Rhetoric of Modern Death in American Living Dead Films
Bristol: Intellect, 2015
Paperback. viii+175 p. ISBN 978-1783203796. £30
Reviewed by Sébastien Lefait
Université Paris 8
The book opens on a quote from the famous 1932 horror film, The Mummy: “Death is but the doorway to new life. We live today. We shall live again. In many forms shall we return” . This places emphasis on the book’s corpus of works under study, and partly explains the work’s title. The focus, it appears, will be placed on American living-dead films, which shall be analysed from the perspective of the return of the dead – but also more generally of the return of death as an abstract notion – to haunt and disturb the living. What this “revival” of death means culturally and socially speaking is not explained until the book’s conclusion: “the media [of film] has helped death to re-enter the public domain through images and experiences” ). In the conclusion, then, one of the author’s main arguments finally becomes clear: the re-emergence of death in contemporary American society contradicts the notion of “modern death”, which is emphasised as one of the book’s starting points through its presence in the title, and explained on page 4: “I will refer to the idea of death as marginalised, privatised, scientific and medicalised through the concept of ‘modern death’”.
In order to defend the relevance and importance of this aesthetic, social and cultural trend she has identified, Outi Hakola sets out trace it back to living-dead films by studying their evolution throughout the main ages of the genre: the classical period, the transitional period, the post-classical period, and, finally, the digital period. In so doing, the author proposes to study Hollywood films as reflections of a changing American society, especially as far as US citizens’ relationship to death is concerned. She argues that “throughout Hollywood horror productions, the living-dead films have continued to address modern society’s tension between distancing and obsessing about death” .
One of the book’s main strengths follows from this perspective, which the author constantly seeks to complement with the alternative viewpoint, according to which films not only reflect, but also “[herald and encourage] the major cultural changes from the modernisation to the revival of death” . A bilateral influence is thus identified: as American citizens’ relationship to death and mortality changes, especially on either side of the public/private fence, living-dead films both mirror the shifts in the forms this relationship takes and prompt new ones.
This two-way pattern of exchange between film and reality is explained and justified in a lengthy section of the introduction entitled “Theoretical Departure Points: Understanding Textual and Generic Addressing”. In my opinion, this section could have been dispensed with, as it mainly summarises theoretical standpoints with which film students, let alone film scholars, are supposed to be familiar. In fact, the introduction as a whole contains several self-obvious truths and repeated arguments, which suggests it could have been shorter. More seriously, it contains one major factual mistake in that it renames famous Italian film theorist Francesco Casetti, insistently calling him Franco.
But the volume’s main weakness in my opinion relates to the way the author handles the issues she brilliantly identifies. While interesting questions are raised, and while the choice of films studied should have allowed the author to provide answers to her interrogations – all the more so since her analyses of the films under study are all extremely convincing – this is quite seldom the case. On page 49, for instance, Outi Hakola ends her second chapter by stating: “The films can, therefore, dare and reveal the viewers’ ambivalent, and constantly changing, relationships with modern death and its representations”. A similar idea returns on page 154: the mummy films “highlight the subtle changes within this general movement [i.e., increasingly casting the undead in major alignment positions], making clear that the post-classical and digital films can also choose to alienate monstrousness”. In between those two statements, and despite the clarity and relevance of the author’s analysis of her corpus, the reader seems to have received little in the way of clarification about what the changes that have been identified actually mean, and even less in the way of characterization of those changes. At the very least, a synthetic and quantitative approach to the recent developments the author claims to have identified would have been welcome. With this in mind, my aim in the second part of this review is to try to explain why and how this book, good as it is, could have gone further in providing answers rather than just asking questions. This may prove useful to the author (or indeed to scholars and students who have read the book) for subsequent work on similar topics.
To me, the book fails to meet some of the expectations it luminously raises due to some debatable choices. Outi Hakola’s most paradoxical decision is to tackle the evolution of our relationship to death through the study of living-dead films. Indeed, as the movie characters she uses as examples fail to properly die, they tend to represent the persistence of life after death at least as much as the resurgence of death in life (which is the author’s chosen perspective on this paradox). This is one of the many points in the book that, had they been clarified, would have greatly increased its overall quality. Instead, the author merely identifies an interesting evolution in living-dead movies, and proposes to study it in relationship to social and cultural developments, but generally falls short of providing answers to the questions asked in the introduction. The result remains a high-quality academic work, which would have gained a lot from being less descriptive and more reflexive. My opinion is that this shortcoming could have been overcome by less strictly limiting the corpus to living-dead material. In fact, when the book deals with the treatment of death in horror movies in general terms, it is often more interesting and more effective in suggesting answers to the questions it raises.
In my opinion, this (minor) weakness is also due to the fact the author, while seeking to establish links between the current state of American viewers’ relationship to death and major generic trends in horror films, left behind at least two important issues. The first one is the reading contract of any movie, and especially of movies of the horror kind. The codes of the genre are in fact so well known as to generate strong and rigid expectations in a number of viewers, one of which is the inclusion in the plot of many (violent) deaths – and of course, in the case of living-dead films, of at least a few resurrections. Bearing this in mind, one can hardly consider that the way in which characters die, resurrect, and go on living after death is to be in the least taken at face value. In other words, the suspension of disbelief that is demanded from viewers of such films is probably even higher than for other cinematic genres, which dramatically impacts the author’s premise according to which the films under study mirror and exemplify changes in the ways we relate to death. This starting point suggests that living-dead movies use some form of realistic depiction, which may not be the case at all in many occurrences. Consider Computer Generated Imagery, for instance. In the latest films of the genre, the undead, along with the representation of death, are all the less relevant to what death feels like and looks like “in real life” (to take up a phrase that is currently being more and more currently used to refer to the opposite of what takes place in virtual worlds) because of their immaterial character which, in the first place, prevents them from dying, since they were never even “born”, except perhaps as pixel-made creatures. More generally, this required level of willing disbelief is part of the viewing contract of most contemporary films: on-screen violence is supposed to be so artificial and unreal as to be devoid of real-life consequences (which is of course an interpretive mistake, but one which may be encouraged by film studios in order to free viewers from the guilt of enjoying on-screen violence – the same may of course apply to violence in videogames). Consequently, taking into account the current status of the representation of real-life events, especially when they are most horrifying, would have helped the author add newer and more interesting developments to the ones already included in her book.
Second, and in similar vein, since one of the main arguments to be found in the book is that death is returning into public life after having been kept private for decades, it would have been relevant to relate current trends in horror movies to the proliferation of terror, and especially to the fact this proliferation mainly occurs on TV and on computer screens. In my opinion, the most useful addition to an up-to-date book on the living-dead film genre would have been the inclusion of how terrorists use on-screen death to create a threat that would be less powerful, hence less real, without the use of cameras and screens. Outi Hakola repeatedly insists that death is returning into the public sphere, without ever underlining this obvious fact: as cinematic horror become less and less credible due to generic repetition and the use of CGI, real-life horror populates our screens in its most terrifying form, as viewers come to wish the violent acts and live beheadings perpetrated by terrorists were not true. This strongly and universally impacts our relationship to death, and in particular our interpretation of how on-screen death relates to actual death. Besides, (to take up part of the book’s title), a “rhetoric of death” is indeed being used by terrorists, who can be defined as half-dead themselves, since their task is always a suicide mission, and since their actual death is supposed to open onto a better life. Two reasons, among many others, why I feel this all-important current issue should have been included in a book on this topic. Nevertheless, based on the quality of the analyses presented here, and considering the author’s skills at identifying new aesthetic trends in the horror-movie genre, these are undoubtedly elements she will take into account in writings to come, which I look forward to having the pleasure of reading.
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