After Life: Culture of Death
The Evil Dead
A Reminder of Mortality
Throughout human history, man has held a fear of the dead. Every culture throughout human history has held some sort of belief regarding what happens to a person's spirit and body when they expire, and many of these cultures, for one reason or another, view spirits and corpses as something to be feared and guarded against. We're all aware of this sort of fear within our own Western culture, but this phobia seems to be universal. As Sir James George Frazer points out in the book, The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion, a general terror of dead bodies and evil spirits exists in Polynesia, New Guinea, the Indian Archipelago, Asia and Africa. Clearly there seems to be something within the human psyche that creates this fear of the deceased. It doesn't seem to be something inspired purely by campfire ghost stories or Hollywood horror movies.
But why do we fear these things? What reason do we have to be wary of the dead spirits and bodies of our loved ones who have passed away? Say a man's mother passes away. In life she was a source of love and comfort to the man. Her death would cause extreme sorrow and heartache. However the thought of her corpse and the notion that her spirit may still be wandering the Earth may bring the man feelings of dread and terror. Something seems to happen when people die. Upon death they cease being the people that they once were and become something sinister. And again, there seems to be something universally embedded in the human spirit that causes this fear. Ernest Becker spent his life developing his theory of man's fear and flight from death, and in his book The Denial of Death, he argues that a human being spends his entire lifespan trying (unsuccessfully) to escape the truth that he will one day die and decay. However the existence of spirits and human corpses, particularly those of close relations, are a chilling and unarguable reminder of one's own mortality. We want to bury the reality of death deep into our subconscious. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. But to come face to face with a human corpse is to encounter airtight proof of man's humanity and mortality. We fear the dead because we know that to rot and decay is our own inescapable destiny. This fear of the dead has manifested itself into modern culture and art is many ways. The manner in which popular media deals with death, particularly in walking dead styled horror films, says a lot about our relationship with death, and the manner in which we deal with it. I'll be examining the ways in which our fear of death has spawned American horror films, and the ways in which we use these films to deal with our universal fears and denial of death.
The modern zombie film genre began in the 1970's with the original Night of the Living Dead, and since that first inception there have been many incarnations of the concept. These movies illustrate man's fear of death perfectly, as they pit mortal humans against the walking corpses of the deceased. The goal of the living is to fight off and avoid the dead, and the goal of the dead is to make the living join their ranks. This is a clear metaphor for man's desire to escape death and go on living forever. A standout classic, 1987's Evil Dead II is regarded as an innovative and creative take on the topic of the living dead, and it brings man's fear of death and mortality into clear focus. In this extended metaphor, mankind is represented by the main character, Ash. And death is clearly represented by the walking dead, whom wish Ash harm.
For an obvious start, let's look at the film's title. It doesn't get any more obvious than Evil Dead. Director Sam Raimy clearly wishes to declare that the dead are not our friends. They aren't peaceful spirits who have gone on to a better place; they are not guardian angels watching out for the good of mankind. Instead they are something to be feared and fought against, just as men continuously try to fight off their own mortality. They personify the end that every one of us will someday meet. And it is not a peaceful end surrounded by flowers and loved ones. It is a grotesque end, characterized by rotting and decay.
The story centers on the character of Ash, who is pitted against the forces of evil while staying in a secluded cabin in the woods. A recitation from the Book of The Dead unleashes evil spirits from the woods that inhabit the living, killing them and turning them into walking dead. I think it's interesting to note how this sort of phenomenon seems to be pulled from actual beliefs and superstitions. As Frazer points out, it is a common African belief that evil spirits that enter the body are primary cause of sickness and death. An African cultural fear of the dead seems to have manifested itself into American popular media. The spirit infected victims of this sort of possession become symbols for death as it exists in Western society. And as the film progresses we see how mortal man (Ash) deals with the fact that death is very real, and coming to claim him. Just as mankind does, Ash must struggle against concrete images of death - constant reminders of his own eventual demise.
The first of the evil dead that Ash encounters is the reanimated corpse of his own girlfriend. In an eerie sequence, Ash watches from the cabin window as the headless corpse of his late girlfriend (Linda) dances a ballet in the forest. This haunting scene terrifies Ash. Earlier in the film, the living Linda dances ballet with Ash accompanying her on the piano. The dead Linda is behaving like her living counterpart, except she's a headless rotting corpse. As Ash watches what has become of his girl, he is forced to witness the fate that is intended for him as well; clearly is it a frightening one.
To view the clip "Dance of Death"
This sort of first hand witnessing of death isn't terribly uncommon in real life. Think of attending an open casket funeral - a task that many people find to be unsettling. The corpse is painted with makeup and dressed in fine clothes; they are made to appear as though they are still alive, just as Linda's corpse danced as if she were still alive. However both Ash and the guests at the funeral have to face the reality that the appearance of life is just an illusion. That person is dead and they are showcasing the future of every human being. Such an image forces an individual to acknowledge the mortality of man - something we'd much rather deny and ignore.
Ash is forced to acknowledge the reality of death when he traps Linda's corpse in the tool shed. Just as he goes in for the kill, the rotting head turns back into the healthy living image of Linda, and she begs for mercy. And just as in real life, it's tempting to believe that death is not final, that we can go on living forever. It's an enticing fantasy. And for a moment we can see a bit of mercy in Ash's eyes, it's clear he wants to believe that Linda is alive and well again. He wants to believe that death isn't real or permanent. But just as in real life, Ash is made to recognize the fact that death is unavoidable and final, and finishes her off.
After dispatching the evil incarnation of his girlfriend, Ash reverts to the state that most people live in regarding death and its finality - denial. He stares panting into a mirror and speaks to himself "I'm fine... I'm fine." However his subconscious is still very aware of his encounter with death and its reality. The film represents this by having Ash's reflection answer him tauntingly, "I don't think so, we just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound fine?" While Ash would rather try and convince himself that his encounter with death wasn't real, in the back of his mind he can no longer deny the reality and finality of death.
Later in the movie, Ash is forced to acknowledge the reality of death first hand when an evil spirit manages to possess his hand, and recruit that particular appendage into the ranks of the undead. A great scene ensues in which Ash is forced to physically fight off his demon hand. A clip of that scene can be found at the following link
To view the clip Ash Vs His Evil Hand
After a long struggle, Ash manages to subdue his hand and rid himself of it by severing it off with a chainsaw. In life our fear of death often causes us to distance ourselves from it as much as possible to avoid acknowledging it. American society has a reputation for distancing itself from concrete images of death. Corpses are rarely if ever shown on American news. Autopsies and embalming procedures are always done behind closed doors. As a society we have chosen to separate ourselves from such images in an effort to ignore them, just as Ash chooses to physically separate himself from this concrete representation of death. He must physically fight off the part of himself that has acknowledged that death is real. In the end Ash manages to trap the offending body part under a bucket and places the book A Farewell to Arms on top of it to weigh it down.
One of Becker's big arguments as to why man has this unresolved conflict with death is that compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, man has elevated himself to near god status. This point is underlined even further in the documentary Flight from Death. The piece claims that, as humans, we have used our intellect to control the world around us. We fell forests, build cities, conquer mountains, and journey into space with the use of our technology and innovation. We hold the fate of every other species, as well as the destiny of the planet in our hands. Yet despite all this, we are unable to control or prevent our own deaths. All of our gadgets and inventions have failed to separate us from all other living things in that we will all one day die. However that doesn't stop our scientists and engineers from using our technology to fight off death for as long as possible.
As the most technologically advanced beings on the planet, we cling to our machines to fight death, as futile as it may be in the end. And this is shown quite clearly in Evil Dead II. After cutting off his right hand after it turned evil and dead, Ash resorts to fusing himself to technology to fight off his enemies. Using parts salvaged from the tool shed, he affixes the chainsaw to the stump on his right arm, effectively sacrificing a bit of his humanity to become part machine and prolong his life. A chainsaw is a much more effective weapon against the dead than a mere hand, and it is only after he connects this mechanical appendage that Ash is able to defeat Henrietta, a particularly powerful walking dead.
To view the clip Ash Vs. Henrietta
This sort of fusion to technology is very common in the real world when it comes to staving off death. Pacemakers, artificial limbs, iron lungs, oxygen concentrators... they are all common pieces of modern technology that man fuses to himself to avoid death. Of course, all of these medical breakthroughs are merely band aides on tumors, as death can ultimately not be escaped.
Another aspect of the film and how it relates to our relationship with death that I found particularly interesting is how comical it is. Though at its heart Evil Dead II is a horror flick, one could make a fairly convincing argument that the film is part comedy as well. Director Sam Raimy uses over the top camera angels and tracking shots to exaggerate scenes, and the dialogue and acting are intentionally over the top and over dramatic. The script is filled with several screw ball comedy moments that are truly reminiscent of the sort of humor pioneered by the likes of The Three Stooges.
Whether the director was aware of it or not, I think that this sort of comedic approach to a subject as serious as death says a lot about the defense mechanisms we've built up as a society. It's easier to live with the reality of something unpleasant if we are permitted to make light of it. Just as Lou points out in the Mary Tyler Moore episode, Chuckles the Clown, we laugh at death because we know it could have been us.
What I found really interesting about the film's story line and how it relates to death is the resolution of the conflict, or the lack there of. After sawing off his own evil and possessed hand, brutally killing several forms of walking dead (one of which being his girlfriend), fusing his body with a mechanical killing machine, and managing to recite the final pages of The Book of the Dead, Ash has still not achieved victory over the dead. Along with the rest of the evil spirits, he is whisked away to the dark ages (the time when the Book of the Dead was written). Now in the land of castles and knights, Ash is once again surrounded by the forces of the evil dead. This of course, is when the film ends, and the story is continued in the next movie, Army of Darkness. What I found interesting about the way in which the writer chose to end the movie is the way that it parallels man's actual battle with death. Man is able to fight off death here and there, but the reality of the situation is that the battle can't end in victory. Ultimately death can't be defeated.
Despite being a fairly low budget and often-silly horror comedy, Evil Dead II does a fantastic job of presenting man's fear and struggle against the inescapable enemy that is death. Using the concept of the walking dead, it shows how man fears the image of death because it is an unarguable reminder that one day we will all die. It illustrates man's desire to shield itself from evidence of human death, to hide and deny what we all know to be a reality. And while man has had some incredible medical breakthroughs throughout the last century that have certainly improved and extended human life, all our technology and innovation has yet to truly conquer death and dying. Just as Ash's struggle against the dead doesn't end in a clear victory, mankind's flight from death can never end in success. In the end each of us will die. The film works as an allegory for mankind, and is just one example of how man's terror of death has manifested itself into art, and provided us with a bit of comedic comfort against a life spanning terror against which there is no real escape.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1973.
Evil Dead II. Dir. Sam Raimy. Perfs. Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry. DEG, 1987
Flight From Death. Dir. Patrick Shen. Perf. Gabriel Byme. Trascendental Media, 2003
Frazer, James George. The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religions. London: Macmillian, 1933.