An Analysis of Allan Cameron’s “Zombie Media: Transmission, Reproduction, and the Digital Dead”
Written by Jocelyn Illing
Zombie films are notorious for their central, gruesome monsters. Resembling the human figure, these beings are often portrayed as decaying, horrifying and lazy bipeds. Upon analyzing their bodies and movements, and how the portrayal of zombies has changed throughout cinematic history, one can begin to examine how these sub-genre horror films reflect the transformation of media and technology. In his essay “Zombie Media: Transmission, Reproduction, and the Digital Dead,” Allan Cameron (2012) explores how “in zombie films, bodily phenomena of death, decay, and dismemberment are often closely aligned with the contingent traces of mediation, including film grain, distortion, and digital pixilation” (para. 1). These films include, but are not limited to Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968), 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) and Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009). Cameron (2012) describes what he calls “zombie media” (para. 1), and how it is used to explore the “breakdown of bodies, images and meaning” (para. 1). Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is such a horror film that uses media to explore the zombies’ relationship to the body, while simultaneously reflecting on the horror-genre as a whole, and the audience’s pleasure of it.
Cameron (2012) begins his discussion by defining the contemporary zombie as the “media zombie” (para. 2). These types of horror films often include depictions of multiple forms of media, critiquing society’s dependence on it. Characters will rely on recording or broadcast media in their time of need, only to have it ultimately fail them. This is the case in Night of the Living Dead, when, after the zombie outbreak is established, television reports feed the citizens false and out of date information, leaving them to wonder what has truly come of the world and whether or not they are still in danger (Cameron, 2012, para. 2). Zombie films also have the tendency to portray society’s “overdependence on media” in the form of their lead protagonists, such as the title character in Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004), a lazy man who spends his time watching trashy television, unaware of the threat of the monsters (Cameron, 2012, para. 2). The Cabin in the Woods presents this overdependence of media through both the college students and the organization of the zombie attack operation. During a speech early on in the film, stoner Marty talks about how technology and the media are taking over society. Later this is proven through the work of the secret organization, orchestrating a sort of reality television horror program that is use to give the public what they want. Cameron (2012) also describes the media zombie as being a “weaving together of media and bodily metaphors” (para. 8). The zombies, through their abilities, or lack thereof, to think, speak and move give rise to both the physical and psychological differences between monster and human. To further this idea, Cameron (2012) presents the example of Bub, the captive zombie in Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985) who begins to regain human characteristics through different media experiences, such as reading a book, talking on the telephone or listening to music (para. 8). This presents the idea that what makes us truly human is our media and our ability to respond and interpret it.
Another important component of the zombie film is the exploration of the physical attributes of both the zombies and the film itself. In his article, Cameron (2012) speaks heavily of “speed, stillness, and the body” in relation to zombies and media (para. 15). This concept can first be explained on the level of film form. Zombie films often have a distinct look to them because of the type of camera chosen to shoot the film. With advances in technology, the aesthetic has changed over the years, from the grainy high-contrast film in Night of the Living Dead to the pixelated digital video of 28 Days Later (Cameron, 2012, para. 15). Not only do these devices give the films a distinct look, but they also give them a documentary feel, heightening the viewer’s experience by making the film appear as found footage. Speed may refer to the importance of quickness within the zombie film. While fans have debated the use of fast zombies, “the emergence of the high-speed zombie introduces a digital aesthetic to zombie media” (Cameron, 2012, para. 16). The evolution of the contemporary zombie to a high-powered maniac, as exemplified in The Cabin in the Woods and more extensively in Zombieland, reflects the speed and power of new digital media. During one scene in Zombieland, for example, we watch as an overweight zombie chases after a man down the aisle of a grocery store at a speed not normally seen in a zombie film. A final concept worth mentioning in Cameron’s article is his examination of Vivian Sobchack’s theory that “film itself has a body, constituted by the entire technology apparatus of camera, screen, projector, and so forth” (Cameron, 2012, para. 28). Because of this, the film acts as both the object and the subject of the look. Tying into this theory are “the intimate connections among the bodies of characters and viewers” (Cameron, 2012, para. 29). The blood and gore on screen, particularly in multiple death scenes in Zombieland and in The Cabin in the Woods, both affect the characters on screen and produce a sort of bodily response in the viewers, making them feel sick or uneasy.
Because of the extreme detail into which Cameron goes into explaining the relationship between zombie films and the media, there are multiple interesting points that I believe should be discussed. The first is that of the modern zombie movie and its tendency to draw attention to society’s dependence on media, and the subsequent failure of the media to save man-kind in the event of a threat. This is often portrayed in films through characters addicted to their phones, oblivious to the outbreak, and through the attacks on members of the media. For example, in Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) “television… represents organized society’s failure to come to terms with the unfolding disaster” (Cameron, 2012, para. 2) with chaotic scenes of staff members of a news studio staging a revolt. The self-reflexivity of The Cabin in the Woods also calls to this dependency of humans on technology, as well as their obsession with destruction. The whole operation is organized around these urges, with the college students presented as the victims of technology. A second theory worth noting is that of the digital dead. Cameron (2012) states that “zombie cinema’s ontological alignment of bodies and media invites reflection not only on questions of death, stillness and cinematic movement but also on the status of embodiment in the context of digital media” (para. 40). For example, the modern zombie is manufactured in a high-tech studio in The Cabin in the Woods. The use of faster zombies, as stated above, also calls to a comparison between the analog and the digital. The faster zombies represent the faster connection offered by new media. Technology is further presented in the film in the form of the surveillance cameras that often act as the source of the images presented onscreen.
Two concepts discussed in Cameron’s article that I found rather difficult to grasp were that of the body’s ontological and phenomenological connections with media in zombie films and that of mediation. Cameron (2012) first connected these two concepts with the idea that “zombie cinema is aligned with science fiction in its tendency to frame media, and the failure of media, in social terms” (para. 4). Both of these genres highlight society’s dependence on media and technology in a critical way. I think what Cameron means when he (2012) states that “the human body has typically served as a placeholder for [the] science of imaging” (para. 4) is that zombie films depict the extent to which media and technology affect our bodies or our being. For example, the control panel in The Cabin in the Woods controlled the zombies, thus deciding which of the college students were to be murdered. Zombie films also show less direct repercussions, such as distracting the protagonist of Shaun of the Dead from the growing zombie outbreak. Cameron’s definition of mediation relates to “disembodiment” (Cameron, 2012, para. 5), or the role of the body when watching a horror film. For example, when watching a rather gory scene, the film triggers a bodily response, causing us to scream, our stomachs to curl, or even for us to cover our eyes.
Through their depiction of monsters and media, zombie films work to highlight human-kind’s relationship with media and technology. Although the relationship is co-dependent, it appears as though society relies too heavily on machines and networks in their everyday life. The evolution of the zombie in the horror film has aligned itself with the changes in technology, with the zombies becoming stronger and faster as we move from the analog and the digital, creating a new, contemporary zombie film.
Cameron, A. (2012). Zombie Media: Transmission, Reproduction, and the Digital Dead. Cinema Journal, 52(1), 66-89.