The final installment for this blog series wraps up my discussion of Portrait of a Zombie and covers zombies, gender, and hermeneutical phenomenology.
While Portrait of a Zombie could present a relatively bleak outlook on neocolonialism, especially given the film’s preoccupation with death and gore (as befits its categorization within horror), where it does present some potential for a positive outcome is in its representation of Billy’s family and community as complex and multi-dimensional. Billy’s exorcism is violent and destructive; he cannot be possessed of himself again fully without simultaneously being destroyed, but his family can be granted complicated, messy, imperfect personhood. The film’s construction, its conceit of documentary realism, its acknowledgement of attempting to paint the best possible picture of the Murphy family, and its visual and narrative references to the “behind-the-scenes” approach of reality television provide unique opportunities for the Murphy family’s complexity to be explored. The film opens with Billy’s father Danny (Rory Mullen) clearing debris in a junk yard long after the proliferation of zombies in Dublin has become commonplace, discussing his son and the documentary, stating “what happened, I can’t bring anyone back, least of all me—we love our son—we just wanted he world to know what we were going through.” At the end of the film, after Billy has been released from his bedroom-turned-containment cell by the American filmmaker and has eaten and infected his fiancé, mother, and brother, Danny Murphy kills his son. Just prior to this, however, in response to an interview question about why he left his job, Danny remarks, “I couldn’t take it anymore, the comments. ‘The zombie’s father’ they’d call me, as if he came out of the womb like that. But he’s still me son, what was I supposed to do, bash him in the head?” These three events demonstrate that while Danny loves his son, and while he feels an obligation to protect his family and his community, there is no singular, clear-cut way to reconcile or approach the conflict between these two motivations. In order for the community to be safe, Billy cannot live, and if Billy is alive, the community is never completely safe. Danny eventually comes to a conclusion and sacrifices his son in order to save his community, but it is made clear throughout the film that this is not the only possible solution to the question of the zombie outbreak.
The representation of complex personhood in The Drowning Girl and Portrait of a Zombie is made possible in part because both texts exist in the horror genre. As Carol Clover points out in Men, Women, and Chain Saws, “male viewers are quite prepared to identify not just with screen females, but with screen females in the horror-film world, screen females in fear and pain.” While Clover’s book is primarily focused on defining and analyzing the Final Girl trope and is thus primarily concerned with gender in horror, her assertion that horror audiences are perhaps more willing than other genre audiences to identify with the gendered other may be extrapolated to include additional categories of the self/other. Paul Ricoeur’s articulation of hermeneutical phenomenology is particularly useful here:
This is why philosophy remains a hermeneutics, that is, a reading of the hidden meaning inside the text of the apparent meaning. It is the task of this hermeneutics to show that existence arrives at expression, at meaning, and at reflection only through the continual exegesis of all the significations that come to light in the world of culture. Existence becomes a self – human and adult – only by appropriating this meaning, which first resides “outside,” in works, institutions, and cultural movements in which the life of the spirit is justifiable.
Here, Ricoeur posits narrative as a means of first understanding the self and the other, and then of blending the two. If, on some level, all narrative allows people to engage in this form of identification, then horror, with its emphasis on visceral, bodily experience, takes the concept further and in some ways forces the audience to identify with the other. In this way, establishing complex personhood for marginal identity groups is part of a convention of other-identification in horror and contributes to the proliferation and growth of that convention, moving it beyond momentary sympathy through shared fear (between the victimized other and the audience) toward helping form ideological identifications that remain with the audience once the film or novel has ended.
Both Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel The Drowning Girl and Bing Bailey’s film Portrait of a Zombie operate on narrative and formal levels in their construction of complex personhood for their characters, most of whom belong to marginal identity groups. Both texts, through their engagement with the horror genre, utilize concepts of haunting and infection that go beyond the simple deployment of tropes in order to inspire fear in their audiences, and instead infuse the narratives with political, cultural, and social critiques. Both texts also actively call into question the notion that Irishness, or, indeed, any national identity is monolithic, while simultaneously employing concepts of decolonialism and responses to anti-colonial struggle throughout their texts. Kiernan and Bailey, through their use of experimentation, self-reflexivity, and political subjects construct characters who inspire identification and represent the complexity, slipperiness, and complications of personhood. In this way, both Kiernan and Bailey actively and openly reject the kind of respectability politics that have informed so much of representing marginal groups, and have negatively affected decolonial movements in Ireland and across the globe.
 Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. London: BFI, 1992. Print. 5.
 Ricœur, Paul, Charles E. Reagan, and David Stewart. “Existence and Hermeneutics.” In The Philosophy of Paul Ricœur: An Anthology of His Work. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978. 101.
Image Credit: Organ Hill Films © 2012
Author: Geneveive Newman