materiali » Land of the Dead

The Already Dead and the Dying

The Zombie as Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power, Bare Life, and George A. Romero’s “Dead” Tetralogy

by Simchi Cohen

Pierre Macherey demonstrates that literature and philosophy can never be definitively separated in their considerations of historical reality. Literature inflates reality through images, exposing its distortions and deformations like a magnifying mirror highlights blemishes on a face. Literature’s very magnification of reality, its “pitilessly cruel and cynical light,” makes it possible, necessary even, to critique historical ideals. Thus, George A. Romero’s “Dead” tetralogy (beginning in 1968) is not simply an exercise in torture pornography; Romero places the figure of the zombie in center stage and, relentless in his violence, depicts a scenario which Giorgio Agamben, in his analysis of the Zone of Indistinction and the Homo Sacer, theorizes philosophically nearly 30 years later.

Land of the Dead - The Already Dead and the Dying - The Zombie as Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power, Bare Life, and George A. Romero’s “Dead” Tetralogy

The setting of Romero’s films is one in which the law is suspended and infanticide, homicide, and suicide are permitted. The presence of the law is overt in each of the four “Dead” movies, suggesting that the sovereign, characterized by the law, is directing the establishment of the Zone of Indistinction. Romero’s zombies are the living dead, the Homo Sacer; perceived not only as dehumanized but as posing a threat to the human population, they are killed indiscriminately. Romero’s films make inexorably and violently visible the Homo Sacer that Giorgio Agamben, in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, explores in his attempt to refocus analysis of society and culture on the centrality of the law. Though Carl Schmitt, in The Concept of the Political, critiques the law’s dependence upon the sovereign who exists outside the law for its efficacy and its very being, and Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, explores the concepts of sovereignty and biopower, arguing that the norm, not the law, is the true governing force in society, Agamben seeks to rescue the study of law from its position in these critiques as secondary. Agamben confronts Foucault’s exploration of sovereignty and biopower with Carl Schmitt’s critique of the rule of law, arguing that biopower cannot exist without sovereignty. According to Agamben, neither Schmitt nor Foucault understands the true nature of the sovereign. While Foucault regards the sovereign in limited terms of negation, as acting through subtraction (of life, of property, of rights), and Schmitt regards the sovereign as the sole being with the right to declare a state of exception, Agamben argues, rather, that the sovereign acts not through negation, but through abandonment. According to Agamben, the sovereign, through the use of force, imposes a political order, simultaneously creating two opposed spaces: an inside and an outside. The outside, or Zone of Indistinction, is a place where the boundaries between the legal and the illegal are blurred. The inhabitant of the Zone of Indistinction is the Homo Sacer; abandoned and outside the protection of the law, the Homo Sacer is both unworthy of sacrifice and permitted to be killed with impunity, both already dead and posing a threat. Romero, in his “Dead” films, lays the ground for Agamben’s exploration of the Zone of Indistinction in his portrayal of the zombie as Homo Sacer. Ultimately, Romero’s depiction of the zombie versus human populations underscores an important parallel: that between the sovereign and the Homo Sacer. Romero analogizes his zombies (the abandoned) and his humans (the abandoners); the zombies in the final installment of the series are portrayed as virtually human – they emote, they are an organized group, they use tools – while the humans, throughout the series, are depicted as more and more dehumanized. Similarly, in Agamben’s conception of the Homo Sacer (the abandoned) and the sovereign (the abandoner), the two, while seemingly on opposite sides of the law, are in fact analogous in that both exist inside and outside of the law. George A. Romero, in his “Dead” tetralogy, depicts the very setting Agamben ultimately defines as the Zone of Indistinction; each of the four “Dead” movies is characterized by a state of Martial Law mandated by various human sovereigns, and each underscores the power of the sovereign to determine a Zone of Indistinction. In Night of the Living Dead, a news broadcaster reports that “the National Guard has been mobilized” and that “the President has called a meeting of his Cabinet to deal with the sudden epidemic of murder and will be joined by officials of the Fbi and military advisors.” The human President is the sovereign and he has mobilized troops, placing the law in charge. In Dawn of the Dead, Dr. Foster, a scientist on the news, announces more specifically, “there is a Martial Law state in effect in Philadelphia as in all the other major cities in the country.” Dr. Foster then says, “It is the order of the Oep (Office of Energy and Planning) by command of the federal government, the President of the United States, citizens may no longer occupy private residences no matter how safely protected or well-stocked.” A radio announcer on the Emergency Broadcast System clarifies, “The President today has sent to Congress a package of initiatives, aimed at what sources call a most sweeping sense of emergency measures.” The human President, or sovereign, has declared a state of Martial Law. Day of the Dead continues the saga with an even more profound display of the law in command. Only a single army unit survives, living in an underground bunker. A doctor in the bunker asks, “since when did this become a military operation?” and Commander Rhodes responds, “anybody fucks with my command, they get court martialed, they get executed.” Rhodes, a human, is essentially depicted as the sovereign: he determines the Zone of Indistinction and whom to court martial, or abandon. The final installment in the series, Land of the Dead, identifies its sovereign as “Kaufman,” the wealthiest human in the surviving city who instates the “Army of the Green” to defend the rich and ignore the poor. Kaufman establishes a Zone of Indistinction wherein if the poor try to move up in the world, to live in the well protected, exclusive Fiddler’s Green, they become zombie fodder. Romero’s films portray Zones of Indistinction in their illustrations of suspension of the law. Night of the Living Dead depicts Ben as committing what would ordinarily be considered homicide: bashing in heads with a crowbar, igniting bodies with torches and bombs, shooting Cooper and Helen in the head. However, due to the Zone of Indistinction established by the human sovereign, killing a zombie is not considered homicide. Dawn of the Dead further portrays a suspension of the law. A police officer commits suicide, a S.W.A.T. team runs over a mass of zombies with a semi, a news reporter, Stephen, steals a helicopter, prompting Peter, a S.W.A.T. team member, to ask, “Oh, you got papers for this limousine?” To which Stephen replies, “I’ve got GON I.D.” And Peter laughs, “Right, and we're up here doing traffic reports! Wake up, sucker! We're thieves and we're bad guys.” There are instances of infanticide; Peter shoots a little boy and girl zombie with a machine gun. In Day of the Dead, where only the army survives, Private Steel commits suicide, and Commander Rhodes shoots humans and zombies indiscriminately. Land of the Dead depicts humans raiding a liquor store, Mike, a soldier, shooting himself in the mouth, Cholo, a poor soldier, extorting five million dollars from Kaufman, Kaufman shooting a human board member in the head, and mass killing spree of humans and zombies at the local slum carnival, all without legal recompense. For Agamben, the object of the law’s abandonment, the inhabitant of the Zone of Indistinction, is the Homo Sacer. The sovereign, in creating a Zone of Indistinction, abandons the Homo Sacer, removing him from the protection of the law and depriving him of his rights as a citizen. The Homo Sacer becomes both a category of life that is unworthy of sacrifice and one that can be killed with impunity: he is both valueless and threatening. Abandoned, the Homo Sacer is considered already dead: “whoever is banned from his city on pain of death must be considered as dead,” (Agamben 105) and therefore, can be killed with impunity: killing the already dead is not murder. However, to exist in the Zone of Indistinction is not only to be abandoned by the sovereign, but also to be propelled into the realm of the bestial and threatening. The Homo Sacer is one whose abandonment transforms him into a danger; Achille Mbembe, in his discussion of enmity, describes the way in which the Homo Sacer, or Other, is perceived as “as an attempt on my life, as a mortal threat or absolute danger whose biophysical elimination would strengthen my potential to life and security” (Mbembe 18). The already dead is resurrected in the form of the bestial threat; its very existence poses a danger to the human existence, and consequently, it must be destroyed. Thus, the Homo Sacer, even as he is abandoned, is perceived not only as devoid of value, but as a threat warranting immediate destruction. Romero spotlights the figure Agamben ultimately defines as the Homo Sacer through his depiction of the zombie as abandoned, as the already dead who inhabits the Zone of Indistinction. Zombies in all four movies are referred to dehumanizingly, as “it,” as “things,” as “pus bags,” “stenches,” and “walkers.” In Night of the Living Dead, Ben relates his story: “I was alone with 50 or 60 of those things just standing there staring at me. I started to drive, just plowed right through them. […] Just wanted to crush them. They scattered through the air like bugs.” The television news refers to the zombies as “misshapen monsters, people who look like they’re in a trance, and creatures that look like people but behave like animals.” Dr. Milliard Rausch of Dawn of the Dead reports, “these creatures cannot be considered human […] these creatures are nothing but pure, motorized instinct.” The army doctors in Day of the Dead, experiment on zombies, attempt zombie behavior modification, chain zombies, and cage them, further suggesting the total dehumanization of the zombie population. Land of the Dead opens with a depiction of the zombies as carnivalesque; booths display garish signs: take your picture with a zombie, paintball shoot a zombie, gamble on a zombie. Kaufman, the human sovereign, abandons the zombies, referring to them as “mindless walking corpses,” and announcing to the zombies attempting to enter the city that they are not citizens, that they are abandoned, shouting: “you have no right, no right!” In addition to being depicted as subhuman, Romero’s zombies are further perceived as a bestial threat to the human population warranting immediate destruction. Zombies in all four films are depicted as infectious: if a zombie bites a victim, the victim becomes a zombie. Thus, the objective in Romero’s films is to prevent contact with zombies to cease the threat of infection in order to preserve the human population. Sarah, a scientist in Day of the Dead, attempts to prevent the zombie infection from spreading up her boyfriend Miguel’s arm through amputation and cauterization. Sheriff McClelland, in Night of the Living Dead, states remorselessly, “If you have a gun, shoot 'em [the zombies] in the head. That's a sure way to kill 'em. If you don't, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat 'em or burn 'em. They go up pretty easy […] they’re just dead flesh and dangerous.” Dr. Milliard Rausch, in Dawn of the Dead, announces on national television, “we must not be lulled by the concept that [zombies] are our family members or our friends. They are not. They will not respond to such emotions. They must be destroyed on sight!” And Dr. Foster emphasizes the zombie threat, “every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill! The “Army of the Green” in Land of the Dead sets up electric barriers to keep the zombie infection out, and guns down any approaching zombies. Ultimately, Romero’s depiction of the zombie versus human populations underscores an important parallel: that between the sovereign and the Homo Sacer. Romero blurs the distinction between his zombies (the abandoned) and his humans (the abandoners); throughout the series, the zombies grow more and more human, while the humans grow more and more dehumanized. In each of his films, Romero illustrates a political subtext that divides the humans into factions: black versus white, male versus female, military versus science, rich versus poor. In Night of the Living Dead, Cooper, a white man, antagonizes Ben, a black man, until Ben shoots human Cooper causing him to die and become a zombie. In Dawn of the Dead, Francine, a pregnant woman, is treated as inferior by her male counterparts, locked in the safe room without a gun to fend off attacks. Day of the Dead depicts Commander Rhodes gunning a human Dr. Logan down with an assault rifle due to an ongoing dispute between the scientists and the military. In Land of the Dead, wealthy Kaufman kills the poor and calls it “taking out the trash.” The zombies, in contrast, are a homogenous mass: black and white, male and female, military and science, rich and poor. They all hobble together after the same goal: flesh. And they are killed indiscriminately: black Ben is burned beside a nameless white zombie. As the movies progress, the zombies become more and more homogenous, rotting, and grotesque, and the viewer grows less and less able to distinguish a black zombie from a white one, a male from a female, an army sergeant from a doctor, a millionaire from a beggar. While the humans argue, growing less cohesive and less human, the zombies grow more organized, and more human. They learn how to use tools: bludgeons and rocks in Night of the Living Dead, but then telephones and razors and toothbrushes in Day of the Dead, and meat cleavers, pile drivers, and machine guns in Land of the Dead. The humans grow catatonic, while the zombies learn to emote. Barbara in Night of the Living Dead lies on the couch, staring blankly into the air as Ben screams frantically at her, “do you live here? Is there a key to the gas pump?” In contrast, Bub, a zombie in Day of the Dead, cries over Dr. Logan’s death. Land of the Dead’s Big Daddy zombie grows angry at the sight of zombies being used for target practice. Zombies hand each other tools, teach each other to fend off the human attacks. Land of the Dead’s Big Daddy teaches the other zombies to use guns, to walk under water, and not to be distracted by fireworks. Humans, however, treat each other like animals. Night of the Living Dead’s Ben is dragged away with hooks; his dehumanizing death scene contains no human contact. Sheriff McClelland sees a young couple burnt in a car and grins, “looks like somebody had a cookout here.” Dr. Logan in Day of the Dead yells at Commander Rhodes, “how are we going to set an example for [the zombies] if we behave barbarically ourselves?” The soldiers start fighting and yelling, grunting like animals, climbing over each other. Miguel, a soldier, needs to be sedated for attacking a woman, while the zombies begin to display what Dr. Logan refers to as “the bare beginnings of social behavior, of civilized behavior.” The blurring of the boundary between human and zombie is epitomized in the very final line in the final film of the series; Riley, a soldier, stops a tank from shooting the zombies left in the city, saying, “they’re just looking for a place to go. Same as us.” The blurred line between Romero’s humans and zombies is the predecessor for the blurred line between Agamben’s conception of the sovereign and the Homo Sacer. At first glance it would appear the sovereign and the Homo Sacer, like the zombie and the human, stand on opposite sides of the legal fence. The Homo Sacer is abandoned. The sovereign is instating the abandonment. The Homo Sacer is a wolf-man, already dead. The sovereign is human, and alive. However, the sovereign and the Homo Sacer are paralleled in that both exist inside and outside of the law. For Agamben, “the paradox of sovereignty consists in the fact that the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order” (Agamben 15). The sovereign both has the legal power to decide the law, and precedes the law in suspending it; thus he exists inside and outside the law. The Homo Sacer is abandoned by the law. Outside the law, he may be killed, like the zombie, with impunity in a Zone of Indistinction. Yet, it is the law itself that imbues the Homo Sacer with an identity. Only through the law, the designation of a Zone of Indistinction, is the Homo Sacer recognized as a Homo Sacer. Romero’s zombie films are Marcherey’s “broken mirror,” magnifying the zombie – the already dead Homo Sacer that not only can be killed with impunity, but must be killed because its very existence poses a threat – that Agamben theorizes is the linchpin of the workings of the law. And as Romero’s zombies and humans are likened in their humanness, or lack thereof, Agamben’s sovereign and Homo Sacer are likened in their relationship to the law.


Works Cited Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995. Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross. 1978. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2004. Day of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joseph Pilato, Jarlath Conroy. 1985. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2003. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume I. New York: Random House, Inc., 1978. Lacan, Jacques. Ecríts: A Selection. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1973. Land of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento. Universal, 2005. Macherey, Pierre. The Object of Literature. Trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Trans. Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15.1 (2003): 11-40. Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 1968. DVD. Elite Entertainment, 2002. Russell, Jamie. Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema. Surrey, England: FAB Press, 2005. Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.