Mmmm…. Brains: What Cannibalism Says about Who we Are

I realise the thread title sounds like I have an essay already written, or at least a thesis to present… but I don’t. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about several of my favourite films, and how cannibalism/zombie-ism is used to say something about our modern existence. I’m not entirely sure what it is, and it seems to vary slightly from film to film.

Let’s start with Night of the Living Dead (1968) , not enough people realise that Romero’s zombie is the first zombie to actually consume human flesh (at least in cinema, looking back to zombie films that proceed it like I Walked with a Zombie, it falls into the more traditional idea of a vacant body under control of someone else rather than a flesh eating creature… both are technically undead though). The social connotations of Night of the Living Dead are fairly obvious, and the film is very much an internal and external battles, focusing on issues ranging from simple family interrelations, racial tensions and communitarianism vs. individualism.

In what ways does flesh eating zombies aid and demonstrate these ideas? Part of it no doubt, has a lot to do with the fact that zombies are well… undead. They’re shadows of life, and an embodiment of a slow, creeping and unstoppable death. But why are they eating other people? It’s clearly not based on any kind of nutrient or life-sustaining need, they’re dead after all.

Spoiler for Night of the Living Dead and Opening scene of Dawn of the Dead remake
When the young daughter attacks her father and is seeing chewing on her father’s arm, it’s fairly clear what is being said about this particular family’s dynamic, as well as the “modern” family in general. This is revived somewhat in the remake of Dawn of the Dead when the opening scene involves the young daughter and then subsequently the father trying to eat the mother.

Also, looking at more particular scenes, the zombies don’t share their food and actually fight against each other to get the best piece of flesh. The zombie’s concern is primarily selfish, though they do seem to come together in a communal effort to feed.

Spoiler Night of the Living Dead
The next morning, when the sun is rising and the hicks are out hunting zombies, the first shot of them from above betrays the viewer into believing what we are seeing are the undead when it is really the “hunters”. They soon proceed to murder Ben, evoking a very clear commentary about race relations during this particular time in history. The film ends in stills of what could only be described as a mock lynching. What separates the dead from the living at this point? Not very much, again, it comes back to the literal consummation of flesh versus the figurative sense.

In Dawn of the Dead (1978) these ideas are further developed. The issues of race and community are furthered, and it’s a fairly blatant commentary on consumer culture. Mindless zombies in a mall, literally consuming other people instead of goods. When dealing with consumer culture, eating of other people, seems to mean something a lot different than in Night, though no less cold and calculating. Again the zombies assemble in a very communal way to do something very… un-communal?

The early scenes in the “projects”, also evoke an authoritarian disregard for large aspects of the community. The zombie disease flourishes in the impoverished and overcrowded home projects that the government set up for society’s rejects (mostly black and Hispanic), and then sends in the troops who kill everyone without any real regard if they’re undead or not. In this particular sequence, the idea of cannibalism seems to reflect a hypocrisy in the authority’s treatment of it’s poorest people. In denying them the ability to rise above their condition, they are condemning them, among other things to crime. They turn on each other, which doesn’t really bother those in power, until it starts leaching outward. The perception that they are guilty or “infected”, seems to be saying something about blatant stereotypes and racial profiling.

I’m still struggling to articulate on the consumer culture aspect, I can see a direct link between buying goods probably made from much poorer countries and eating other people. As well as a general disconnect that happens when we allow consumerism to define us instead of our individuality in terms of zombie-ism. The idea of eating each other is still a little elusif though.

Moving on to slightly-less seen, but nonetheless fascinating examples of cannibalism in film, Shivers and Trouble Every Day seem to use cannibalism as a literal example of sexual appetites.

Shivers is a little unclear in my mind, I don’t remember if after you’ve been infected if you die or not. The encounters though are far more intimate and passionate than those from the “Dead” series, perhaps because it is motivate by desire rather than vacancy.

Eating and sexuality are far more blatantly associated than a disconnect for me, even the words used seem more in tune with sex than with social injustice. Shivers uses an apartment complex in Montreal that becomes infected with an experimental… thing, that is spread through sexual encounters. It’s more than just an allegory for venereal diseases, and it doesn’t seem Cronenberg is trying to make an accusatory moral story (like Halloween), but rather allowing lust to overcome intimacy and real human connections. Again, this film is a little shady for me, if someone else reads it differently please chime in 🙂

This leads into perhaps the most interesting case, Claire Denis’ avant-garde horror film Trouble Every Day (2001). In this film, cannibalism is again connected with sexuality and intimacy. Like the Dead films, it begins by establishing a rather cold and loveless atmosphere where people fail to communicate with one another. The big difference here is, the people are not undead, they are merely infected.

Every sexual encounter in this film is cut short or ends in one person literally tearing apart the other and eating them. The film features some of the most beautifully intimate scenes of love I’ve ever seen, but they always end in carnage or at the very least disappointment.

For those who have seen this film, what do you think is being said about sexuality? Or anything else? What does eating each other say about these people?

Also, compared to the others, what importance do you attribute to the fact that these are not zombies? These are people who are not only alive, but well aware of the terrible things they are doing. It haunts them. Though, they never seem to eat their spouses. Is it a commentary on infidelity? Sexual Addiction? Or something far more complex and intertwined?

So, after all that I ask, use any examples you can think of, you don’t need to stick with mine, but in films, what can eating each other mean? It’s more obvious in films like Alive (1993) where it’s retelling apparent true events, but in more abstract situations, what are filmmakers trying to say about us an society?

* NOTE: I realise zombies eating people is not technically canibalism, since we’re not the same species… really, so yea…. I just needed a blanket term.

5 responses to “Mmmm…. Brains: What Cannibalism Says about Who we Are

  1. Robin Wood makes a comment somewhere in his chapters on Romero’s Dead films (the first 3) in “Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond” that they literalize the inherent principles of capitalism, under which ‘it becomes perfectly acceptable to consume the lives of other people’–I’m not paraphrasing well, it puts it more boldly and succinctly, but suffice it to say that the ‘consumption’ element is prevalent!

    Really I’d turn any Romero fan directly to that book, since Wood is a fanatic about those films and (as ever) an incredibly penetrating critic, one who uses his ‘Marxism’ in a sort of ‘prophetic’, Blakean way.

    I haven’t seen the Jean Rollin zombie movies, but “La Morte Vivant” (?) mingles love, sex, and zombie-munching very intimately I gather.

  2. One moment of Night of the Living Dead that’s always struck me as strange is when the little girl, now awake and fully-zombified and after eating her father, slowly but very surely goes after her mother with what I think was a trowel or a knife. Maybe it was just lack of hindsight or lazy filmmaking by a cheap and inexperienced Romero, but really, would you expect a mindless, flesh-eating zombie to have such critical thought and plan out a murder so creatively as that little girl does? It probably has nothing to do with everything you’ve said about cannibalism, but just thought I’d point it out as a very interesting instance of where a movie franchise-full of mindless flesh-eaters has one instance of a strange, murderous lucidity.

    Anyway, I thought of that then thought of Romero’s obvious consumerism message in Dawn, and how the whole concept of the zombie is like one paradox: the zombies are all frighteningly uniform in having an instinctual need to wander the mall, just as they did while living, while at the same time consuming the flesh of their own species (albeit still-living specimens). On the other side of the glass, you have our heroes, making themselves right at home in the mall, even setting up a retro, state-of-the-art apartment upstairs while the walking dead shuffle mere feet away. And what do they do when that lifestyle is threatened by both zombie and biker gang? Of course, go on the offensive…like the zombie. I’m REALLY rambling at this point, but I think what I’m getting at is how zombie and human in this case are both exactly the same in Romero’s eyes: the zombies need to consume flesh, and our heroes need to consume products. Instinctually, the zombies have made an ideal lifestyle out of wandering the mall aimlessly (which you and I do day after day), and eating the living is a way of punishing those who might not conform to the mindless but socially-accepted consumerist lifestyle (in this case the nonconformists being those who can still think). Pretty ironic, considering the living pretty much share the same habits with the dead at this point. That’s where this shit gets really confusing 😕

    As for a recommendation, have you seen The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover? I don’t wanna give anything away, but the whole thing culminates with a grand, bizarre use of cannibalism, and I don’t know WHAT the fuck it’s supposed to mean, other than maybe a completely superficial form of revenge 😆 .

  3. Jason: I understand what you mean, and was myself, trying to articulate a similar idea about capitalism, though even in what you claim is not even a succint paraphrase, it was not nearly as clear or articulate at that point. The idea that it’s “perfectly acceptable”, in particular turns true.

    I’ll have to read this book, I’m very much interested though. I haven’t seen that particular film either, I’m putting it on my to see list.

    Simon: Ah yes, that moment slipped my mind. Such a malicious and strange instance in the film. In his later films, his zombies seem to grow and evolve, but not necessarily in this case.

    I never thought of Dawn that way, but I think you’re very right. Very good point.

    I haven’t… will do!

  4. Film Comment reports: yes, shooting is underway for “Diary of the Dead 2”! May the zombie magnum opi pile up!

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