The New Flesh: A Post-Postmodernist Review of the Mind-Body Problem as a Theme in George A. Romero’s Films Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead.
By Nathan Tyree
Philosophers have long wrestled with what has come to be known as the “Mind-Body Problem;” the question of whether we, as humans, are merely physical, material creatures or if we are possessed of some non-physical mind (soul or spirit are often used synonymously with mind). This open question has developed into one of the greatest schisms in the history of modern thought. The partisans in this battle are aligned on three sides: materialists, dualists and idealists. The eminent auteur George A. Romero has quite brilliantly aligned himself on the materialist side of this fight with the latter entries in his Dead film series. A careful watching of both Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead makes this point almost excruciatingly clear.
In this discussion the first order of business is to define the sides in the ongoing fight over the question of the soul. As was stated earlier, there are three sides: Idealism, Materialism and Dualism. We will need to explore each of them separately.
We will look at Idealism simply so that we may dismiss it almost out of hand. The Idealist believes that there are only minds and thoughts created by minds. To make it clear, the Idealist denies that there are any material objects or physical beings in the whole of the universe. A cursory examination of the idealist philosophy reveals that it is largely absurd as well as being psychologically unsatisfying. Even if we were to ignore those two highly persuasive facts, we would still have to contend with the problem posed by temporal constancy. The idealist must believe that the chair that he sits in is not, in fact, a chair but rather merely an idea in his mind which he has mistaken for a material object in the shape of a chair. This seems barely on the outskirts of plausibility until we consider the following scenario: You enter a room and arrange the chairs in an odd configuration, then write down the precise location of each chair before exiting the room. An hour later a person that you have had no contact with then enters the room and writes down the location of each chair in the room. If the two of you come together and compare notes you will learn that you have observed the same configuration of chairs. If you have each only mistaken your own private thoughts for material objects shaped like chairs then it seems that you should observe different things. In this way Idealism knocks out its pins and collapses upon itself. It was never really taken seriously by anyone anyway and has few partisans. The other two sides in this battle have much more power behind them.
Materialism holds that a person is an animal. We are, the materialist claims, merely material, physical beings. Nothing more and nothing less. The mind, the materialist says, is an effect of the physical brain. The materialist insists that there is no soul or spirit and that what we call ‘mind’ is merely a series of electrical and chemical reactions within that self same brain.
The Dualist would agree with the materialist that man is a material being, a physical animal. But, the dualist claims, in addition to the physical components man also is possessed of a non-physical mind (spirit or soul works just as well here). The dualist says that it is this non-physical aspect that is responsible for consciousness, thought and our knack for ethical decision.
Those are the three sides in the mind-body discussion.
The Living Dead
George A. Romero is a film maker best known for his zombie genre movies. Romero’s Zombie films are: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead. These films all take place in a universe where humanity has been over run by a plague of flesh eating zombies. These zombies are previously dead humans that have been resurrected by some process that is never explained to the audience. In each film a small band of human survivors attempt to outlast or out fight the undead cannibals that stalk them. The first two entries in the series are both extraordinary entertainment and fascinating satire but fail to reach the philosophical heights that the latter films would reach.
Day of the Dead features a zombie named Bub who is the subject of certain behavioral experiments. In the course of the film Bub demonstrates the ability to learn, to remember things from his past and to use objects (one is tempted to say tools, but that seems to miss the point of a phone in a world where there is no one left to talk to). Near the end of the film Bub even comes very close to speaking a word.
In Romero's follow up, Land of the Dead, the zombies evolve even further. In that film, the undead follow a leader, Big Daddy . Big Daddy not only displays the ability to use tools, but transmits and teaches that ability to other zombies. The film culminates with an army of the undead marching on the last human city.
What then, does all of this have to do with souls?
It seems clear that learning, memory and choices are actions of the mind . If zombies can learn, then they must have minds (again, soul works just as well). The problem this causes for Dualism should be clear:
The Dualist believes that the soul (mind) is something non-physical which leaves the body at death. The zombies have died, and when that happened, the incorporeal part of them should have fled. When their bodies were re-animated, they should have become mindless automata. The Materialist suffers no such problem. The materialist claims (as we have discussed) that the mind is just a material function of the brain. As such, the re-animated zombie still possesses its brain, and so should be capable of thought (that these abilities are somehow diminished can be explained through the decay of brain tissue).
When these facts are considered, it seems manifestly clear that Romero’s Zombie films belong to the class of philosophical literature and that they fit cleanly on the materialist side of the mind body problem.