Arguably the best line ever delivered in the history of modern cinema was said in 1968 in George A. Romero’s classic tale of the undead, Night of the Living Dead. When asked by a local reporter if the dead are slow moving, Chief McClellan answers, “They’re dead. They’re all messed up”.
The chief’s response is the perfect meeting of a great line and a great delivery. That line had always stood out of the movie for me, even when I wasn’t in the habit of looking at things philosophically. But now since I’ve been bit by the philosophic bug, that line has lead me to ask myself a few questions: 1) What’s so messed up about death? 2) Is it messed up that you die? 3) Is there something inherent to death that, once someone dies they become messed up? 4) Are they messed up because they’re dead? 5) Is death itself a state of being messed up?
It really started to bother me.
Chief McClellan seems to think that the messed-upness about death is the fact that one is dead. Being dead, as evidenced by the chief’s sentiment and the ruthlessnes with which they “kill” the undead, robs an individual of his humanness.
Once a person dies (and in particular, if one reanimates) a person ceases to be morally considerable as anything other than something that must be destroyed.
Perhaps then, being messed up has something to do with the idea that a person lacks humanness.
So, I’m assuming that it goes something like this: person + dead = messed up, messed up = not human.
This seems to be the sentiment that not only runs through Romero’s movies, but throughout other zombie flicks as well ( I think a funnier description of the messed up state of dead people is said by the character “Rhodes” in George Romero’s Day of the Dead. Rhodes calls the undead “fuckin’ lunatics”. I say this because Rhodes may have been onto something and not known that he was).
This assessment, of course only leads us to more questions. I ask, if one can lose his humanness, what is humanness?
Does the fact that we die mean that we have to lose what makes us human (or at least morally considerable)? Also, I ask, when do we stop being human (this is important in the real world when we consider those who are only mostly dead, like someone who is in a persistent vegetative state or is “brain dead”)?
Does death mean we stop being human? Or is the sum of our humanity more than the sum of our (living) parts?
In the average zombie film, it seems that there is an inextricable connection between being human and being alive. This is exemplified by how the dead are described in the various films of the genre — “things”, “them”, “ghouls”, “stenches”, zombies”, “undead”, “deadites”, etc. They are called anything but “human” or “people”. If these movies reflect how we actually feel about the dead, then being a human (and thus morally considerable) is being something that is a body imbued with life.
It would take up too much time to get into the various views on what exactly life is, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that a thing that lives is something that breathes, has a discernible heartbeat, has a body temperature roughly around 98.6 degrees Farenheit, and neither rots nor attempts to eat the flesh of the living.
So, if life (as defined here) is a qualification for human classification, why do we worry about how the dead? Why do we worry about how dead bodies are treated (like why necrophilia is illegal in most states. I think that there are still a couple where you can have sex with any dead person that you want to get it on with), or why are we strongly discouraged from speaking ill of the dead?
Afterall, they’re not there to see us do anything to or speak ill about them.
Why do we keep promises to dead people? Seems like a waste of time to hold a promise made to a dead guy over our heads.
Perhaps our concern has more to do with our fear of ghosts, or visits from restless spirits, or divine retribution. Speaking of, I hope that Thomas Jefferson was haunted by the spirit of a dead friend whom he promised to use the friend’s money to buy the freedom of slaves when he died.
But the question remains. If a zombie is messed up and morally unconsiderable, can we somehow cause harm to a zombie or other unliving person?
Since it’s so much fun, let’s look at zombies.
A zombie, according to Random House College Dictionary (def. 1), is
“the body of a dead person given semblance of life by a supernatural force”.
So, by definition, a zombie is someone who has the outward appearance of something that is living but is not: A zombie moves (or shambles), makes noise in the form of moaning, and in the case of Re-Animator’s Dr. Hill, it will perform oral sex on you.
(it’s a visual pun).
Zombies are put through various abuses throughout the pantheon of film: In George Romero’s Land of the Dead, zombies are made to fight each other over food (the “food” is a live person thrown into a cage with two zombies). In the 2004 re-make of Dawn of the Dead, the heroes play a shooting game where they shoot zombies who resemble celebrities. In Shaun of the Dead, zombies are used as contestants on a game show. In Tom Savini’s 1990 re-make of Night of the Living Dead and in Romero’s Diary of the Dead, zombies are used as target practice by local hillbillies.
In movies, zombies are killed, or re-killed in ways that we would never imagine treating a living person. This is because they’re “all messed up” — that is, not human.
There is a body but no one to offend. Since they’re dead already, you’re not killing anyone. “Killing” a zombie is no different than playing the latest RPG video game. But for some of us, this sentiment doesn’t sound right. Zombies look like us — they used to be regular people. It seems counterintuitive to treat someone who is dead in any way that we please. Being messed up doesn’t completely disqualify someone as morally considerable.
We do take care not to offend the dead, either by words or by deeds. In Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead, Barbara (who survives this time around) says about the zombies, ” They’re us. We’re them, and they’re us”. Barbara says this when she sees the local yahoos having their way with zombies. In Barbara’s view, a zombie is still a person. They’re more than their physicality. They don’t lose their personhood or humanness upon death. We’re still capable of committing violence against them. Their violence against us doesn’t seem to warrant mistreatment by the living.
There is a common thread that runs through the zombie films of Georre Romero that sets his films apart from other films in the genre. Namely, that Romero’s films may be entertaining, but they are also meant for us to think. This is a good thing.
The question (and the finer point) that runs through Romero’s zombie films is “who are the monsters?”. There is an obvious answer and there is the one that makes us a little uncomfortable.
Barbara discovered the answer when she saw the townies abusing the zombies.
When we think of an individual doing another person harm, there are two individuals that come to mind — the victim and the perpetrator.
We consider the act, but we also consider the intent of the person who committed the harm. This is where (I think it was) Kant was going when he suggested that it is wrong to break a promise to a dead man.
The moral transgression isn’t in that we harmed the dead person, so much in that it speaks to what kind of person we are morally. We evaluate the intent of the agent.
If I promise to buy the freedom of slaves with the money of my friend’s estate after he dies, and I do not, the moral harm is that I have shown myself to be untrustworthy, that I do not honor my own promises.
It does not matter who I made the promise to — I gave my word and I should honor my obligations to keep my word.
It’s funny that there is a reason [one might say excuse] as to why Jefferson acted as dastardly as he did. Jefferson wrote, ” The Earth belongs… to the living. The dead have neither power nor rights over it”.
Jefferson was kind of an Asshole.
Even Alexander Hamilton knew that.
A better example to use with zombies is how we treat animals or people with diminished capacity.
As Rhodes observed, zombies operate much like “lunatics”. That is, a zombie, as we are reminded in zombie flick after zombie flick, cannot be reasoned with. Likewise, people who have no control over their actions (perhaps because of mental illness) are not rational. It is incumbent on us, the rational ones, that we care for those who cannot control or care for themselves.
So perhaps we should think of zombies (or those who are mostly dead) more like we think of the mentally ill, or people who suffer from an addiction or compulsion. Since they cannot be but what they are, we should treat them sympathetically.
But not paternalistic.
Kant says that’s wrong.
For instance, my dog does not understand that there is a legitimate reason why he is not allowed to poop in the house. If I attempt to demonstrate my very well thought-out reason he shouldn’t, he won’t understand my reasoning. I cannot treat him as if he should understand. Nor would I hold him to the same rational standard that I would another rational adult human.
Therefore, when my dog leaves an “accident” indoors, I cannot punish him in the same way that I would if he were a grown (rational) man who had crapped on my livingroom floor. If I did, I would be out of line for doing so. If I do (which would entail some asskicking, if he were a rational human), then I am in the moral wrong for my behavior. My willingness to overpunish my dog reflects on me as a rational moral agent.
My moral aptitude is demonstrated by my actions.
So, if I string a zombie up and poke it with sticks for shits and giggles, it says much more about what kind of person I am than about how dangerous the zombie is.
And that’s precisely what Barbara saw.
It wasn’t the zombies who had lost their humanity, but the living.
The living had ceased to act like humans.
Their intent was to cause harm — it just so happens that their targets were people that they could get away with treating so badly.
Like the man who makes a promise to his dying friend and then breaks it, they treated the zombies harshly because they knew that they would get away with doing so. To them, a zombie is nothing more than a thing. It is not a person. It deserves no moral consideration. It deserves no respect.
An interesting side note is that we can see this attitude (maybe not to such a degree) in our electronic world. Websites such as Second Life enable people to enter a “reality” where they can act and do what they choose. A person can indulge any and every desire. The idea is, is that if there is no real person, then there is no moral transgression. There is no living being to offend.
This is the same idea that is behind the idea of virtual child pornography. Since the child in question is the product of a computer and there is no real child who corresponds with the virtual image, then there is no moral wrong with having (virual) sex or viewing sexually explicit images of children who do not exist. But, we know that even if there is no actual being being molested, but there is an actual someone in the real world who is having sex with virtual children.
If one doubts that there is a problem here, all one needs to do is ask this question: would you feel comfortable alone, camping in the woods with someone who you discovered enjoyed rape/murder fantacies in a virtual world? Would it matter if nothing actually happened to anyone who actually existed (that they only did it with/to a virtual person, an automaton, or god forbid, a zombie), or would the fact that that person even entertained those sorts of intentions cause you to turn down the invite to go camping this weekend?
My guess is you’d suddenly have to wash your hair and take the cat to the vet that weekend.
What matters isn’t that the victim is dead and “all messed up”, but that, like Romero suggests, the monsters — the MORAL monsters — are us.
The end scene in Diary of the Dead is the perfect example of this point of view:
The final scene of the film depicts a couple of gunsmen who have rigged up zombies for target practice. Their last target is a female zombie who has been strung up from a tree by her hair. One of the gunsmen shoots, blasting her body away from her head. As her body drops, the top half of her head and her hair remain rigged to the tree. And as her head dangles, a single blood tear streams from the corner of her eye.
This final scene, the zombie’s single tear, suggests that despite her condition, she still retained some bit of her humanity.
Perhaps she wasn’t as messed up as Chief McClellan has believed. Somehow she, despite being dead, still feels.
The body my die and whither away, but there is some part of us that remains.
There’s a “something else” (the soul, perhaps — if your theology goes that way) is what is harmed by the actions of the living.
It seems that many people, when they think of people who died, tend to treat the dead according to this view.
But of course, any atheist (or strict materialist) would object to notions of souls existing past death.
We’ll grant them that.
(primarily because that’s what I believe myself).
So, in real life, the dead do not a gamble around and eat the living, and godless materialists may not believe in souls, but we do have, in our own minds, memories of those who have passed.
We can or should respect that.
There’s an old cliche — that a person isn’t truly dead so long as we keep them in our hearts. This may be why we are offended by the idea of treating a dead person improperly — why the idea of necrophilia or cannibalism (unless we happen to be stranded in the Andes mountains with our soccer team), or procuring organs without the original owner’s consent, are abhorent to us.
The body is material and will eventually rot and turn to dust. But the body is also symbolic of the person who once was. And to that, we feel have a deep moral obligation.
Until we are completely forgotten and lost to history, we may argue, when we die, we become more than the sum of our parts. At least as long as those who remember us are living, our existence, our humanity, becomes transcendent.
More importantly, how we regard the dead reflects on who we are — that we are honorable, moral people.
So, it is indeed possible to harm the dead, because when we harm the dead, we harm ourselves.
Treating the dead harshly takes away from our own moral standing — we become less human when we do so.
The short of it is, is that when we die we don’t lose our humanness. And being dead isn’t so messed up.
Well, it’s either that, or we really are afraid of visits from good old Jacob Marley and his rattling chains.
….. or even worse, that kid from The Ring.