witnesses "crazies" repeating this scene of human violence, a repetition that challenges Clay's confidence that there’s a difference.  Late in the novel, Clay comes across two "crazies" brawling over a truck, and by this point they have evolved enough to manage some kind of speech and to assert their respective rights to ownership of the truck, thus echoing even more clearly the humans who had been "beating each other bloody" over a keg of beer  (351-2; 103).  Despite the scene being little different from the looters brawling over the keg, and despite the fact that the two "crazies" do not threaten him in the least, Clay insists that the latter two are "insane" and takes it upon himself to shoot one (352).  While Clay had clearly found the first two brawlers "reassuring" precisely because they were not "crazy," he finds the second two brawlers very far from reassuring, not least because they are at once "crazy" and recognizably human.  He realizes that he may now be in a world where the line between "crazy" and "normal" is no longer clearly demarcated, where people may uneasily inhabit some ambiguous terrain between the two categories.  Tellingly, Clay kills as part of his psychic effort to retain the difference between crazies and normals, ironically eroding the line still further in the process.

The protagonists of Cell by and large do not acknowledge any moral (or ontological) equivalence between themselves and the phone crazies (except for a few fleeting glimmers of mutual recognition on Clay’s part - often immediately disavowed). The "normals" refuse humanity to the crazies - and they refuse to see any reason in the crazies' violence, while holding fast to the absolute legitimacy of their own. Articulating a particularly pervasive justification for violence, Clay describes the mass murder he engages in as necessary for survival: "But what choice did we have?  Clay thought. Survival is like love. Both are blind" (439). Recognizing one blindness (survival), Clay is nevertheless blind to the possibility that the same imperative of survival may drive the phone crazies.  The "blindness" of survival which Clay summons in justification evokes James's "our ferocity is blind," and one wonders whether it's the blind need to survive or blind savagery that drives the protagonists in Cell - and whether the two can ever be disentangled (each impulse - murder and survival - are deemed humans' "prime directive" at one point in the novel [205-6]).  In this justification (and in his multiple forms of blindness), Clay calls to mind the second of the predecessors (along with George Romero) to whom King dedicates his novel - Richard Matheson. After surviving a virus that kills every other human (or so he thinks), the protagonist of Matheson's 1954 novella I Am Legend spends his days killing the creatures that come out and threaten him at night: he kills not only the (un)dead but also those who are merely infected (whom Neville believes are as good as dead).  When challenged by Ruth, a woman he meets years after he has come to believe that he is the last human alive, and who accuses him of "horrible" slaughter, he tells her, "If I didn't kill them, sooner or later they'd die and come after me.  I have no choice; no choice at all" (146).  It is precisely this lack of choice - echoing Clay's "what choice did we have?" - that warrants the persistent violence of almost all zombie apocalypse fiction.  It is a lack of choice, moreover, predicated on an absolute distinction between human and "zombie" that Cell (as well as I Am Legend) finally discloses to be false, despite the efforts of the protagonists to hold on to it. 

Cell questions, then, the "safe" containment of human violence to "below" and to the past, the delineation of savagery as a "core" buried by millennia of civilization, and as a part of prehistory we've moved definitively beyond.  Instead, Cell demonstrates that the "red core of violence" is continually incited in the present, that ferocity does not, as James puts it, come from below but also from "above downwards" - specifically from the "contagion of the crowd," which James disavowed (414). Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) brilliantly suggests this idea by imputing the end of civilization to a "rage virus" that seems the result of a human instinct for violence intertwined with the constant provocation provided by pervasive images of violence.  The lab monkeys that originate the "rage" epidemic are injected with an inhibitor, but then they are not left alone to unleash their own presumably innate violent tendencies.  Instead, their rage is incited as they are strapped down and forced to watch continuous scenes of human mayhem - their "virus" explicitly the product of contagious human acts. 

Cell, too, ends with the suggestion that the "crazies" are the products of our contagious present practices, dispersed through our ubiquitous technologies. The sudden onset of mass insanity at 3:03 on October 1 masks the fact that condensed into this apparently singular apocalyptic event is an allegory of evolutionary time.  This allegory is, on the one hand, quite obvious: the Pulse is, after all, transmitted through cell phones.  "It was the cell phones. They made people crazy," Alice proclaims (88). Cell phones, however, stand in for the whole technological scaffold of our lives which, Cell suggests, is slowly and inexorably changing us, and which does, indeed, provoke our violence.

At first, everyone in the novel attributes the Pulse to terrorists, imputing intentionality.  As Tom says: "All this they did...whoever they is" (110).  This belief fades, though, as it becomes increasingly clear that there is no "they" to blame.  Finally, late in the novel, one character dispenses with the notion of ill intent at all, suggesting the Pulse could have been set off by "a couple of inspired nutcases working in a garage." No one, though, "had any idea it would lead to this" (327). This final turn - "a couple of inspired nutcases working in a garage" - evokes the mythical origin of the Apple computer (first produced in co-creator Steve Jobs' garage), suggesting, finally, that the Pulse is an unintended consequence of the seemingly benign machinery humans have created to serve them - a next step in the evolution of our increasingly symbiotic relationship with technology.

Particularly as they develop telepathic abilities, the phoners come to embody the relinquishing of control to the networked environment - what King calls the "flock-mind" (125), the "collective mind" (276), the "hive mind" (385), and "telepathic group-think" (158).  The fact that King introduces Gaiten Academy as a central location is important in this regard.  The motto of the school is "A Young Mind Is A Lamp In The Darkness" (181).  After the apocalyptic Pulse, though,  the lamp in the darkness is no longer the singular young mind, but the lamps on the battery-powered CD players that the phoners are using to boost their telepathic connection.  These multiple, proliferating lamps signal the death of the unique "Young Mind" and the birth of the flock, the single networked mind.  Not surprisingly, the haunting specter of conformity to the group pervades King's dystopia - and it is a specter that similarly haunts our pre-Pulse world.  After the initial violence induced by the Pulse, after the flocking begins, the group mind sends "broadcasts" incarnate as dreams that "coax" the "normals" to the conversion point in Kashwak, Maine.   Clay realizes that the lure of the swarm promises an end to struggle, acceptance into the group ("you’ll be with your own kind") and the chance to "speak to your loved ones" - a telepathic version of Verizon's "Friends and Family" calling plan. Indeed, one of King's epigraphs is the Verizon slogan, "Can you hear me now?" Clay thinks, "Once you got close enough, any choice ceased...telepathy and the dream of safety just took you over" (345).  Clay articulates this "dream of safety" to Tom later, telling him that people accepted their own "conversion" because they were "[t]ired of being different" (385).  The remaining normals drift to Kashwak, then, and give in to the non-choice of being part of the group, give up the struggle to exist as individuals.  The cost is an abdication of self: the eyes of the converted become "emptied" and their faces loosen into "slackness" (341-2).  Indeed, "emptiness," "vacancy," and "blankness" consistently describe the phoners (390, 393, 448).

The protagonists of Cell tend to see the phone crazies' later flocking behavior, the hive mind, as distinct from their earlier violence.  But group-think has long been associated with violence.  In his recent manifesto, I Am Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier describes how the creators of internet services are normalizing a "pack mentality" (5). The "digital hive," he writes, "is growing at the expense of individuality" (26). One of the consequences of our "pack mentality" is a kind of "transient anonymity" that encourages often sadistic violence.  He writes of the numerous instances in which people have been targeted by anonymous internet users and subjected to ruthless harassment, in some cases even driven to suicide (60-1). "If you join the pack," he writes, "then you join the collective ritual hatred" (62).  Young people, in particular, must learn to manage their "online reputation," avoiding what Lanier calls "the ever-roaming evil eye of the hive mind, which can turn on an individual at any moment."  Uncannily echoing the way that the "ever-roaming" hive mind of the phoners broadcasts the imperative to shun the flock-burners, envision their execution, and join in at that anticipated brutal ritual, Lanier continues that any person who suddenly becomes "humiliated," outcast, on, say Facebook, "has no way out, for there is only one hive" (70). Lanier argues that "internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation" can potentially shape an entire generation "more likely to succumb to pack dynamics" (64).  The phoners of Cell embody this always-potentially savage "pack dynamics" - and the struggle to remain outside the pack, beyond the network, becomes increasingly difficult for Cell's protagonists. 

Romero's 2007 Diary of the Dead is a similar parable of the ways in which our humanity is evolving in tandem with our technologies and, like Cell, it suggests that this merging may be integral to the catastrophic demise of humanity as we know it.  While Cell's zombies, though,  are literally bred by a phone signal, Diary's are generated by omnipresent cameras.  As Randy Laist puts it, Diary is "about a viral contagion of filmmaking that is responsible for the current epidemic of living death" (102). In both Cell and Diary, then, the zombie epidemic becomes, in the early twenty-first century, the perfect metaphor for the viral products of our mundane technologies. 

Diary centers on University of Pittsburgh film student Jason Creed, who is shooting a low-budget horror film with his friends in the woods as the film opens.  As the dead start coming back to life, the group heads toward Scranton and then Philadelphia in a Winnebago, and Jason decides to create a different kind of film, a documentary chronicle of the living dead called The Death of Death.  After his own death near the end of the film, Jason's girlfriend, Debra, takes over his project, editing the footage Jason both shot and downloaded from the internet.  Throughout the film, Jason is almost always behind the camera, filming what is happening, and the viewer starts to realize that his choice to film rather than participate represents a chilling lack of humanity.  Relatively early in the film, one of the group, Mary, shoots herself, unable to deal with having run over what may or may not have been zombies with her RV.  As her friends search for help in an abandoned hospital, Jason stays behind because he needs to charge his camera.  He is literally "plugged in" and thus unable to help.  Later in the film, when they arrive at Debra's house in Scranton, Debra is attacked by her younger brother.  A shot of her attack frames her between Jason on one side, filming her with his camera, and another friend on the other side, filming her with his phone.  Only the much older Andrew Maxwell, who has eschewed cameras and guns, acts to save her.  As Jason dies, later in the film, succumbing to the literal death-in-life that his melding to the camera allegorized, he says to Debra, "shoot me" - and we know he does not mean with a gun. Jason wants to be filmed, ensuring his continuation as a media spectacle, if not as a human.  His transformation is less from life to death (the conventional transformation in the zombie narrative) than it is from one non-living state to another - from a monstrous amalgam of human and machine, to one of his own detached images.

In light of Romero’s critique of technology in the film - indeed, his implication of technology in the apocalypse, in the very production of the living dead - the film ends on an uncomfortable note. Debra tells us, in a  voice-over, that she's ending The Death of Death with the last piece of footage Jason found on the internet - and she prefaces it with the last words of the film:  "Are we worth saving? You tell me."  The footage documents two rural hunters who have bound zombies to a tree and are "using them for target-practice," as Debra says.  The last shot is of a female zombie tied to a branch by her hair as the hunters rip her body in two with a shot-gun. 

In an article on Diary, Robin Wood has written of this scene:  "I don't understand the brief postscript, introduced by Debra as 'the last film Jason shot.' Its central image is certainly among the most appalling ever produced within fictional cinema, but the perpetrators of the desecration it depicts are a couple of irrelevant rednecks who played no part in the film...I confess to bewilderment" (31).  Wood is entirely correct to note that the "rednecks" depicted in this scene are "irrelevant."  Indeed, in their potential embodiment of human evil as primitive, I argue that they serve to deflect attention away from the less visible horror that inheres in Debra's (and Jason's) own mediated images.   

This final piece of footage, the last scene of the film before Debra and the other two survivors lock themselves in a panic room, self-consciously echoes Romero's own use of the "redneck" in earlier films as a marker of primal human violence, which is how Debra wants the viewer to understand the scene. Night of the Living Dead notoriously ends with a posse of local white men "mopping up" the zombies - casually shooting the lone survivor of the previous night's mayhem, the African-American protagonist, Ben, and dragging his body onto a bonfire with meat hooks.  Numerous critics have noted that the final shots of the film, the series of grainy black and white stills that appear under the credits, and the sights and sounds of walkie-talkies, helicopters, and dogs, inevitably summon for the viewer (then and now) both Vietnam and Civil Rights unrest in the South.  Perhaps most viscerally, the photographic images of Ben's body being dragged by grappling hooks onto a fire evoke the lynching of black men.  It is crucial, though, that these markedly "political" moments of the film all have a documentary feel to them: they are extradiegetic, detached from the fictional world that has been created by and in the film. In their status as "documentary," these moments claim a kind of unmediated truth, a status inextricable from their function as the anchor of the film's real-world politics - its evocation of Vietnam, Civil Rights protests, and lynchings.    

In the final scene of Diary, Debra's voice-over invokes Night's ending, aligning itself with the politics of Romero's earlier film, insisting that this footage presents something terrifying about humans, an atavistic violence represented by the "rednecks." Wood seems to agree with Debra when he writes that its "central image is certainly among the most appalling ever produced within fictional cinema" (31).  Similarly, Adam Lowenstein reads the scene as Debra wants us to, as a relatively straightforward image of human (white) savagery.  He writes that "historical trauma infiltrates the shocking spectacle," arguing that the film invites the viewer to "retranscribe" the female zombie "as analogous to Ben, the black man lynched (at least figuratively) at the conclusion of Night of the Living Dead.  Ben’s body," he continues, "like that of the female zombie, is destroyed and humiliated by a redneck posse that assumes he is inhuman."  In both cases, "the visual iconography of lynching overwhelms the image" (119). Lowenstein concludes that the image of the lynched female zombie in Diary - this "allegorical moment" - evokes not only atrocities of the past (slavery and civil rights struggles), but also those of the present, among them Hurricane Katrina and Abu Ghraib (119-20).  Both Wood and Lowenstein follow Debra, then, in her condemnation of the "rednecks," in her assertion that they manifest primitive, enduring, human violence. 

Debra's interpretation could certainly be supported by the lynched-female-zombie scene's resonance with  Night and the earlier film's unambiguous political subtextIt is crucial, however, to bear in mind the difference between this scene and the ending of Night. In Diary, the "rednecks" appear in footage downloaded from the internet by Jason and edited into the film by Debra, who decided on its inclusion and its placement, as well as shaping viewers' response to it through her voice-over. The footage, in short, is thoroughly mediated by Debra and Jason. As such, it does not manifest the true horror in the film but instead serves as a distraction from it. The redneck is "irrelevant," as Wood says, in a world populated by young, mostly urban kids who are plugged in and who apprehend, manipulate, and even create their world through camera and computer.  Indeed, the horror inheres within these students themselves.

While Debra had, earlier in the film, criticized Jason for his dehumanizing apprehension of everything through his camera, by the end of the film, after his death,  she takes over his role: she is infected by him, emphasizing that what is really contagious in this film is the technology that has become a constituent part of Jason and herself. In choosing this scene as the final scene of their film, she attempts to justify his (and her own) choices by deflecting attention - and condemnation - away from their own reifying mediation of reality through a lens. This scene cannot indict base human violence as Debra seems to want it to (and as Romero's earlier films did) because these images - the hunters, the lynched zombie - have no claim at all (unlike in Night) to the real.  They are just images grabbed from the web, unmoored from an origin or a referent and wrenched,  finally, from meaning. 

Indeed, to push this reading still further, the scene seems to be not only wrested from its context but also manipulated, even manufactured: how do we know that the final image of the female zombie (what Wood calls the most appalling image ever produced within fictional cinema) is real?  Who was shooting these images? (Wood erroneously says that this is the "last film Jason shot," but Debra actually says it's the last film Jason “downloaded.”) The zombie hung by her hair is never in the frame with the hunters and the image looks suspiciously artificial.  Is it real?  Is it computer-generated?  If so, by whom?  Debra says, "the boys had this one set up just for kicks," but how does she know?  After the film's consistent erasure of any stable reality, the viewer must at least consider the possibility that the tear of blood conveniently sliding down the zombie's face is a marker of some amateur filmmaker's art.

Unlike in Night, where the images of human violence, especially Ben's “lynching,” are removed from the diegesis, Diary has repeatedly, from its opening, thematized the unreliability of media images.  The film begins, for instance, with the first images of the dead returning to life, as a news crew covering a double homicide ends up shooting the victims rising from their gurneys.  Later in the film, however, the same footage is broadcast in altered form as some entity (presumably the government) tries to cover up the truth to prevent widespread panic.  This moment in the film inevitably casts doubt on the reliability of the first shots of the film: if footage can so easily be changed, and if the film is clearly telling us it can be, how can we put any confidence in the status of the original footage as truth?  Indeed, Debra herself has claimed that most of what the media was circulating about the outbreak was “bullshit.”  She casts doubt not just on official media sources but also on the ordinary person with a camera or a phone.  As she intones: "The more voices there are, the more spin there is. The truth becomes that much harder to find. In the end it's all just noise." Unlike Night, then, in which atavistic human violence is accorded status as real, the lynching of the female zombie is integrally a part of the mediated world of Diary and its "reality" ineluctably questioned.  There is no outside-the-frame here. There is no stable ground to even begin to answer Debra’s question - "are we worth saving?" - because we cannot trust in the reality, the truth, of what we are seeing. 

The contagion signified by the zombies in Diary of Dead, then, is not the contagiousness of raw violence - the mimetic transference of brutality between zombie and human, as was the case in Night, where zombie violence is transferred, at the end, to the white posse. Instead, the zombie signifies the contagion of images.  Long before Diary, Steven Shaviro presciently described the uncanny resemblance of zombie and image:  "Romero's zombies could almost be said to be quintessential media images," he writes, "since they are vacuous, mimetic replications of the human beings they once were" (84).  "Perception itself becomes infected," he continues, "and is transformed into a kind of magical, contagious contact" (95). The zombies in Diary are always framed by at least one camera, often multiple cameras. They are bred by the cameras, which are, everywhere in the world of Diary and in our own world, the indubitable source of the zombie plague. The dead come back to life over and over on camera and only on camera, just as the zombies in Cell are, at a more literal level, bred by the phone signal. In Diary, the zombies are media images - and it is the contagiousness of images that we need to fear. In King's novel, the zombies are our proliferating networks ("can you hear me now?"). In both narratives the zombies, our creations, infect us with their lack of humanity, creating a post-apocalyptic world in which the human, to the extent that there is a human, has become unrecognizable. The time when the zombie could represent a "red core" of violent drives that is in our past, buried, or located only in a few markedly atavistic figures (the zombie, the redneck) is gone.  Stephen King's Cell and George Romero's Diary of the Dead convince us that we can neither transcend this core, nor project it onto "primitive" others.  Shaviro noted twenty years ago that the zombies of Dawn of the Dead emerge "not from the dark, disavowed underside of suburban life, but from its tacky glittering surfaces" (92).  How much more true now. 

 

Works Cited

Boon, Kevin, "The Zombie as Other: Mortality and the Monstrous in the Post-Nuclear Age."  Ed. Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro.  Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human.  New York: Fordham UP, 2011. 50-60.  

Christie, Deborah and Sarah Juliet Lauro.  Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human.  New York: Fordham UP, 2011.

Dendle, Peter. "Zombie Movies and the Millennial Generation." Ed. Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro.  Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human. New York: Fordham UP, 2011.175-186.

Diary of the Dead. Dir. George Romero. Artfire Films, Romero-Grunwald Productions, The Weinstein Company, 2007.  

James, William.  The Principles of Psychology.  Vol. 2.  New York: Henry Holt, 1890. 

King, Stephen.  Cell.  New York: Pocket, 2006. 

Laist, Randy.  "Soft Murders: Motion Pictures and Living Death in Diary of the Dead."  Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture.  Ed. Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

Lanier, Jaron.  You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto.  New York: Vintage, 2010. 

Lowenstein, Adam.  “Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film.”  Representations 110 (2010): 105-28. 

Matheson, Richard.  I Am Legend.  1954.  New York: Tom Doherty, 1995.   

Shaviro, Steven.  The Cinematic Body.  Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. 

Wetmore, Kevin J.  Back from the Dead: Remakes of the Romero Zombie Films as Markers of Their Times.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

Wood, Robin.  "Freshmeat."  Film Comment 44 (2008): 28-31.

 

 
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