I immediately thought of Laurent Le Deunff to discuss the figure of the zombie in film. I know that he is a fan and I have often seen him refer to zombie films to talk about sculpture and more broadly about the contemporary world to students at the École d’Art d’Annecy where we are colleagues. Since the period is favourable to intensive viewing, I received a rather varied list of zombies films from Laurent, classified by order of preference.1
JP: The film at the top of your list is Zombies by George Romero, released in 1978, which is a direct critique of late Western culture. Zombies roam through the mall as they did in life; the subtext being that their life already resembled their death.
LLD: The great thing about the idea of setting the film in a mall is that it allows all social classes to be represented . . . A portrait of Middle America as cadaver. This film sets the standard for American zombie films, despite the fact that for thirty years the political backdrop often disappeared. The mall might represent everyone’s fantasy (who has never dreamed of getting locked in there overnight?), but after the honeymoon phase, it becomes their prison. The scene I find the most incredible is the one where they bury one of their own in the garden of exotic plants in the main hall.
JP: Yes! It’s the sign that they have definitively accepted that their world would be this artificial world designed for consumption (a world our leaders leave us no alternatives to at the moment, during the pandemic, with the closure of all spaces besides those dedicated to consumption). Another totally decadent scene is when the bikers lay siege on the mall and form a merry-go-round around this tropical ‘island’. Do you think this decor refers to the Caribbean and the origins of the zombie?
LLD: It’s possible! This foreshadows Fulci’s film, originally called Zombies 2. Both films end in the same way: the survivors leave without knowing where to go, because the world is wholly contaminated. The ‘loop’ structure often recurs in these films and it is also often set in confined spaces, where there is a complete loss of the notion of time, like in this supermarket.
JP: Where only the pregnancy of the female character gives an indication of time passing . . . There is no comic dimension in Fulci. Only the hyper-eroticisation of the actresses provides some levity with totally gratuitous scenes of scuba diving in thongs or endless shower scenes.
LLD: The shower isn’t gratuitous, it’s a code since Psycho. The connection between eroticism (or even pornography) and horror in general often recurs. But you’re forgetting the most important thing, which is the setting. Without the zombies, this film could be a fantasy adventure film like The Island of Doctor Moreau . . .
JP: On your list, it is the only film after the Tourneur to make reference to Voodoo: ‘a myth invented with the arrival of the colonisers’ one of the characters even specifies, showing up with his floral shirt and his fake American blondness.
LLD: But remember, in the Romero film from 1978, the hero refers to it.
JP: Yes, of course! ‘When there’s no room left in hell . . .’ He evokes a Voodoo grandfather at the supermarket.
LLD: It is the only explanation that Romero gives and that goes for all of his films.
JP: Getting back to Fulci’s film, it does contain quite a few ingredients that form the critical ferment of zombie films: an opposition between modern science represented by the missionary and occult beliefs maintained by the villagers; a lot of direct references to colonialism, with the cemetery of conquistadors; the makeshift hospital in a church that will later be razed; and also an allusion to male domination, of which the doctor’s wife bears the stigmata, as a ‘sexy hysteric’. Because masculinity is thrown into crisis in several of these films – it is clear in Night of the Living Dead, where we don’t know whether the father would rather survive or preserve his role as leader. The husband’s control over his wife is also the source of evil in the Jacques Tourneur film.
LLD: Zombie 2 could even be seen as a gore version of I Walked With a Zombie. For the erotic side, Fulci stems from Giallo. He maintains this relationship between eroticism and horror, so one of the most memorable scenes is that of the splinter in the eye, after the shower.
JP: Do you think that the table leg used as a wooden limb that Rose McGowan plants into Quentin Tarantino’s eye in Planet Terror refers to this?
LLD: Nice! I hadn’t thought of that. I also have an interpretation for this film: Harvey Weinstein was one of the producers and she was one of the actresses who made a formal complaint against him. In the opening scene, she does a number in a strip-tease bar and we see a tear roll down her face. I think that the cut-off leg replaced by a wooden stake then a machine gun is clearly a pre #MeToo symbol of revenge against male domination . . .
One of the things that interests me is this notion of sedimentation: despite the fact they were shot over a fifty-year period, these films are endlessly interreferential.
JP: Would it be in the nature of these films (in which the dead don’t die) that they are always recycling elements?
LLD: The best example is The Dead Don’t Die by Jim Jarmusch. The car in the film is that of the first scene from Night of the Living Dead, so basically the characters are travelling aboard an anachronism. The casting is itself made up of returning ghouls: there are a lot of actors in it who we thought were dead.
JP: And he uses everything that now constitutes the tradition of zombie films: a sheriff, a deputy, a small residential town, and even its undertaker, to tell us that all of these things are also the ingredients of the Western… The film’s set is like the ruins of Western popular culture…
LLD: It’s more sentimental than that. There is a whole host of nostalgic references to a certain DIY cinema, an analog culture. This is represented by the guy who runs the shop where you find VHS tapes and CDs, including the one he gives to Selena Gomez, which is the film’s soundtrack.
But his best zombie film for me is Dead Man: the character played by Johnny Depp is called William Blake, but doesn’t know the poet. He is killed in the first scenes and spends the rest of the film wandering in the forest . . . It’s an initiatory tale but, all the same, it is the story of a dead man embodying a heritage he’s unaware of and all of this ends in a scene that evokes the crossing of the Styx.
JP: That reminds me that there is also an evocation of symbolism in the Tourneur film, via a copy of Arnöld Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead (1880) hanging in the bedroom of the wife of the zombified farmer. Perhaps it has to do with a reconciliation between the historic moment that sees the appearance of the zombie onscreen and that of the resurgence of ancient myths and occultism during the industrial revolution.
LLD: In terms of occultism, did you know that Michael Jackson, who was a Jehovah’s witness, made the producers add an intertitle to the introduction of Thriller defending himself from making an apologia for occultism? Oh yes, the zombie film was the comeback of the repressed.
JP: The zombie cult itself could be the expression of a repression of slavery after Haiti’s independence. But in your view, what is the repressed element in zombie films?
LLD: The zombie film represents what we don’t see or don’t want to see. If gore scenes started to contaminate American cinema in the late 1970s, it was due to several things: the fact that we didn’t see any images of corpses during the Vietnam War and that the Kennedy assassination had taken place on live TV.2 The murder of Sharon Tate by Charles Manson also had an influence on the cinema of those years.
JP: But the repressed element of Western society is death, which is no longer visible! There is also the failure of the project founded on growth – which colonisation and slavery served – the possibility of the finite nature of civilisation, the obsolescence of the white man, but also humanity in general, all of which zombie films shore up in an exaggerated and cathartic way, with a certain dose of immorality.
LLD: Up until the return of morals in The Walking Dead…
JP: Yes, it’s pathetic! The most transgressive thing ever in the history of humanity is happening – an end to death – and the scenario is bound up in conservative Christian values! Over the course of the series, there is however enough time to observe the decline of their values, to the point where the leader proclaims the end of democracy . . .
LLD: Coming back to the repressed element, we can break it down into periods, for instance: in White Zombie by Victor Halperin (1932), I Walked With a Zombie, and even Zombie 2, it’s slavery, colonialism. Romero in 1968–78, it was the Vietnam War, but also the lynching of black people, to which the final image clearly refers. The Walking Dead and the Hollywood films and series of the past decade for me are about illegal aliens, homeless people, carless individuals and the inhabitants of certain neighbourhoods, particularly in Los Angeles.
JP: Is the zombie the figure of the excluded individual taking revenge?
LDD: Exactly! By reappearing on the scene, en masse. In Joe Dante’s Homecoming, they are dead soldiers from the Iraq war who reappear at election time to vote for the democrats.
JP: Crazy! It is always institutions who are confronted by zombies: the army, police, hospital, and the press.
LLD: Authority figures, actually. There is always a scientist involved. And it often starts in a laboratory.
JP: When the cause of the dead awakening is given, it is often due to some excess of science: bacteriological weapons used in Iraq, satellite in Night of the Living Dead, or a plastic surgery operation in David Cronenberg’s Rabid that you put on your list. That film recalls the Prometheus myth, coupled with the theme of the augmented body.
LLD: The main character contaminates his victims with a sting that grows under his armpit. Cronenberg did scientific studies, and his early producers worked in porn, hence the presence of Marilyn Chambers in the lead role.
JP: She’s very well shot. The fact that she must borrow clothing, since she’s escaped the hospital, is enough to turn her into a hunted animal, which throughout the film is disguised as a human. It’s a low-budget film. Is that inherent to zombie films? Is that why we find so many tricks of the trade in them?
LLD: That’s more a characteristic of Z movies. Special effects in film date back to Méliès, but horror films, generally, use masses of effects and subterfuges, suggesting many things through the set, as in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where you don’t see much blood before the final sequence.
JP: Is it also this aspect that has interested you in zombie films since art school?
LLD: Partly. I’ve loved genre cinema and horror cinema since intermediate school and I think that it was at art school that I must’ve seen the most of them. At the time, I wanted to work in special effects for film. Already, as a teenager, I was a regular reader of Mad Movies magazine; at the end of each issue there was a section I loved, the ancestors of tutorials, where you could recreate Star Wars sets at home or zombie masks out of plaster, flour, or latex. That’s how I started out with sculpture; I wanted to make characters and create sets for them. That’s how I got interested in the work of the Kienholzes, or McCarthy who was working in film.
JP: Makeup artists and their inventions of recipes to imitate blood or decomposing flesh are a big part of the history of zombie films, aren’t they?
LDD: The success of the film is inseparable from the work of the makeup artists and those who create the sets and the score. For Zombie, the makeup was by Tom Savini, one of the masters of the genre. In The Walking Dead it was Gregg Nicotero who did the makeup, but he also directed certain episodes that are usually the best and the goriest. Fans of the series anticipate them and they know that these episodes will be important ones – usually a main character will be killed.
JP: Did you draw on these procedures for your sculptures, to create analogue special effects?
LLD: Yes, of course. For instance for my series of knotted tubes and oversized shells made of papier-mâché and cardboard or more recently in my collection of fake rocks, some of the recipes came from blogs by amateur videographers. But my first sculptures were more referenced to genre films. Basically, I used the full range of the apprentice makeup artist: plaster strips, latex, varnish, etc.
JP: Let’s get back to exchanges between the fine arts and zombie films. I know you have a number of personal theories on this subject.
LLD: If I was doing an exhibition of zombie artworks, there would be Portrait Zéro by Richard Artschwager: a pile of planks nailed together and suspended by a rope. The sculpture dates from 1963 – at the time he was a furniture restorer – and it was apparently made after seeing a cartoon with his children. But I would’ve loved for him to have made it because of Night of the Living Dead, where the main character spends a quarter of the film barricading the windows. There are a lot of more objective examples. Huma Bhabha’s sculptures are clearly zombie artworks in terms of the figures, forms, and materials used. Besides which, she doesn’t hide the fact that she’s influenced by Cronenberg’s cinema in particular.
But I think that these exchanges between the imaginaries of gore film and the fine arts were the most obvious at the exhibition Sensation at the Royal Academy in London in 1997 with the creatures by the Chapman brothers or Hirst’s shark, which made reference to Jaws more than to a National Geographic report, I thought. But above all, there was Ron Mueck who used to work for Jim Henson’s studio (notably on the film Labyrinth, 1986) and who was presenting one of his first sculptures, a hyperrealist reduction of the body of his dead father. These kinds of things really inspired us to work at the time! That was when Paul Thek, Kiki Smith, Kienholz, Charles Ray, etc. became really trendy at art schools. But you could also hark back to the Renaissance with anatomical figures and charred remains.
JP: Because the other thing that zombie films show us is our interior, with lots of details and sound effects, so that the goriest scenes are also the ones that lead to identification.
LLD: Whereas, generally speaking, it is difficult to identify oneself or have any empathy for the characters, because they are often morons. May I remind you that in Walking Dead, most of the characters find refuge under the authority of a sheriff’s deputy who was in a coma when the events occurred!
JP: Ah, I didn’t see that! But it’s true that in the episode from The Simpsons that you sent me, Homer demonstrates improbable heroism at killing zombies that are trying to eat brains, and so they’re not interested in his skull.
LDD: Groening has always understood everything before everyone else. He even predicted Trump’s election back in 2000. You might think I’m crazy, but the most moving thing is often when animals are killed in these films, such as when the horse is eaten by zombies in The Walking Dead.
JP: That’s logical: in these films, we are watching humanity ending due to its own excesses, which brings us back to an animal state of survival. But the animals didn’t ask for any of it! Incidentally, the thesis of the necessity of extinction of the human race is formulated by a scientist in Zombie.
LLD: The televised passages are very important in the Romero films, who is still a critic of our age and the role of the media. It’s not for nothing that Zombie begins in the studios of a television channel. Chaos reigns, but the presenters appear very calm.
JP: Which is quite realistic. I loved the interventions by the prime minister in Rabid, who can’t say anything but: ‘Well . . . don’t get bitten!’ Then they install security to control vaccinated individuals . . . There are some parallels with what we’ve been experiencing since Covid. The first response to the catastrophe in films is a tougher political stance. Speaking of viruses, the great invention of the filmic zombie is that it’s contagious! In this capacity, the best idea in The Walking Dead is that everyone is already contaminated!
LLD: Yes. But that’s already the case in Night of the Living Dead: all of the dead become zombies. With Romero, the zombie, once a bewitched creature, becomes contagious, aggressive, and above all, cannibalistic. It eats its own family! Incidentally, in Night of the Living Dead, the little girl who eats her mother in the basement was the actress’s own daughter! Romero also had the idea of killing them with a bullet to the head, and this idea has lingered: that’s what anyone would do now if it actually happened! What is funny in the Jarmusch film is that the characters already know, thanks to their culture of zombie films and video games.
JP: Yes, it’s what you’d call a post-zombie film!
- George Romero, Dawn of the Dead (1978), Lucio Fulci, Zombi 2 (1979), David Cronenberg, Rabid (1977), George Romero, Night of The Living Dead (1968), Jacques Tourneur, I Walked With a Zombie (1943), John Landis, Thriller (1983), Robert Rodriguez, Planet Terror (2007), Stuart Gordon, Re-Animator (1985), Jim Jarmusch, The Dead Don’t Die (2019), Joe Dante, Homecoming – Master of Horrors (2005), Frank Darabont, Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead (2010–), Matt Groening, The Simpsons season 4 episode 5: ‘Dial “Z” for Zombies (Simpson Horror Show III)’ (1992)
- See Jean Baptiste Thoret, 26 secondes: L'Amérique éclaboussée. L'assassinat de JFK et le cinéma américain (Pertuis: Rouge Profond, 2003)