The Undecidability of Zombie Movie Titles

One zombie manifestation after another. The most terrifying aspect of the zombie isn't so much its brain-eating mediocrity but its generic undecidability.  

— By | November 1, 2010

About a week ago I watched George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead (2009). It is the sixth and latest installment in the canonical zombie series that began with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Though the series has suffered a decline in quality since the magnum opus of Dawn of the Dead in 1978, Survival of the Dead isn’t as terrible as some would believe. In comparison to the horde of independent and zero-budget zombie films that stalk the straight-to-DVD circuit, Survival is a decently made production with an adequate sense of composition that a veteran like Romero is capable of; for the zombie purist, it is as acceptable and inconsequential as the umpteenth issue in a long-running comic book series that serves only to reiterate the traditional parameters of a story or genre. Survival of the Dead is by any standard a mediocre film, but one forgets that mediocrity as such is a hallmark of the zombie genre itself: over and against the harmful brain-eating mediocrity of the walking dead, a small set of crafty heroes emerges (sometimes a solitary hero whose pragmatism transcends his situation), and the struggle to stay alive amidst the paradoxical undead (i.e. to remain a thinking being as opposed to a thoughtless being) shapes the basic curvature of the zombie movie.

The fundamental mediocrity of the zombie movie (by which I refer to the genre’s philosophic use of “mediocrity” as concept and scenario) is implicated in the nature of the zombie itself. The zombie is so invested in its thoughtlessness that the body has not only rotted to the point of gross visibility but has submitted itself absolutely to the fatal mediocrity of a life restricted to basic motor functions: the zombie feeds, walks, rests, and feeds again without the privilege of self-reflection or thought that gives a person the quality of “humanity” and distinguishes the reflective individual from the non-reflective rabble.

The zombie embodies the rot of thoughtlessness in its dumb artless walk, in its incapability to speak or use language, and in its effusive decay. To this end, the mediocrity of the zombie manifests its strength in sheer numerosity; the zombie’s unthinking and custom-dictated mode of being exerts its presence in an ever growing decentralization that like a plague threatens to overtake all other structures of order until the virus of mediocrity – or more precisely, of rampant automatism — touches and suppurates from everything. The terror one feels for the zombie isn’t exactly the same fear one feels for vampires, wolfmen, ghosts, or man-made monsters like the Golem or Frankenstein (all of which are sufficiently terrifying on their own without need for pluralization).

The zombie is terrifying because it is never simply or just one, it is legion; and so the zombie state represents the inevitability of not only the spectre of death which haunts the mental decay of the mind and the corporeal decay of the body, but also the spectre of mediocrity that strikes dead the self-reflective being in search of a place “far from the madding crowd” of zombies. Such a locus may be a kind of utopia free of brain-eaters where, we may presume, an elite group of survivors can construct a civil-minded society and dwell free and easy in their thought (or at least free and easy from the fear of being eaten alive).

From the perspective of a zombie movie’s production, the numerous “non-acting” extras who populate the film as zombies do not work as dynamic or individually defined characters but as constituents of a self-propagating milieu. These extras, who are human actors employed to feign an automatism devoid of personality or dialogic ability, are rendered robotic by the blanching effect of their blood-and-gore make-up, giving them a thoroughly embodied and quite visible mediocrity. (Less orthodox films, including the latter segments of Romero’s series, have attempted to introduce the concept of the singular “intelligent” or “leader” zombie who dimly recollects a past life or who simply accepts not to eat human flesh exclusively — but these are belated exceptions to the rule.)

The more extras the film’s budget can afford, the better the zombie film becomes, since the gore and body-count will increase, the gruesome manners of death will complexify, and the milieu of corpse-terror will turn more salient and oppressive as the hero/es’ statistical chance at survival diminishes. The oppressive mediocrity of the zombie is the very reason to dispose of it in clever, often sadistic ways — each killing of the zombie, for which the horror director enjoys finding some diabolical way of depicting — is a means of negating the zombie’s mediocrity and its thoughtless, and thus horrifying, manner of gnawing and tearing at human flesh.

In contrast to the horrible automatism of the zombie mass, the intellectual resourcefulness of the hero/es is privileged over the dumb numerousness of the zombies. The surviving heroes have to demonstrate their craftiness in opposition to the waves of mediocre beings who essentially make up the oppressive mediocrity of the zombie plot itself; a dichotomy is built up in which the human side of the movie grows in plot mechanics and ethical dilemmas (moral and practical problems effortlessly arise with the introduction of differential human characters), whereas the zombie side of the movie remains simplistic and can only pretend to complexity in strictly arithmetical terms. The more zombies there are, the more justified is the logic of killing them off, and the more esteemed are the heroes in demonstrating their brand of murderous acumen.

In this regard, the zombie genre is implicitly a justification for the genocide of a nameless middle-class majority by an elite group of “thinkers,” a problematical situation that is seemingly resolved by the acceptance of the zombie population’s demonized undeadness. But this quality of undecidability in the intrinsic character of the zombie (and by extension within the hard-to-name realm of the zombie genre) presents other problems which go beyond the middling fear of contracting the “lethal” virus of mediocrity (a concept that could only occur in a high capitalist culture that struggles with dueling notions of capitalist conformism and capitalist individualism).

The idea of the zombie as a hazardous “undecidable” originates from a source equally unfixed and indecipherable: Jacques Derrida. According to a quote attributed to Derrida, the zombie is “fascinating and also horrific” because “it poisons systems of order, and like all undecidables, ought to be returned to order”:

In zombie movies this return to order is difficult. For a classic satisfying ending, the troubled element has to be removed, perhaps by killing it. But zombies are already dead (while alive) so you can’t kill a zombie, you have to resolve it. It has to be “killed” categorically, by removing its undecidability. . . It has to become a proper corpse or a true living being. There are other endings, less final. The zombie might be ineradicable, they might return. Perhaps undecidability is always with us. If not figured in the zombie, then something else: ghosts, golems or vampires, between life and death.
The problem issuing from the above quotation has to deal with undecidability on various levels. For one, the quotation is actually not from Derrida, but from the author of Introducing Derrida, an interpretative graphic primer on Derrida and deconstructionism as explained by Jeff Collins, who took the liberty of utilizing the zombie motif as a simplified example of Derrida’s concept of “undecidability” (see Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, pp. 24-26). It is uncertain whether Derrida ever explicitly mentioned zombies in his works or in interviews, but Collins’ example seeks to maintain an easy resonance for the terminology.

The zombie is indeed undecidable because it is neither alive nor dead, and thus wreaks havoc on the common binaries that we use to formulate moral, political, and aesthetic decisions (good/evil; liberal/conservative; beautiful/ugly; etc.) Since the zombie fits neither this nor that signification, it escapes our rudimentary comprehension of any constructed social order and its value systems, which are almost always dependent on a marginalization of what cannot be formulated or codified within its established hegemony; whatever slips through the cracks of our binaries simply cannot or should not exist; and yet this is precisely where the zombie most efficiently perpetrates its lethargic terrorism, through the unresolvable undecidability of its dead-alive existence.

For one thing, it is neither evil (because, as it happens in so many zombie films, our own family members and loved ones end up becoming zombies, and we are pained to exterminate them); nor is the state of being a zombie “good” (if we stop to consider that these same family members and loved ones are willing to eat us without the slightest remorse); and so, to the extent that a zombie creature collapses easy binaries by encompassing both positive and negative values, does the zombie retain and wield a fearsome mediocrity, which is to say, the zombie resists all low and high classifications since it can infiltrate all possible significations via the interstitial space of the median. The zombie’s nature is one that can infect all living states, any and all binaries, and therefore redefines (and makes perverse) our typical understanding of the golden mean within everything. This unstoppable mediocrity makes the zombie infinitely translatable across several platforms.

As such the zombie genre has been able to infect a wide range of pop cultural genres outside of cinema. The zombie may have its immediate roots in West African and Caribbean socio-religious practices (though by some accounts it goes even further back), but it would have never crossed over into the mainstream if the cinema hadn’t provided the zombie a profound visibility that could fascinate a mass audience and transform it into a branch of apocalyptic studies. To all extents and purposes, the zombie wave was one that began with cinema, and is properly a cinematic existence. But this aesthetic limitation hasn’t restricted the zombie to its ostensible element as a celluloid phantasmagoria: already have the viral properties of the zombie infiltrated the sphere of pulp literature in a veritable “zombie renaissance.”

The success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks are recent notable instances of a cross-platform pollination, but they certainly aren’t the first: the original Resident Evil, a landmark video game, is in many ways superior to most of the zombie films that are being made today. Rarely has a video game been so aesthetically immersed in the origins of its cinematic formalism as this one; playing the game is something equivalent to watching a zombie epic of epics, and the game designers never waste a moment of atmospheric dread to heighten the quality of terror.

But the undecidability of the zombie genre isn’t merely one of cross-platform permeability, in which it is neither movie nor book, neither game nor costume, but something pertinent to all these which persists in continuing ad infinitum as an unnamed, undead parasite. This quality of inexhaustible undecidability is also perceptible in the gnarled history of zombie movie titles.

Let’s begin with the classic of classics, Night of the Living Dead. After the 1958 film achieved its success and brought fame to its makers, Romero began work on a sequel but was blocked from using the “Living Dead” as part of the title; this was because John Russo, who was screenwriter of Night of the Living Dead and owned rights to any titles incorporating “Living Dead,” had plans to produce his own sequel with that clausal privilege. Romero went on to found his own series starting with Dawn of the Dead in 1978, but Russo’s project underwent numerous revisions and production changes so that when it was finally released as The Return of the Living Dead in 1985, it bore little thematic resemblance to both Night of the Living Dead and Russo’s original novelization. The Return of the Living Dead ended up being a comic version of the zombie genre that attempted to distinguish itself as a slapstick remedy to Romero’s serious-gore work.

Two separate tracks grew from the split: Romero’s Dead series, which is by now well-established and more or less thematically sequential, and The Return of the Living Dead series, which so far counts five entries, the last two which were released in 2005 and share the same director and crew but to my knowledge are only nominally related to the first Return of the Living Dead (the fifth and final installment is subtitled “Rave to the Grave,” and appears to be a return to the absurd hilarity that was abandoned in the third installment).


Other titular complications emerge when comparing the work of Romero with his direct competitor, Lucio Fulci. Fulci is responsible for directing classics of the horror genre that have established him as a legend in the Italian school of horror, but he is particularly renowned for having authored two of the indisputable masterpieces of the zombie genre, Zombi 2 (1979) and City of the Living Dead (1980). Besides staging the incredible possibility of a zombie fighting a shark (see video below), Zombi 2 wreaks considerable semantic havoc. To start off, the title indicates that it is a sequel to another film by Fulci, but this is not the case; the “Part Two” attached to the title was used merely as a way of selling it internationally as the “sequel” to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was released in Italy as Zombi (yet another dissonance that disrupts the real/unreal sequel-ness of Dawn of the Dead’s relationship to Night of the Living Dead). Thus Fulci’s Zombi 2 is a sequel and yet not a sequel to another film which suffers the same undecidability.

To complicate things further, Zombi 2 is also known under a slew of other titles that more or less create associations with other zombie-related films released before and after it, among them: Zombie, Island of the Living Dead, Zombie Island, Zombie Flesh Eaters, and Woodoo. Considering the fake title status of Zombi 2, it is no surprise that it shares the exact same title with a much inferior film released a year after, Hell of the Living Dead, otherwise known as Zombi 2: Ultimate Nightmare, Zombie Creeping Flesh, Virus, Cannibal Virus, Night of the Zombies, Zombie Inferno, and Zombies of the Savanna. It would be no surprise (and legally feasible) that any of these titles has at least two other incarnations elsewhere, since it is in the nature of the zombie genre that a single title spawns endless variations of the same concept, practically down to using the exact same title, in much the way that a virus spreads and reproduces a pattern of symptoms and effects, thus propagating the all-leveling parasite of mediocrity (in this respect, one touching on the repetitive sameness of the titles).


It is in the spirit of a mashup culture that the zombie genre eventually merges with another equally undecidable field: the cannibal movie. The cannibal subgenre is one that developed side-by-side with the zombie canon, and they share obvious parallels (the undead human-flesh eaters are replaced by living flesh-eaters); except that the cannibal genre adds a layer of postcolonial critique which dissects (literally) the anatomy of the foolish enterprising westerner. (Its moral refrain can be stated thus: “He who willingly orientalizes the non-western Other risks being eaten alive through his own ignorance.”)

The most infamous of cannibal films (and likely the genre’s crowning achievement) is Cannibal Holocaust (1980), directed by Ruggero Deodato, and the unacknowledged progenitor of the recent wave of “documentary” horror films exemplified by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007). Deodato’s film, which was instantly accused upon its release as being a snuff film in which the actors were killed on camera by a real-life tribe in the Amazon (so gruesomely authentic did the violence and gore appear), serves as a somewhat heavy-handed critique of the barbarity of civilized societies that unknowingly participate in parallel forms of social cannibalism and horrendous meat-industry practices.

The cannibalistic savagery wrought on the unfortunate westerners traveling through the thicker regions of the Amazon, Deodato implies, is no different than the savagery at work in the “civilized” sphere and particularly in the inhumane practices of an incessant meat industry — if humans are capable of eating beasts impersonally, then humans are certainly capable of eating other humans with less compunction, which is to say, that the processes by which people live and eat in theory shouldn’t conflict with their innermost ethical beliefs.


But to return to the zombie realm: in 1979, the same year that Fulci’s Zombi 2 was released, another Italian production team spliced together two films, one a zombie film, the other a cannibal film, and released the monstrous hybrid under the title Zombie Holocaust, whose title I suspect directly influenced the distributors of Deodato’s film the following year. Zombie Holocaust was fashioned so as to capitalize on the sudden popularity of the two genres in Italy and abroad, and it also lays claim to the title of Zombi 3, which also happens to be the name of another Fulci film that itself bears no relationship to Zombi, Zombi 2, or any subsequent “Zombi” film.

Zombie Holocaust holds the dubious honor of being one of the first films to involve both cannibals and zombies sharing the strange cinematic space and fighting over human flesh (unless the zombies, faced with little choice, end up eating the cannibals too). The scenario is enough to create a generic confusion that defies description — but since I haven’t had the honor of seeing the film, I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination.

I’ve by no means exhausted the range of undecidables lurking in the capability of the zombie genre to be simultaneously alive and dead, named and nameless, determinate and indeterminate. The pop universe interwoven by these malleable entities is limitless and doesn’t look to cease growing anytime soon. (AMC premiered The Walking Dead on Halloween, and the prospect of a potentially long-running television series involving zombies will certainly instigate new insights into the genre that were thought unthinkable before.) By whatever name any of its manifestations takes up, the zombie craze will continue so long as there are bodies to feed it. Suffice it to quote Carlyle on the terrific and terrible apotheosis of mediocrity, Sansculottism (otherwise known as zombie-ism): “The lowest, least blessed fact one knows of, on which necessitous mortals have ever based themselves, seems to be the primitive one of Cannibalism: That I can devour Thee. What if such Primitive Fact were precisely the one we had (with our improved methods) to revert to, and begin anew from!”



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