From Zombies to Cannibals: Finding Humanity in ‘Raw’


[audio: The Shining] “You mean they ate each other up?” “They had to in order to survive.” “Jack…” “Don’t worry, Mom, I know all about cannibalism. I saw it on TV.” The Shining is a film famously about ghosts,
but this opening conversation on the drive to the Overlook Hotel reminds us of a different
‘return of the dead’, a figure that is now culturally more pervasive than the ghost. [audio: Shaun of the Dead]
“an increasing number of reports of… serious attacks on… people who are literally
being… eaten alive…” The zombie. Immaterial echoes of the past have given way
to carnal excavations of humanity. If a ghost is a soul without a body, a zombie
is a body without a soul. But the same can’t be said of the cannibals who increasingly seem to be replacing their undead counterparts. Flesh-eating is no longer about the dead but
the living, and perhaps it speaks to something more human than monster. As a mortician tells a detective in the Mexican
film ‘We Are What We Are’: “It’s shocking how many people eat other in this city.” Horror tends to be a genre that eats itself. This is true of a lot of cinema but, with
the endless parade of remakes and reboots, sometimes it’s as if these films don’t even
chew before they swallow. And that’s not necessarily a criticism. It’s that these monsters are bigger than any
one story. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, their mythology
lays the foundation for specific thematic exploration. And in the case of cannibalism, that exploration
is of exploitation and humanity. Whether it’s capitalism, consumerism, social
power or societal standards, these are exploitation films in more ways than one. But when it comes to flesh eating, despite
being the ‘less alive’ of the two, it’s the zombie that most directly interrogates our
humanity. Is this cannibalism or anthropophagy, the
consumption of human flesh by a non-human animal? What does it mean to be human? It’s through this question that Julia Ducournau’s
2017 film ‘Raw’, about a student’s sudden intense hunger for human flesh,
has as much in common with zombie cinema as it does with its cannibal
predecessors. Just that its point of comparison isn’t the
undead. Set in a remote veterinary school, the students
are surrounded by other animals, both living and dead. And these visuals repeatedly ask ‘how much
are we like them’. But rather than an intellectual or emotional
comparison, the connection between human and non-human comes more from the juxtaposition
of bodies. And even what we might consider to be the most majestic creatures are still subject to their body. Speaking about the women in the film, Ducournau
insisted that “A body is a body. … they are not these heavenly creatures;
they are real people … and when they go down, they go down.” This approach to the body questions our control,
our agency, and, most pressingly, our identity. Ducournau continues: “I was aware that my body could mutate in unexpected ways and have autonomy. You haven’t decided to have a rash, it’s
your body doing it. So, are you your body or is your body you?” So the question is not only ‘what does
it mean to be human’, but ‘what does it mean to be me’? And if the distinction between mind and body
is erased, if maybe all we are is our bodies, that gives rise to the idea that our very
being could be consumed. In an article for The Quietus, Richard Hirst
considers that the fear evoked by zombies is that “perhaps you are simply a sack of
meat … as susceptible to the demeaning process of being ripped apart, wolfed down and excreted
as any other animal.” But this goes further than what we might immediately
associate with the word body, our flesh or limbs, given the cultural consensus on the
zombie’s specific desire for brains. While a diet of brains wasn’t really associated
with zombies until ‘Return of the Living Dead’ in 1985, it’s become part of the traditional
zombie mythology. Possibly thanks to The Simpsons’ ‘Treehouse
of Horror’ segment, Dial Z for Zombies, in 1992. [audio: The Simpsons]
“Braaaains!” And though it hasn’t featured that prominently
in zombie films, the recent CW show ‘iZombie’ repeatedly reinforces this image of brain
as food. It’s this brain eating that reminds us that
everything we are, not just our bodies but our thoughts and feelings and memories, is
all technically edible, and is equally capable of being consumed. Philosopher Julia Kristeva defines this as
‘abject horror’. A horror that “disturbs identity, system,
order. … a terror that dissembles, a hatred that
smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells
you up, a friend who stabs you.” But Kristeva later asks “does not fear hide
an aggression, a violence that returns to its source, its sign having been inverted?” In Raw, our protagonist is not the one in
danger of being eaten, rather it is she who might become dangerous. Her fear is only of her own desires and urges,
of her own body. So is this fear, as Kristeva asks, “‘I am afraid of being bitten’ or ‘I am afraid of biting'”? Ducournau explains that “cannibals are always
portrayed as a “they.” For me, when I hear “they” I think of creatures
from outer space or zombies. … I would make it an “I” movie. … It’s not like before she is human and
after she is not human anymore. All along, she is human!” This shift in perspective is part of a wider
trend in ‘monster’ media. And when it comes to people-eating protagonists,
like Justine their experience is often one of rejuvenation or awakening. Especially with the zombie metaphor lending
itself so well to images of passive routine. [audio: Santa Clarita Diet] “I don’t feel dead
and undead, I feel the opposite, totally alive.” But I don’t think Raw can be reduced to a
coming of age metaphor or a sexual awakening, despite the presence of both. It’s this idea of ‘tasting human flesh’
that obviously draws a parallel with sex. But, unlike the frequent sexualisation of
something like vampirism, this ‘tasting’ isn’t sexy. Because cannibalism isn’t about tasting, it’s
about devouring. This is hunger as a need, a primal, ingrained
desperation. An obsession described by the director as
a love that is “too much”, where we consume each other. Where, like the Donner Party mentioned in
The Shining, eating each other can feel like a matter of survival. And nowhere is this intensity more apparent
than between siblings. The betrayal of a sister can feel just like
your own body has turned on you. There’s no ‘other’ who is closer to the self. You can think you know your family, your body,
yourself, but Raw is consistently concerned with the rough edges of expectation, of sexuality,
of diet, of achievement, of bodies, of beauty, of society and hierarchy. There’s always more beneath the surface, and
it’s probably bloody. But just because we recognise these destructive
impulses, it doesn’t mean we should give into them or let them overwhelm us. Like its name, Raw is unpolished and isn’t concerned with neatly answering all the questions it poses. It’s more about slowing down long enough to
examine the darkness, to acknowledge it, our attraction to it. Justine is told by her sister that “beauty
is pain”, but just as it only takes a few seconds to move from hair removal to a severed
finger, Raw isn’t interested in being beautiful. This pain isn’t about beauty, it’s about growth. As poet Rainer Maria Rilke explained: “They
wanted to bloom. And to bloom is to be beautiful. But we want to ripen. And for that we open ourselves to darkness
and travail.” Because one thing the film does seem sure
of is that cannibalism can be used, not as a metaphor for losing humanity,
but finding it. Ducournau asserts that it’s “through her so-called
monstrosity” that Justine “has experienced for the first time a real moral choice that
makes her inevitably human. I can kill but I won’t.” This is an alternative vision of cannibalism on film. Influenced by existing ideas, by those expectations,
but not defined by them. Shifting the focus from the detachment of
mind and body to the closeness that would allow something like a zombie virus to spread
in the first place. In the “Cannibalist Manifesto”, Oswald de
Andrade proposed that: “Only cannibalism unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically. The unique law of the world. The masked expression of all individualism
and collective movement.” I said before that ‘horror eats itself’ and
that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That repeated devouring can come from a place
of love, a reverence for what has already been, a desire to exalt it, to make it a part
of ourselves. But it is also about owning, possessing, destroying. So, though we might fear being consumed, we
should be just as wary of our own hunger. Hey everyone, thank you for watching and thanks to both Little White Lies and Girls on Tops who actually provided funding for this video. This was supposed to be a kind of Halloween video but I talk about horror movies so much, what does it even mean to be a Halloween video on this channel. So I hope you enjoyed it whatever time of year it is.

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