Hailed by critics as one of the best horror movies of the year, Deadgirl generated tons of buzz at the Toronto Film Festival for its unflinching look at male bonding run amok. Along with other recent indie horror fare like Zombie Strippers, Deadgirl turns zombies into figures for militant social outcasts — preyed-upon women who return to wreak vengeance. Call it zombie feminism. It's a subgenre that goes back to the 1980s, and every time it dies, it just comes back stronger than ever.
Deadgirl is such a striking entry in the zombie feminism genre because it's just so damn literal. You've got a naked girl, strapped to a bed in a mental institution, being raped by a bunch of teenaged guys. Clearly a situation in need of a feminist zombie intervention if I ever saw one. If you were to boil the message of this film down to one basic point (which you probably shouldn't), it would be that men shouldn't rape women because those women might turn out to be superpowered zombies who want to eat your you-know-what.
As you can see from this tiny piece of the teaser, the movie is an emo arthouse take on your standard "how do you contain a zombie" plot. 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.
Still, it wasn't that long ago that raped women in movies just stayed dead.
Investigating the horrifying events that led to Laura's murder takes Cooper into a supernatural world of ghosts and the undead. But Laura never avenges herself. Her spirit lingers, as does the evil BOB spirit who has helped perpetrate the crime, but Laura herself never has a chance to fight back zombie-style. Maybe she's the pre-feminist zombie, the modest and lady-like creature who lets men solve the mystery of her death for her.
The message of Twin Peaks, at least in terms of its dead girl protagonist, is that men won't get away with rape — but they'll be brought to justice by other men, not the women they've victimized.
Similarly, the cult 1980s film River's Edge features a very Deadgirl-esque plot. A teen rapes and murders his girlfriend, then leaves her body out for all his friends to see. They decide to cover up the murder, visiting the dead girl's body every day until a few of them realize what they've done is wrong and turn in the perpetrator. That haunting image of the dead girl, unable to fight back, is partly what fuels the bizarre rage at the heart of zombie feminism. Watching that pretty, dead face, you want her to get up and scream: You want her to bite that raping bastard's scalp off and drool his brains all over the place.
And that was precisely the pleasure in watching this year's other great zombie feminist masterpiece, Zombie Strippers. This flick features porn star Jenna Jameson as a stripper bitten by a zombie infected by a government drug to keep soldiers fighting after they die. The more zombie-fied she gets, the more the clientele goes crazy for her. Even when she drags men into the back room and rips their throats out and bites their dicks off. Soon, the other strippers are begging to be infected too, so they can make more in tips.
Before long, nearly all the strippers are infected, and they've got a giant basement room full of all the reanimated, mutilated men they've been gnawing on. None of these strippers are being raped or murdered by men — they're just dealing with standard-issue stuff like objectification and the dangers of working in the sex industry. And yet it's hard not to see their undeaths as a kind of revenge on men who treat women like objects. These guys come to the strip club to "get some meat," and then they're turned into meat themselves.
The problem here is that the men actually like it. Their favorite strippers are the zombies, and the women have gained "power" only by becoming monsters. Just as our girl in Deadgirl can only fight back because she's a monster. So is the message of zombie feminism that a strong women is always a monster? That she must die and return as a ghoul in order to fight back against rape and less violent forms of sexism?
Or is the message that men must die and become zombies themselves before women will ever be happy? Two years ago, a brilliant Canadian comedy called Fido posed that very question. A traditional housewife played by Carrie Ann "Matrix" Moss falls in love with the zombie servant her husband brings home from the zombie control factory (after people start rising from their graves, his employer invents a "control collar" that makes them docile). Why is the zombie man better than her husband? He cooks, he cleans, he takes care of their son and pays attention to her. An object himself, he's able to see the humanity in a woman who is treated like an object by all the living men in her life.
Ever since Dr. Frankenstein reanimated a woman to serve as his monster's bride and she said no, the zombie woman has been a weird figure for female resistance to control. Zombie feminism is an uneasy subgenre, daring to use freakish gore and death slapstick to pose questions about what it might take for women to become unrapeable. Or for men to see women the way women see themselves.
The question is, why do we have to imagine ourselves as monsters in order to tell stories about what it would be like to become fully human?