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Monday, May 24, 2010

"Take This, All of You, and Eat It": The Subversion of Catholicism in Italian Zombie Cinema

"I envy athiests, they don't have all these difficulties."
-Lucio Fulci

Although Ireland gives it a run for the money, there is probably no more devoutly Roman Catholic nation on Earth than Italy. Indeed, the religion is called Roman Catholicism because its heart is in the Italian capital of Rome itself--it is within that the Vatican City is to be found, and it has been so ever since Roman emperor Constantine converted to the then-upstart faith some 17 centuries ago.

Yet fast forward those 17 centuries, and one finds a specific cultural phenomenon, admittedly most keenly observed by film fanatics, happening in the same country. For Italy, specifically the Italy of the late 20th century, is known for having produced some of the most unspeakably ghastly, gut-churning horror films to be found anywhere in the history of the genre. Specifically, some of the most heinous stuff to be found in the Italian horror milieu seems to have been reserved for the zombie sub-genre.

So why is it that one of the most religious nations on the planet would also give rise to some of the most Satanic visions of the world ever put to celluloid? Is it ironic? Or rather, is it perfectly understandable? I submit that the latter is true. The rise and popularity of zombie cinema in Italy can be directly attributed to the faith of the nation--it is a direct reaction to it, and against it.

The Nature of Italian Zombie Horror

It has sometimes been remarked that it is the people most acutely susceptible to fear who tend to be the most fascinated by horror. This can be observed in the phenomenon of the horror fan who watches raptly, his eyes darting between clasped fingers at the images on the screen. We love to be scared, or rather we are drawn to it, and this is why very often it is the very people most immune to the power of horror who have little interest in it as a genre.

Very often, what we find most frightening, or most morbidly fascinating, is that which flouts or perverts our deeply held values, that which forces us to confront possibilities we dare not, and mocks what we hold dear. In the case of Italian zombie cinema, this refers directly to the manner in which it stands as a direct defiance to the Catholic beliefs and doctrines embodied by the very nation in which it was made.

There has been a fascination with zombie movies in Italy, and in particular a need to make them as despicably nasty as possible, as a way of subverting the primary tenets of the Roman Catholic faith. To a people raised to fear God in the truest sense of the phrase, this is an irresistible forbidden fruit, the contemplation of which is an act of subversion in and of itself.

In order to better illustrate, let's break down some of the specific beliefs flouted by the Italian zombie cycle...

The Resurrection of Christ

Perhaps the most obvious of all perversions of Catholicism is this one. The physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, on the third day after his execution, celebrated by all Christians as the feast day of Easter, is the central belief of Roman Catholicism; it is the one ultimate truth one must accept on faith in order to be considered Roman Catholic. The idea is that Jesus defeated death, and in so doing saved the world from sin. It is the greatest triumph of good over evil.

And yet, it's no coincidence that horror fans have recently taken to sardonically referring to Easter as "Zombie Jesus Day." There's an easily perceived parallel there, and this was not lost on the Italians some 30 years ago, either. For anyone raised with Catholic beliefs ingrained in them, very time a zombie is seen to return to life in an Italian zombie film, it is an obscene joke, a direct parody of Christ's own return to life as recounted in the New Testament. It is taking what Catholics believe to be the Son of God's greatest and most noble victory, and twisting it into a thing of utter revulsion and emptiness.

The Resurrection of the Body

This ties directly into what is inferred, and indeed promised, by Jesus rising from the dead. According to Roman Catholic belief, because Jesus defeated death, he assured everlasting life for all who believe in Him. To clarify, Catholics believe that the human body is merely a temporary holding place for the soul, and that after death they are promised eternal life in the presence of God, and that later at the end of days, they will be physically resurrected, much like Christ Himself, in a new body, one beyond the mortal flesh, transcendent and pure. As Stephen Thrower writes in Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, "for Christians, the body is a mere waste product, excreted by the passage of the soul into heaven."

Extending that analogy, one can then imagine what a blasphemous perversion the concept of the walking dead represents in Italian horror. Instead of being cast off upon death, this physical body, this excrement of the soul, continues to walk about, with no trace of that soul evident. Just as it represents a perversion of Christ's resurrection, so too does the zombie represent a complete perversion of that promise given to humanity by the Resurrection; rather than returning to life as a transcendent being, these people are mindless, stinking, rotting corpses--beings solely of physicality, and not of spirituality.

The Soul and the Afterlife

Drawing on this concept, Italian zombie films completely refute the existence of the divine spark in any sense. If we learn anything from these movies, it's that we have no souls at all, but are instead merely bodies and nothing more. The existence of zombies flies in the face of any notion of the sanctity of human consciousness, for it demonstrates that the body can "live" on, even without conscious animation--and most importantly, no reference to a soul or anything beyond the fleshly shell is ever made.

All we get instead is a fixation on the natural decomposition of the physical body, with no transcendent meaning whatsoever--the ultimate nihilism. "These films," writes Jamie Russell in Book of the Dead, "ask us to confront the unspoken truth of our existence: that we are, in material terms, nothing more than a collection of organs, blood and messy slop." There is no hope for anything resembling a life after death, other than that of the unthinking zombie, which seeks only to consume life.

Judgment Day

As portrayed here, the body is nothing more than an object, explicitly shown to be merely meat, without any presence of the Divine whatsoever. In fact, that's pretty much the ultimate conclusion to be drawn here, if we follow the line of thinking to its end: there is no God, and therefore nothing waiting for us either after death or at the end of time.

This is particularly illustrated in Lucio Fulci films such as City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, which deal directly with the apocalypse itself, but not a holy day of judgment as promised; rather, it is an Armageddon of desolation and total annihilation. In the former film, the world is faced with an end that would consist of the living dead flooding the earth for all eternity, casting out the living entirely. And in the latter film, our protagonists come face to face in the end with a complete emptiness, and as the closing narration declares, they "will face the Sea of Darkness, and all therein that may be explored."

This is a far cry from the Judgment Day anticipated, and indeed wished for, within the teachings of Roman Catholicism, an era of absolution, spiritual evolution, and everlasting peace.


One of Roman Catholicism's most controversial religious doctrines is that of transubstantiation--the belief that during the Eucharistic portion of the Mass ceremony, bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. This is no expression of symbolism or allegory; rather, the literal belief in the transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood is expected of all devout Catholics. In order to partake of the Lord's grace and be saved, they must ingest this flesh and blood into their bodies; this is Christ as sacrificial lamb, offering up his body to be consumed by his followers.

For those of the faith, this is the ultimate act of oneness with the Savior, hence the sacrament's very name, communion. How obvious then, to a nation of Roman Catholics, the outright mockery present in the zombie's act of consuming the flesh of the living. Just as Christians yearn to take in the power of Christ, and eat his flesh to do so, so does the zombie yearn to absorb the living, physically ingesting their flesh in order to do so. Except instead of an act of sublime grace and sacrifice, it is one of amoral murder, chaotically severing all family and social bonds in the process.

* * * * * * * * * *

To a country whose very existence is tied up intimately with the Roman Catholic Church, the oldest and most direct religious establishment of Christianity on Earth, the zombie is anathema. To those drawn to the horrific and the unspeakable within that country, fans and filmmakers alike, the cinema of the zombie is a sweet sacrilege. It is an unrelentingly grim and pessimistic refutation of the beliefs they were raised to hold dear, titillating with the rush of the forbidden--the contemplation of the possibility that those beliefs are fraudulent.


Ed said...

What a fabulous post. Really enjoyed reading that, thanks.

Regarding Judgement day though, I'd say that the biblical one is pretty bleak and nasty. The whole "best from water" etc bits in Revelations read like one of the grimmest horror movies imaginable. I'd say that zombie films don't so much reject the Christian judgement day, but instead remove the glimmer of hope for the faithful.

Anyways, awesome post.

Strange Kid said...

Wickedly phenomenal post, B.

Sounds like a great start to a book perhaps...? If only more Hollywood directors would take note of half of the information you presented here perhaps there would be a return of intellectual subject in horror films instead of skin tight leather.

B-Sol said...

Edward, you make a very good point, in that the end of days as presented in the book of Revelation is pretty harrowing, and yet also keep in mind that this is not the case for the faithful. While Judgment Day may be seen by some as vindictive, for the devout it is something to be wished for, a "rapture" in the truest sense, in which the richest reward is promised. It is only grim and horrific for sinners. Yet, in the world of zombie cinema, as you point out, there is no distinction between sinner and saint.

Rondal, thank you. Thirteen years of Catholic school had an effect on me, what can I say? I could probably do a book on the subject, although there's a guy working in that area as we speak, Kim Paffenroth, who has done some great stuff. Specifically, his book Gospel of the Living Dead looks at the Romero films from a Christian point of view, and is quite fascinating.

Missy Y. (formerly A Case of You) said...

Way to remind me of my childhood, B-Sol. I was raised Catholic, and even though I actively quit going to church by choice, seeing all of this lined up like this makes me feel silly for ever having gone at all.

But on point, I particularly find this notion of transubstantiation to be interesting in relation to the zombie phenomenon in Italy. It does, as you say, fly in the face of Catholic belief. But I think we might be able to go further. We could interpret these villains as instruments of God or as somehow closer to God because they have the ability to consume that which is the essence of life. Now, that is a blasphemous interpretation.

B-t-dubbs, I'm not saying I buy that. I'm just throwing it out there.

ASIDE: You should look into Felix Gonzales-Torres. I think you might like him. He's a minimalist conceptual artist from the 90s. He's originally Cuban, I believe (but I might be wrong about that). Anyway, he's dead now, but his work often references his Catholicism and takes its concepts and makes them usable to one who has been alienated by their own faith. This is particularly true of Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA). It's a pile of foil-wrapped candies on the gallery floor, and guests are encouraged to take them as they please--thereby consuming Ross's flesh symbolically. See, the candies represent Ross's body, and the pile reduced in weight as something close to the speed that Ross was losing weight as he died of AIDS. It's a fucking amazing piece.

B-Sol said...

Sounds like we had a similar upbringing, and a similar result! lol

Wow, the zombie as an instrument of God! Talk about subversive. Quite the interesting theory, Missy, even if only as food for speculation (ugh, horrible pun NOT intended...)

I will be checking out the work of Gonzalez-Torres forthwith. He sounds like a fascinating artist.

James Gracey said...

Fantastic stuff, Brian. This is a truly thought-provoking, fascinating, original and wonderfully written article! I loved it. Keep up the good work! :o)

PS I hate you! But only because I wish I'd written this piece myself. ;o)

B-Sol said...

Coming from you, that's high praise indeed! Thanks.

Jose Cruz said...

I'll be a filthy conformist and agree whole-heartedly with what everyone else has said. This essay is FANTASTIC, B-Sol!

The subject matter is utterly fascinating... I've always wondered about the parallelisms between zombies and Christianity, especially the resurrection aspect of it. I felt smarter just from reading this.

Like James said, it's quite a task to not envy a writer with so much talent. This is one of the reasons that I look to your blog with the utmost respect when it comes to the horror genre. Keep up the superb work, man! And may Zombie Jesus bless you with all your endeavors!

John W. Morehead said...

Excellent post that I just discovered. I wish I had been more aware of international horror so I could have connected these dots.

I would slightly disagree with one of the authors you quote on Christianity and the body. On a popular level the body and the rest of the material cosmos are indeed viewed as transient in light of an eternity beyond. This has the unfortunate result often times of denigration of the body and nature. On the level of historic thought, however, the Christian tradition has strongly emphasized the value of the body both now and when it will be transformed at the resurrection. So popular views do not coincide with the tradition itself.

See my related thoughts in a post on my blog:

"Reflections on a Zombie Supper"

B-Sol said...

John, thank you kindly for checking out this post, as I greatly respect your views on themes related to its subject. Truthfully, I had been wondering what your opinion of it might be.

I do agree that the Thrower quote may be a bit of a sensationalistic and exaggerated representation of Christian belief. To your point, I think perhaps he was going more for the manner in which the traditional attitude is mangled among a certain subsection of believers in contemporary society.

Patrick Nottingham said...

Sometimes Italian horror is a big WTF! Must be all that Catholic repression. Wicked post.

B-Sol said...

Thanks Patrick, I'm glad you discovered my blog, and this post in particular! Unfortunately, it's all downhill after this one lol

carol said...

amazing and well-thought out piece. thanks!

CaptainCruella said...

B.. you never stop amazing me. Seriously when the hell do you write all this stuff?? WHILE you're asleep??? High fives kitten, this one knocked it out of the ball park.

B-Sol said...

What can I say, my love? I'm a veritable writing machine! And even better--Kevin Maher has assured me that if and when Kevin Geeks Out does a zombie-themed show, I will be invited to give a presentation based around this post! Come to think of it, you might want in on that action, too...

Easter said...

I do agree that the Thrower quote may be a bit of a sensationalist and exaggerated representation of Christian belief. To your point, I think perhaps he was going more for the manner in which the traditional attitude is mangled among a certain subsection of believers in contemporary society.

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