Ruined Abjection and Allegory in Deadgirl

in Screen Bodies

Abstract

Deadgirl (2008) is a horror film that gained notoriety on the film-festival circuit for its disturbing premise: when a group of teenage social outcasts discover a naked female zombie strapped to a gurney in the basement of an abandoned asylum, they decide “to keep her” as a sex slave. Accordingly, two sites of monstrosity are staged—one with the monstrous-feminine and the other with monstrous masculinities. Insofar as the film explicitly exploits images of abjection to engender its perverse pleasures, it would seem to invite “abject criticism” in the tradition of Barbara Creed, Carol Clover, and colleagues. However, in light of recent critical appraisals about the limitations of “abject criticism,” this article reads Deadgirl as a cultural artifact that demands we reassess how abjection is critically referenced, arguing that—instead of reading abjection in terms of tropes and themes—we should read it in diachronic, allegorical ways, which do not reify into cultural representation.

Of all the films in contemporary zombie cinema, Deadgirl (2008) takes its place as an especially provocative and controversial film, lending it an almost instant cult status upon release. The disturbing scenario on which the horror is staged is relatively simple: Two teenage social outcasts—J.T. (Noah Segan) and Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez)—cut class one day and visit an abandoned asylum known as “the nut house.” After some initial “fun” drinking beer, vandalizing, and “raising hell” on the ground-level floors, they turn their explorations to its dark, subterranean recesses—the “tunnels” or the bowels of the institution through which, J.T. tells us, “the real dangerous patients” were escorted, too dangerous, presumably, to even see the light of day. At the end of one of these tunnels they discover a barricaded door that is not locked, but rusted shut. Driven by curiosity, and against Rickie’s pleas, J.T. clears the door and pries it open. In the dark room, they find a naked woman bound to a gurney and wrapped in plastic. As they approach the body, she appears to respire under the plastic. Despite Rickie’s insistent entreaties to free the girl and leave the asylum, J.T.—mesmerized by the girl’s beauty—suggests, with words that fix the film’s premise, “We could keep her.”

These words echo literally and metonymically throughout the entire film. Literally, Rickie echoes the suggestion, “What? Keep her man? What? J.T., man, keep her? J.T.! Keep her?” Metonymically, those words set the film’s moral mise-en-scène in motion and ultimately devour the lives of the film’s male protagonists. What follows is infamous. Rickie flees the scene, but J.T. brings him back the following day to recount the previous night’s ordeal. As he proceeded to rape the woman, he says, “She woke up.” As J.T. describes it, she began to bite at him “like an animal,” so he beat her until her neck broke, discovering she could not die. He demonstrates this to Rickie by shooting her twice in the abdomen, then naming her, simply, “Deadgirl.” He suggests to Rickie, “Sure, she’s some kind of monster, but she’s our monster.” From this point, the film plays out a disturbing and entropic portrait of the ruination of fragile masculinities predicated upon false political imaginaries of virility staged against abject tropes of the monstrous-feminine. As Annalee Newitz (2008) writes in a post titled “Zombie Feminism,” “Filmmakers Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel did not accidentally create a movie that dabbles in questions of how women are degraded by men. That’s basically the point of the story: Our vengeful zombie’s refusal to be raped and ruined is symbolic enough to provide social commentary, but grody enough to keep you entertained.”

First screened during a special “midnight madness” viewing at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, and gaining notoriety on the film-festival circuit, Deadgirl immediately elicited a cacophony of critical reviews that either hailed it as brilliant social commentary on productions of monstrous masculinity in patriarchal, heteronormative culture or panned it as the worst kind of misogynistic torture porn in the tradition of Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), or the Human Centipede (2009). While Newitz classifies the film as “zombie feminism,” a film status she affords also to Zombie Strippers (2008), other critics like Andrew O’Hehir (2009) argue, “[t]ry as you may to squeeze Deadgirl into some pseudo-feminist frame, it doesn’t quite fit.” Tracy Clark-Flory (2009) of Salon describes the film simply as “torture porn,” but she notes that her colleague Mary Elizabeth Williams describes the film as saying “something at times powerful about masculinity”—noting, “[t]he boys are picked on, they’re the bottom of the food chain. They have no future or power. So you get why they’re drawn to this literally underground world where they’re in control. It’s very much about anger and helplessness, and taking it out on someone even more helpless.” Vadim Rizov (2009), writing for the Village Voice, pans the film as “shitty” but nevertheless admits, “There’s actually something going on in Deadgirl; the initial ‘teen male sexual libido’ automatically equaling ‘sexual violence’ formulation goes in a slightly different, more intriguing direction.” Such divergent critical receptions, along with “rumors of outraged walkouts” in multiplexes and “a lascivious advertising campaign” (O’Hehir 2009), have only helped secure the cult status of the film, but they also testify to the kind of sustained, critical response that the film demands.

To date, however, the only real sustained theoretical treatment the film receives comes from an article by Steve Jones (2013): “Gender Monstrosity: Deadgirl and the Sexual Politics of Zombie-Rape.” Jones employs Deadgirl “as a case study” in order “to explore the ways in which the animated corpse relates to hegemonic gender tropes … and the political concerns that arise from representing femaleness as sexually vulnerable living-death” (526). In more broad terms, his stated aim is to render problematic “the specter of the female zombie” as “sexually passive yet monstrous,” while at the same time attending to “the conditions under which masculinity is formed” by adolescent boys “enacting sexual violence.” Jones’s analysis starts off well enough. For example, he acknowledges that Deadgirl’s sexual violence is “indicative of what is representationally acceptable within contemporary popular culture” and how such acceptance belongs “to an established cinematic lineage” of American horror films in which “rape is a common theme” (525). He also observes, rightfully, “[s]ince Deadgirl belongs to the zombie tradition, it is crucial to grasp how the film negotiates its heritage”—which he situates within a genealogy of contemporary films “that centralize sexual violence,” arguing that it is the “lead victim’s zombidom” that gives alibi to the “relative cultural acceptability” of the sexual violence dramatized in the film (526). Jones thus maneuvers to raise important questions “about selfhood, gender, identity politics and violence” in Deadgirl, developing a thoughtfully erudite reading of Deadgirl based, in part, on his own previous writing about feminism and “gendering the undead,” focused through an accounting of the film as a “case study” (see Jones 2011). Toward this end, Jones advances one key question central to his reading of the film: “Is Deadgirl a corpse (an object), or do her partial sentience and gender mean that Deadgirl is about rape rather than necrophilia? Is the zombie—an animated entity without consciousness—rape-able? How does the gendered zombie fit into an ideologically loaded history of femaleness?” (2013: 526).

Despite opening with some potentially provocative and critical expositions of “hegemonic gender tropes” at work in Deadgirl, it is rather surprising that Jones entirely neglects to address the question of abjection as a third term otherwise than corpse (as object) or zombie (as subject). This critical inattention to abjection seems due, in part, to the cinematic genealogy in which he situates Deadgirl. By articulating a genealogy of the zombie figure as progressively evolving in popular culture toward autonomy and subjectivity, Jones glosses over the film’s flagrant tropes of abjection, which the film readily exploits. This point is confirmed by the “cast and crew” commentary accompanying the film on DVD in which both co-directors, Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, insist the film is designed to take up such questions of feminine abjection and constructions of masculinity. Despite writer Trent Haaga’s own unchecked misogyny in this commentary, which Jones already calls out, the directors claim that ultimately the film “is about female empowerment.” Thus, we have a film which, on the surface, announces itself as feminist and rationalizes itself as such by appeal to tropes of abjection and the monstrous-feminine that purportedly aim to destabilize and subvert productions of masculinity within patriarchal and phallogocentric signifying economies. Jones rightfully questions some of the feminist claims asserted in the “cast and crew” commentary; nevertheless, he avoids meeting the film precisely on the terms of abjection it so explicitly stages.

It is abundantly clear that Deadgirl mobilizes and exploits pictures of abjection in order to induce disgust and horror. No reading of the film should evade this aspect of its production, if only for the reason that zombie cinematic history has always exploited tropes of human abjection. But the film’s directors also seem to invite, even if in critically undeveloped ways, a reading of the film premised on what has come to be known as “abject criticism.” The concern, though, is that the filmmakers’ claims toward subversive and emancipatory ends only reinforce a masculine “political imaginary” predicated on perverse blurring of fantasy and horror. The relation between the film’s genre and its gender trouble do not map so easily onto these narratives of empowerment and critique, and the claim to “female empowerment” is undercut, in part, by the fact the film tells nothing about female desire. If, as Sue Thornham writes, “[t]he function of the horror film for a patriarchal culture … is to stage and re-stage confrontations with and repudiations of, the monstrous-feminine” (1999: 231), then exploiting tropes of abjection can become, itself, a monstrous endeavor. At once, then, there is a conundrum for the filmmakers: While they deploy purposive tropes of abjection in order to offer a commentary of “female empowerment” as analysis of adolescent masculinities in popular culture, the “idea that the abject is something that can be represented (or even deliberately created, as in ‘abject art’) would be nonsensical in Kristeva’s account, where the abject is resolutely prior to and in excess of language and meaning” (Tyler 2009: 82). The question guiding this reading of the film, then, is the question of how this film negotiates tropes of abjection—staged at the blurred lines of fantasy and horror toward some morally purposive allegory of “female empowerment”—with an altogether different economy of abjection that disrupts such restricted economies precisely because they cannot be brought to the level of representation.

In what follows, I bring three critical maneuvers to this reading of Deadgirl. First, I raise a question about the diachrony of abjection by negotiating Deadgirl’s cinematic genealogy. To some extent, this maneuver follows Jones’s attempt to account for the film’s “heritage,” but Jones neglects to consider how figures of abjection are uniquely exploited by zombie cinema and thus neglects, altogether, to assess the quality of allegory attending such abjection. Next, I consider the film in light of what has come to be called “abject criticism” (Tyler 2009), which emerged in the 1980s, stirred by Julia Kristeva’s ubiquitous Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982) and Barbara Creed’s critical deployment of these tropes—first in her essay, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection” (1986) and later in her book, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993). However, as Tyler warns, the “theoretical life of ‘the abject’” must itself be brought under critical scrutiny. The ubiquity of abject criticism, Tyler warns, “[risks] reproducing, rather than challenging, histories of violent disgust toward maternal bodies” (2009: 77). I then renew considerations of abjection at play in Deadgirl by drawing from Tina Chanter’s comprehensive and erudite book, The Picture of Abjection: Film, Fetish, and the Nature of Difference, in which she affords the abject its compelling productive possibilities while, at the same time, not confusing what Martin Matuštik describes as “historical shapes of human abjection” with “an ontologically psychic structure of being human” (2008: 17). Toward this latter end, I look to ways that abjection can be taken up, not in representational terms—as, indeed, even Kristeva argues—but in a general economy of allegory, as a kind of writing of disaster. Economies of abjection, I argue, are driven by sacrificial economies—not unlike those diagnosed by René Girard (1977, 2001) and Sandor Goodhart (2014). In this way, I advance a reading of Deadgirl that emphasizes, like so much provocative zombie cinema, a screen-body relation (of general economy) irreducible to a screen-theme relation (of restricted economy). In the final instance, I call for a cinematic encounter indexed to what Emmanuel Levinas (1989) calls a “consciousness termed hearing” as a way of destabilizing the force of representation given cover by the persistence of abject criticism.

A Diachrony of Abjection: Negotiating Deadgirl’s Cinematic Genealogy

Jones is right that, in reading Deadgirl, we must “negotiate [the film’s] heritage,” so it is important how we articulate this genealogy. Writing for Variety, Peter Debruge (2008) notes how Deadgirl joins “the recent trend of zombie movies that never identify themselves as such.” Indeed, at one point in the DVD’s “cast and crew” commentary, the filmmakers briefly debate about whether or not the film is a zombie movie. One of the directors observes, “Really, the villains and all these antagonists are guys,” and he goes on to say that the film is about “exploring the darkness” we all have within us. It is an interesting tension that develops, then, between J.T. insisting that Deadgirl is “some kind of monster, but she’s our monster” and the commentary of the filmmakers who identify the male antagonists as the film’s monsters. But this confusion of whether the more egregious monstrosity issues from the undead corpse or the human attempt to eradicate, enslave, or rape the corpse is a tension that has always been at the heart of zombie cinema. Moreover, zombie cinema, from its inception and in a variety of ways, has consistently exploited tropes of human abjection. As Kyle Bishop has noted, the genealogy of the zombie figure—unlike other monsters such as the vampire—is not born of literary antecedents but, specifically, of film—as a screen body: “Traditional zombie movies have no direct antecedent in the written word because of the monsters’ essentially visual nature; zombies don’t think or speak—they simply act” (2006: 196). The figure of the zombie—as a distinctive embodiment of horror—has historically reveled in the exploitation of abjection tropes that cinema uniquely occasions.

To negotiate a genealogy of zombie films, then, is to discern a diachrony of abjection. By not attending to matters of abjection, the questions Jones poses lose critical prospective. Jones observes that, despite its “surprisingly varied forms,” what defines the zombie is its “undeadness”—its “corpse-like yet animated nature.” He goes on to quote Kevin Boon as writing, “the zombie is incapable of examining self. It is emptied of being”—an observation Jones describes as an “archetypal view” of zombies that “downplays how the zombie has changed since its classic incarnations in films such as White Zombie (1932) and Night of the Living Dead (1968).” Jones notes how zombie fiction changed significantly in the 1980s as the zombie’s horror “no longer issues from the monster’s presence—manifesting the evacuated self—but instead arises from humans becoming zombies.” According to Jones, in light of this developing concern for the horror of “crossing the living/dead threshold” and the “fragile life-death boundary,” portrayals of zombies have shifted so that “zombies have become distinctly more like their living counterparts—subjects rather than corpses” (emphasis added). Citing Sorcha Ni Fhlainn, Jones observes how “zombies are frequently more akin to ‘average people who are experiencing mental anguish’ than mindless animated flesh” (2013: 526). Jones thus situates Deadgirl within a genealogy of zombie films that increasingly affords zombies a kind of subjectivity, which he describes specifically as a kind of “autonomy” (527). By moving from corpses to subjects, Jones fails to account for zombie cinema’s long history of exploiting the abject as a screen-body and not just as a screen-theme.

If the figure of the zombie emerges through an exploitation of tropes of abjection made uniquely possible by cinema, then reconfiguring Jones’s genealogy is crucial to understanding why abjection matters in reading Deadgirl. Especially since George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), zombies increasingly come to resemble their living counterparts. In fact, Romero—without a lot of allegorical subtlety—states in every one of his Dead films, “We are them, and they are us.” Insofar as the zombie “refers chiefly to its own cinematic iterations” (Fay 2008: 82), Romero’s sentiment is also reiterated, to varying degrees of subtlety, throughout zombie cinematic history. Films like Shaun of the Dead (2004) or Fido (2006) satirically dramatize ways by which zombies “become distinctly more like their living counterparts.” At the same time, films like Day of the Dead (1985), 28 Days Later (2002), or Land of the Dead (2005) dramatize this loss of difference between monstrous humanity and monstrous zombies in reverse, where attempts to eradicate the monster engenders a monstrosity of its own within humanity.

Zombie films historically exploit, in satirical and horrifying ways, this loss of differentiation between humans and zombies, but Jones wants to bracket abjection and read this proximity as a way of staging “the possibility of zombie autonomy” (2013: 527). He writes, “even where zombies demonstrate self-awareness, their zombie-dom means they are still perceived as ‘others’ by their living counterparts. Zombie fiction’s living characters stubbornly overlook the possibility of zombie autonomy despite evidence to the contrary, simply because zombies are zombies” (526–527). By not attending to the mobilization of abjection that zombie cinema exploits, Jones moves in one breath from the status of zombie as corpse (object) to the status of zombie as agent (subject), without attending either to the abject zombie or the deject human.1 One motivation for such a critical maneuver is that, for Jones, we must read the sexual violence of Deadgirl as “zombie-rape” as opposed to “necrophilia”: “Comparing zombie-rape to necrophilia makes it clear that the zombie, unlike the corpse, has subjectivity.” He goes on to write how, in contrast to the corpse of necrophilia, “[t]he zombie … lays some claim to autonomy—however partial—since they express desires (chiefly, anthropophagical) of their own” (528). By reading Deadgirl more in terms of rape than necrophilia, the offensiveness of the film’s sexual violence is aggravated—a point with which I do not disagree. But by ignoring how the film’s sexual violence is predicated on economies of abjection, Jones misses out on a more terrifying aspect of the film. It’s not just that the sexual violence of Deadgirl becomes more egregious if we distinguish zombie-rape from necrophilia; it’s that—occasioned precisely by the operations of abjection—rape and necrophilia are utterly and monstrously confused in the body of Deadgirl. The invisible modalities of abjection enable this confusion and give it alibi.

To comprehensively account for Deadgirl’s cinematic genealogy, then, requires not only that we give attention to ways by which zombie films negotiate varying economies of abjection but also that we give a critical accounting for diverse ways by which each cinematic iteration enacts a different quality of the allegorical. In early incarnations of the zombie, such as White Zombie (1932), much of the horror issues from the real possibility of becoming a slave in a neocolonial political economy, which subsequently affords the monster’s presence a kind of sorrow, even tragic pity. With Romero, however, the horror of the zombie issues from the monster’s presence, but it is a presence, as return, of the uncanny and the abject (Bishop 2006: 200). Much of the horror in Romero’s films thus issues dialectically, starting with the monsters’ presence but then shifting to human attempts to eradicate such monstrosity. Human society’s response to the presence of the monster—its failure to negotiate the seductions of abjection—becomes monstrous. Deadgirl, in remarkable ways, manages to exploit both these scenarios of horror. In White Zombie, for instance, the female protagonist—Madeline Parker (Madge Bellamy)—is transformed into a zombie by a jealous suitor for specifically sexual purposes. Since this sexual transformation is also involved in Deadgirl, Madeline and Deadgirl are both situated as the monstrous-feminine at the threshold of fantasy/horror within patriarchal cultures. At the same time, as in Romero’s films, the adolescent males of Deadgirl, despite their specific reference to Deadgirl as “our monster,” clearly dramatize the film’s most egregious monstrosity. Zombie cinema has, in ways as various as the zombie figure itself, focused tropes of abjection through various moral apertures of allegory.

But if Jennifer Fay is correct in observing that the zombie “refers chiefly to its own cinematic iterations,” then there is one iteration that is not accounted for in Jones’ genealogy which is crucial for transforming our reading (and seeing) abjection as mere trope—which adopts a reductive notion of allegory in the sense that Coleridge invokes—to an encounter with abjection as a fundamental modality of signifying economies, which adopts a sense of allegory in Walter Benjamin’s sense. The missing component of Jones’s genealogy, which is a historically important cinematic iteration of the zombie, is constituted in the work of the renowned Italian director, Lucio Fulci. While Fulci’s portfolio is diverse in its own right, his Zombi 2 (1979) and The Beyond (1981) have become cult classics in zombie cinema. Both films require and exploit a different quality of seeing when it comes to staging their respective nightmarish and incoherent mise-en-scène that revolts the viewer. Both films offer only a “heap of broken images,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase, and resolutely refuse to offer any kind of moral-allegorical consolation in the way Romero’s films tend to offer, however subtle. With Fulci, we get the total ruination of thought. The carnival of abjection is irreducible to theme or trope. Like Benjamin’s ekphrasis on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, Fulci’s zombie films amount to one single catastrophe in which he keeps piling “wreckage upon wreckage” and hurling it before our eyes. And like so many angels of history, we would like to perceive a chain of events, discover something like a screen-theme over and against the violence of its screen-bodies, but we get no such consolation. In this wreckage of thought, I discern a wrecked vision—one which transforms abjection from mere trope to abjection as modality of signifying economies. In reading Deadgirl, this iteration of abjection that Fulci occasions must be recovered.

Tropes of Abjection: Deadgirl’s Staging of the Monstrous-Feminine

Deadgirl revels in images of abjection as it stages tropes of the monstrous-feminine. Perhaps this paradoxical embrace is best exhibited by comparing the film’s advertising poster with the cover of Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993). Both images feature a woman’s parted lips turned sideways in effort to exploit vaginal suggestions. In the case of Deadgirl, the lips are reddish gray, invoking the deadness of the girl, with the tagline, “You never forget your first time.” Creed’s book features ruby red lips parted slightly to reveal teeth, invoking the mythic fear of the vagina dentata. In both cases, tropes of the monstrous-feminine are explicitly invoked in ways that invite a reading of one through the other under the terms of what Tyler (2009) calls, borrowing from Deborah Covino, “abject criticism.”2 Reading Deadgirl through Creed’s analytic, moreover, is entirely in line with trends over the past thirty years that excavate and read tropes of abjection at the intersection of gender anxieties and horror films (Clover 1992; Creed 1993; Grant 1996).

In order to make the move from tropes of abjection to economies of abjection, it is necessary to briefly recount Creed’s influence on reading horror films through “abject criticism,” which has come to dominate the culture of horror cinema. According to Creed, Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror (1982) “provides us with a preliminary hypothesis” for “an analysis of the representation of woman as monstrous in horror film” (Creed 1986: 252; Thornham 1999: 231). Creed begins with an oft-quoted first description of the abject by Kristeva as “the place where meaning collapses” (1986: 252). Abjection—as “that which does not ‘respect borders, positions, rules’” is “that which ‘disturbs identity, system, order’” (Kristeva 1982: 4; Creed 1986: 252). The abject threatens life, or identity, and must be “radically excluded” and “propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self.” That which is expelled, or abjected, both threatens the identity of the self and helps define the self. In this sense the abject must “be tolerated” (Creed 1986: 252). Creed’s concern is to evaluate how abjection “works on the socio-cultural arena” by examining, specifically, how “the horror film would appear to be, in at least three ways, an illustration of the work of abjection” (253).

First, she writes, “the horror film abounds in images of abjection, foremost of which is the corpse, whole and mutilated, followed by an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears and putrifying flesh”—all of which Deadgirl abounds in. Second, Creed points to “the concept of the border”—noting how the abject is “that which crosses or threatens to cross the border” (253). Abjection as monstrous—in this sense—is reiterated by Jeffrey Cohen in his “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” where he writes that the monster is “the harbinger of category crisis” and constitutes a dangerous “form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions” (1996: 6). Similarly, Creed claims that “the function of the monstrous remains … to bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability” (1986: 253). Third, Creed argues that “the horror film illustrates the work of abjection” by referring “to the construction of the maternal figure as abject.” Highlighting ways by which Kristeva views “the mother-child relation as one marked by conflict”—because the “maternal body becomes a site of conflicting desires” as the child “attempts to break away,” rendering the mother abject—Creed reads certain horror films (Psycho, Carrie, The Birds) as dramatizing this staging of the maternal body in its monstrous abjection. In these films, she writes, “the maternal figure is constructed as the monstrous-feminine. By refusing to relinquish her hold on her child, she prevents it from taking up its proper place in relation to the Symbolic” (254).

Building on these three ways by which horror films exploit “images of abjection,” Creed writes, “Images of blood, vomit, pus, shit, etc. are central to our culturally/socially constructed notions of the horrific. They signify a split between two orders: the maternal authority [which is an authority without guilt or shame] and the law of the father,” constituting a universe of shame. As much as these images of abjection threaten the identity of the subject properly constituted in relation to the symbolic, they also signify a perverse pleasure by “breaking the taboo on filth” and “returning to that time when the mother-child relationship was marked by untrammelled pleasure in ‘playing’ with the body and its wastes.” Such images of abjection can play out “for the protagonist in the text and the spectator in the cinema,” she writes. “The modern horror film often ‘plays’ with its audience, saturating it with scenes of blood and gore, deliberately pointing to the fragility of the symbolic order in the domain of the body which never ceases to signal the repressed world of the mother” (256). Thus, for Creed, horror films produce a unique “screen-spectator relationship” staged at the “sight/site of the monstrous within the horror text.” She notes how, in contrast to “conventional” cinematic experiences that work “to suture the spectator into the viewing process,” horror films actively work to undo these “suturing processes.” Here, she refers “to those moments in the horror film when the spectator, unable to stand the image of horror unfolding before his/her eyes, is forced to look away, to not-look anywhere but the screen. Strategies of identification are temporarily broken, as the spectator is constructed in the place of horror, the place where the sight/site can no longer be endured, the place where … the spectator is punished for his/her voyeuristic desires” (262). By looking away, the spectator preserves or reconstitutes a sense of self, which is in danger of regressing.

The point in recounting Creed’s work on abjection is not to offer explication of her descriptions of the monstrous-feminine but to evince how common such tropes of abjection have become. Today, “as one of the most influential texts on abject criticism” (Tyler 2009: 83), it receives a great deal of critical attention and continues to exert significant critical influence in ways both insightful and banal. One could easily employ a textbook reading of Deadgirl according to such “abject criticism,” as the film purposely exploits the perverse pleasures of abjection at the sight/site of the monstrous-feminine. Beyond the parallel covers of Creed’s book and the film’s poster, Deadgirl performs all the various “illustrations” of the work of abjection (1986: 253). It revels in the abject—beginning literally, like Kristeva’s essay, with a corpse, one that suffers increasing mutilation under the violence of successive rape. At one point, J.T. even fingers one of the bullet holes in her abdomen and suggests sexually molesting it, as he applies pressure to ejaculate the wound’s pus. In accord with Creed’s “abject criticism,” the film stages disruptive encounters between symbolic orders of adolescent social life and the abject economies through which J.T. and Wheeler act out their masculine imaginaries. And it certainly exploits constructions of the maternal figure as abject. In fact, curious enough, the rusted doors that J.T. has to pry through to get to the room in which Deadgirl is stored is barricaded, literally, with incubators—a point that has drawn a lot of commentary online. Yet, as Sue Thornham observes, all this concern for abjection reveals “a great deal about male fears and desires—including the perverse desire for the collapse of boundaries—but tells us nothing about female desire” (1999: 232). The question remains, then, in what ways are we served by “abject criticism”—even if the film so conspicuously trades in such illustrations?

In a compelling essay titled “Against Abjection,” Imogen Tyler scrutinizes “the theoretical life of ‘the abject’”—arguing, “[w]hilst the abject has proved a compelling and productive concept for feminist theory … employing a Kristevan abject paradigm risks reproducing, rather than challenging, histories of violent disgust towards maternal bodies” (2009: 77). All one has to do is listen to the “cast and crew” commentary on the Deadgirl DVD—constituted by eight different men and not a single woman—to get a sense of how, despite claims that the film is about “female empowerment,” Tyler’s concern is legitimated. Without at all minimalizing Kristeva’s contributions to theories of abjection, Tyler argues that, while “many philosophical and psychoanalytic concepts have been developed by feminist theorists in ways that are distinct from and even work against their original context and/or intention, rarely has a concept as influential as abjection been consistently misrecognized as feminist in origin.” According to Tyler, the abject, as it circulates in feminist theories, is an “Anglo-feminist concept/invention” which, “with few notable exceptions,” remains “peculiarly obedient to the matricidal logic of Kristeva’s theory” (82).

Accordingly, Tyler avers two “genres” of Anglo-feminist theory that advance “the abject maternal”: (1) “theoretical and philosophical exegesis of Kristeva’s theory of abjection” and (2) “a body of literature that applies her theory of abjection to specific areas of cultural production.” This latter “abject criticism” is the target of her critique as it has enabled the popular idea that “the abject is something that can be represented (or even deliberately created, as in ‘abject art’)” (82). Kristeva’s account of abjection “is resolutely prior to and in excess of language and meaning”: “the abject is formless, pre-symbolic and un-representable” (83). Yet feminist theorists who adopt “abject criticism” seek “instances of the abject maternal within culture in order to explore, challenge and, in some instances, ‘reclaim’ misogynistic depictions of women as abject … variously exposing, disrupting and/or transcoding the historical and cultural associations between women’s bodies, reproduction and the abject” (82). Tyler quotes Covino as arguing, “[a] focus on shared abjection … allows us to continue to historicize and confront constructions of woman as objectified, mortified flesh, as well as to qualify our inspired hopes of throwing off such flesh” (85). However, Tyler is suspect of these claims, and she questions whether “affirming representations of abjection” can really serve the kind of contestary and transformative potential that abject criticism aspires to effect. Her concern is that claims of such “affirmative abjection” reproduce the cultural production of women as abject and thus, by advancing cultural representations of the abject maternal, reproduce real and concrete violences against maternal bodies. “Abject criticism,” accordingly, risks reproducing a lived abjection against actual maternal bodies.

Although Tyler does not, in her article, take up the other genre of theory she identifies as advancing the “abject maternal”—namely, “theoretical and philosophical exegesis of Kristeva’s theory of abjection”—we can turn to Tina Chanter’s The Picture of Abjection: Film, Fetish, and the Nature of Difference (2008) as just such a resource. Chanter shares some of Tyler’s critique about “abject criticism” as it seeks “cultural representations” of the abject, but Chanter is more charitable than Tyler in eliciting the critical potentialities of Kristeva’s theory of abjection. Like Tyler, Chanter warns, “the construction of the maternal body as abject might be read as inseparable from the devaluation of motherhood that pervades the postindustrialist capitalist logics of modernity.” She also questions the feminist origins of abjection by noting, “we should not take for granted that Kristeva’s privileging of the maternal body as abject is innocent of the pervasive sexism that infects psychoanalytic theory.” Nevertheless, Chanter reserves hope in the critical potentiality of abjection by noting, “the import of Kristeva’s reading of abjection in Powers of Horror—even if it derives in part from a logic that sometimes participates in, or is complicit with, the abjection of the feminine—resides in the opportunity it opens up to go beyond the privileging of … oedipal logic, replete with the patriarchal heterosexism constitutive of that logic” (2008: 20). Toward this end, Chanter reserves similar aspiration as Mary Russo—who, in The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity—recognizes that, although the “temporary loss of boundaries tends to redefine social frames,” such transgression is “inevitably set back on course”—a critical point “strengthened and enlarged by historical analysis” (1994: 58). Still, like Chanter, Russo maintains that “[t]he extreme difficulty of producing lasting social change does not diminish the usefulness of these symbolic models of transgression” (58).

Chanter ultimately maintains that Kristeva’s theory of abjection “can be taken up as a productive intervention into film theory” (2008: 18). At the same time, such possibility must move “beyond the emphasis on horror as thematic,” arguing that abjection “provides not so much an alternative to the governing trope of fetishism in interpreting the cinematic apparatus, as it does an acknowledgement of the remainder that is disavowed” (83). By moving abjection toward a “theory of art” beyond the thematic, one can “remobilize the remnant posited as outside the phallic system of representation” which such thematics serve. Citing Krauss, Chanter recognizes—like Tyler—how “abjection has been invoked in ways that insists on ‘themes and substances’ … and that abject art tends to thematize ‘the marginalized, the traumatized, the wounded, as an essence that is feminine by nature, and deliquescent by substance’” (2008: 83; see also Krauss 1996). We, then, must take up the question of abjection not through a concern for the abject as trope or theme but as economy. When we transform critical appraisals of abjection in this way, it occasions a radically different starting point for how we conceive of allegory and opens qua abjection (as economy) a more subversive critical potential.

Abjection and Allegory: On the Prophetic Logic of Monstrum

In her “Concluding Reflections” from The Picture of Abjection, Tina Chanter advances a critical direction for film theory:

Film theory has tended to emphasize either the ways in which film facilitates identification, how it covers over any dissonance, to produce harmonious narrative flow in keeping with the fantasy of the director, or how it disrupts that identification. When such disruptions have been the focus … whatever distanciation is explored tends to dislocate the pleasure of fantasy. What matters, however, is how disruptions of affective identification translate into disjunctive relationships that symbolically appropriate social and political norms, or how affective identifications are effected that harbor the possibility of rearranging more permanently our ways of seeing.

(2008: 276)
In order to “rearrange more permanently our ways of seeing,” we have to take up abjection not as cultural representation (Tyler 2009: 82) or thematic (Chanter 2008: 83)—but as “formless, pre-symbolic and un-representable” (Tyler 2009: 83). I share with Tyler and Chanter a concern for the limitations of “abject criticism” when it assumes its critical perspective through the language of tropes, themes, and representations. If the “semiotic address” put in motion by economies of abjection is to disrupt “normative identifications” in tension with “prevailing symbolic forms” (Chanter 2008: 276), it will have to wreck these economies. Toward this end, I want to argue that we can appeal to a certain sense of allegory—not as mere trope or figure of speech, but in a more radical Benjaminian sense as the ruination of thought (2008: 180). In reading Deadgirl, then, we must begin by contending with the tropes of abjection insofar as they are exploited and put on full display, but we also must attend to the economies of abjection that give shape to this ruination.

In “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Cohen asserts, “The monster’s body is a cultural body”—adding, “The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read.” To this first thesis, Cohen adds three points worth parsing out here. First, “The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place … literally [incorporating] fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy … giving them life and an uncanny independence.” Second, etymologically, the word monster—from monstrum—means “‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns.’” Third, “the monster signifies something other than itself: it is always a displacement, always inhabits the gap between the time of upheaval that created it and the moment into which it is received, to be born again.” Exactly as Deadgirl dramatizes at the end of the film, when she escapes the asylum basement and flees into the night, Cohen claims the monster “always rises from the … table as its secrets are about to be revealed and vanishes into the night” (1996: 4).

Cohen’s notion that the monster exists only to be read, born as an embodiment of a cultural moment and revealing something to us about ourselves, is an important insight to bring to a reading of Deadgirl that dislocates critical attention from mere tropes of abjection to the economies of abjection, which constitute its upheaval. This notion of monstrum as “that which reveals” is connected to the meanings of two other entangled terms: apocalypse and the prophetic. “Apocalypse” comes from the verb apokalypto, which means “to reveal.” Similarly “the prophetic” refers to “that which will reveal,” as Sandor Goodhart explains: “The prophetic … is the recognition of the dramas in which human beings are engaged and the naming in advance of the end of those dramas in order that [we] may choose whether to go there or not” (2014: 230). Furthermore, Goodhart argues the apocalyptic and the prophetic, historically, were not diametrically at odds as they are portrayed in contemporary popular accounts. Rather, the apocalyptic was understood as a moment within the prophetic. It is a modality of the prophetic. To the extent that zombie cinema frequently exploits scenes of abjection and apocalypse—and keeping in mind Cohen’s point on the etymology of monstrum as “that which reveals”—there are rich allegorical economies of signification here, which we can draw from in ways that allow us to read films like Deadgirl prophetically, in order to reveal how underlying economies of signification and abjection already effectuate how we see.

For Goodhart, prophetic readings are irreducibly allegorical in the sense of Benjamin. Like Benjamin, the starting point of such allegorical appraisal is disaster, the pile of “wreckage upon wreckage” (1969: 257). I want to tie allegory in this sense—as opposed to allegory as mere figure of speech or trope—to a writing of disaster. Deadgirl, as an embodiment of a cultural moment incorporating fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy, stages multiple sites/sights of abjection between the monstrosity of the monstrous-feminine and the monstrosity of masculinity. But these multiple sites of monstrosity are related insofar as they are situated not just in a synchronic carnival of abject tropes on display but by a genealogy (diachrony) of abjection. “Abject criticism,” by relying on reductive logics of the trope, misses something about this diachrony of abjection which an allegory of disaster can anticipate. Indeed, the word “allegory” comes from allos (“other”) and agoreuein (“to speak”) (Clifford 2010: 99). In this sense, allegory occurs when an “Other” story is inscribed within the one being told—one that destabilizes or supplements the more obvious one. But this “Other” story, like abjection, is “the unspeakable, the unviable, the nonnarrativizable that secures … the very borders of materiality” (Butler 1993: 188; Tyler 2009: 86). The diachrony of abjection is thus always haunted, and we adumbrate its monstrous economies through allegory (born) of disaster.3

Toward this end, Tyler appeals to Judith Halberstam to identify where “abject criticism” fails, a point we can tie to my concern for shifting from allegory-as-trope of abjection to allegory-as-economy of abjection in all its diachrony. Tyler argues—in “abject criticism”—it is not “individual maternal bodies and beings per se that are most often identified as abject within feminist analysis of literature, art, and film … but rather the representation of dismembered reproductive body parts … which are imagined as ‘the scene of horror’” (2009: 86). She adds, “it is the deconstruction of woman into her messiest and most slippery parts, images of the reproductive body grotesquely unraveled which constitute the maternal (as) monstrous” (2009: 86). Tyler quotes Halberstam in a passage that could almost be used to describe the progressive mutilation of Deadgirl herself: “The female monster is a pile of remains, the leftover material … she does not signify in her own body the power of horror” (Halberstam 1995: 52; Tyler 2009: 86). In other words, “it is only ‘once a woman has … been stripped of all signs’ of identity’ that she is reduced to a shapeless, bloody abject mass’” (Halberstam 1995: 47; Tyler 2009: 86). Indeed, Deadgirl occupies precisely this situation insofar as her origins and identity are entirely erased. Rickie and Wheeler might inquire where she came from, but that concern is poignantly dismissed outright by J.T. Tyler’s critique of abject criticism and Chanter’s renewal of its critical potential in light of criticisms she shares with Tyler require that we shift our reading from reveling in the abject as trope and taking it up in its diachronic, allegorical dimensions. As Tyler declares in startling succinctness, “What these theoretical and cultural phantasies of ‘fleshy maternal horror’ depend on is a radical dismembering and/or disavowal of maternal subjectivity” (2009: 86).

In his analysis, Jones neglects to take up abjection altogether even though tropes of abjection are so flagrantly exploited by the filmmakers. In doing so, he posits corpse (object) against zombie (subject), despite the fact that ascribing subjectivity and autonomy to Deadgirl is problematic. He then distinguishes necrophilia as sexual violence against a corpse from zombie-rape as sexual violence against Deadgirl. If we take up abjection diachronically, however, and follow Tyler’s critique of “abject criticism,” the “fleshy horror” of Deadgirl is the sight/site in which necrophilia and rape become confused, not distinguished. The subjectivity that Jones wants to afford Deadgirl, as the living-dead strapped to the gurney, comes not by “negotiating” a heritage of zombie cinema in which zombies and their living counter-parts increasingly come to resemble one another. Her subjectivity has already been stripped, mutilated, disavowed—who knows when. The real horror of Deadgirl, then, lies in what is not brought to representation in tropes of abjection—indeed what cannot be brought to representation. Prior to our “turning away” in disgust at images of abjection on the screen, what is revealed to us in taking up the prophetic logic of monstrum is that our vision is already wrecked.

Conclusion: “Rearranging More Permanently Our Ways of Seeing”

Lucio Fulci singularly understood the extent to which our vision, our ways of seeing, is already wrecked. For Fulci, the spectacle of abjection on the screen signifies nothing but the uselessness of suffering and its irreducibility to theme and representation. Fulci gives us allegory as monstrum—as a complete wreckage of thought. For Fulci, there is only the screen-body relation without recourse to a screen-theme thinking. In one especially telling scene in his Zombi 2 (1979), for example, a zombie pursues a woman who becomes trapped behind a slotted door. As the zombie attempts to break through the door in a long scene that drags on, the door becomes splintered. With an uncanny burst of movement, the zombie manages to reach through the splintered door, grab her by the hair, and pull her head forward so that her eye, in an excruciatingly long scene, is gouged out on a shard of wood. The eyeball pops with puss in a close-up shot just before the shard of wood breaks off to remain lodged irremediably in the woman’s eye socket. Exploiting images of abjection and horror, Fulci does more than merely force us to avert our eyes from the screen in disgust. He literalizes the extent to which our ways of seeing are always already ruined. With Fulci’s zombie films, there is only ever a heap—to borrow from T. S. Eliot—“of broken images.”

To shift from a reading of abjection as mere trope with its momentary disturbances in the Symbolic order to a general economy of signification more suitable to permanently rearranging our ways of seeing means shifting from what Emmanuel Levinas calls a “consciousness of seeing” to a “consciousness termed hearing” (1989: 147). Levinas is not alone in critiquing a consciousness of seeing. Maurice Blanchot notes, as well, that philosophical traditions are predicated on models of knowledge metaphorized around notions of visibility and seeing. In cultural studies and critical theory, this critique of a “consciousness of seeing” is employed in critiquing identity politics and cultural formations established according to a struggle for recognition. Kelly Oliver (2001), among others, calls on a form of bearing witness “beyond recognition”—which is precisely what Levinas calls for in one of his last essays, “Diachrony and Representation.” In all of these critical instances, new “ways of seeing” are called for that take as their starting points not the glancing away from fetishistic tropes of abjection but a sustained witnessing in the wake of disaster, despite a vision already ruined by economies of abjection that cannot be brought into representation. Yet, especially with cinema, we must contend with representation. The question is whether we take up the images of abjection from the point of view of a consciousness of seeing or a consciousness termed hearing. The former delights in tropes of abjection and in the glee of turning away. The latter already acknowledges its own ruination.

René Girard (1977, 2001) goes a long way toward enlarging Kristeva’s psychoanalysis in anthropological terms—and his student, Sandor Goodhart, helps shift this framework toward a consciousness of hearing. With Girard, we finally get a full sense of how abjection—played across the indexes of desire, sacrifice, and scapegoating—is at the core process of social identity formation. In terms of reading Deadgirl, we thus arrive at two concerns. First, J.T. and Rickie, as the main male characters of the film, are already rejected “losers” who fail to get the girls of their desire in school. They suffer an abjection that leads them toward a re-masculinization and re-subjectification by making Deadgirl their own abject. Subsequently, a fascistic macho bondage works in sharing the same woman as the sign of being a man—and, despite Rickie “saving” her from J.T., he ends up taking J.T.’s position after J.T.’s death, re-inscribing the same restricted economies of violence. Second, a general economy of abjection goes far beyond taking up maternal/female bodies as a central trope. For example, the origin and identity of Deadgirl is already erased, dismissed in the film, and cannot be represented in tropes of abjection. Deadgirl’s identity is never disclosed—and although Rickie gestures weakly toward some question about Deadgirl’s identity, it matters little because a pervasive process of abjection is already at work in the formation of social identity. This pervasive process of abjection is both affected by and constitutive of ways of seeing titillated by tropes of abjection. Thus, as Fulci dramatizes, our vision is already wrecked. And as Chanter argues, we need to attend to pictures of abjection in ways that can more permanently rearrange our ways of seeing.

Curiously, in the film, there is a moment where this other kind of seeing—this seeing within a consciousness of hearing—is potentially occasioned. When J.T. and Rickie first encounter Deadgirl, strapped to the gurney and covered in plastic, a remarkable yet subtle thing occurs: She appears to respire. It happens not just once, but twice; as the camera closes in on just her still-shrouded lips, the plastic sheeting gently heaves first in exhale and then with inhale. What can we make of this apparent respiration? After all, zombies don’t respire. In Romero’s Land of the Dead, an entire army of zombies marches unseen underwater at night through a municipal river to invade the cordoned city on the other side. Why, then, do the filmmakers specifically draw attention to Deadgirl’s breathing? What occasions this uncanny respiration? Is it just corporeal memory? Romero, for example, is fond of insisting that zombies have no instincts or drives; they have only memory. Does Deadgirl reflexively respire in accord with her body’s memory of breath? Whatever prompts this apparent respiration, it is remarkable moment on the screen. In the film’s most subtle moment, I want to argue, we witness the first gesture of another kind of seeing.

Emmanuel Levinas writes that the first movement of phenomenology is neither intentionality nor aspiration—but inspiration, which he links to the literalness of respiration, whereby the body is “the distinctive in-oneself of the contraction of ipseity and its breakup” (1998: 109). Building on Edmond Jabès’s poetic line—“What you call distance is but the time of breathing in, of breathing out”—Levinas writes, “Bottomlessnes or height (‘the highest abyss,’ according to Jabès) into which all interiority sinks, splitting open, in the air more external than exteriority, to the core; as if simple human breathing were but a gasping, as if poetic saying rose above that breathlessness to read at last deep respiration, inspiration which is the de-claustration of all things, the de-nucleation of being—or its transcendence—from which nothing more is missing but one’s fellow man” (1996: 63). In Deadgirl, this apparent respiring, I want to argue, is more uncanny than the return of the abject as trope. It is a respiring indexed to abjection as general economy of signification—as a de-claustration of all social identity predicated on historical shapes of human abjection. It is a monstrous breath—monstrous, in part, because it issues from the parted lips intimated by the film’s lascivious advertising poster (those same lips suggested by Barbara Creed’s book cover), but monstrous also because—in failing to represent anything at all, reveals to us, as in monstrum, the demand to more permanently rearrange our ways of seeing that are already ruined.

Film, of course, deals with vision, visibility, and representation. Nevertheless, we can begin to articulate what it means to approach cinema from the point of view of a consciousness termed hearing as opposed to a consciousness of seeing. If we have been inclined to think of the latter, especially with regard to monstrosity and horror, as “cinematic and experiential” while thinking of the former as “conceptual and thematic,” I argue that we have confused the terms of witnessing that such cinema calls us to adopt. To the extent that Deadgirl explicitly trades in images and tropes of abjection as the sight/site of the monstrous-feminine, it would seem to invite “abject criticism.” If its allegorical force does not occasion a different kind of “seeing” as Chanter calls for, then the carnival of abjection on the screen risks merely entrenching the very representational codes it purports to subvert.

Notes
1

For Romero, zombies might increasingly resemble their living counterparts, but frequently the resemblance is reversed so humans increasingly come to resemble their monstrous, undead counterparts. If zombies appear to take on a kind of autonomy—such as the character “Bub” in Day of the Dead (1985) or “Big Daddy” in Land of the Dead (2005), it is because they increasingly manage in more sophisticated ways “memory.” Romero repeatedly notes that his zombies are motivated not by autonomy but by memory, just as humans increasingly give way to predictable economies of monstrosity. As humans and zombies come to resemble one another, it is not in terms of developing subjectivity and autonomy.

2

Covino’s article, “Abject Criticism,” published in Genders 32, is no longer available at http://www.genders.org/g32/g32_covino.html. However, it is quoted extensively by Tyler to demonstrate how abject criticism has become celebrated and dominant in Anglo-feminist critical theories.

3

My sense of “diachrony” here is informed both by Foucault’s notion of genealogy as diachrony and by Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of diachrony as tied to the saying and which cannot be brought to representation (see Levinas 1998).

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Filmography

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Contributor Notes

Sol Neely is an associate professor of English and Philosophy at the University of Alaska Southeast. He completed his PhD in 2009 from the Philosophy and Literature PhD program at Purdue University. His work lies at the intersections of postsecular phenomenology, cultural studies, existentialism, and critical theory, and he teaches courses that draw this work into pedagogies of community engagement and social justice. He is co-founder of the Flying University, a prison-education program that brings university students into the prison to study with inmates. He is also co-founder and president of the North American Levinas Society.

Screen Bodies

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Experience, Perception, and Display

  • BenjaminWalter. 1969. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.

  • BenjaminWalter. 2008. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BishopKyle. 2006. “Raising the Dead: Unearthing the Non-Literary Origins of Zombie Cinema.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33(4): 195206. doi:10.3200/JPFT.33.4.196-205.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BlanchotMaurice. 1973. The Step Not Beyond. Trans. Lycette Nelson. Albany: State University of New York Press.

  • BlanchotMaurice. 1995 The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

  • ButlerJudith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.

  • ChanterTina. 2008. The Picture of Abjection: Film Fetish and the Nature of Difference. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  • Clark-FloryTracy. 2009. “‘Zombie Rape Flick’: Horror, Porn, or Both?Salon. http://www.salon.com/2009/07/02/zombie_rape (accessed 8 August 2016).

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