In their 1972 attack on the repressive orthodoxy of psychoanalysis and its complicity with contemporary capitalism – Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia – Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari famously described the fully-oedipalized subjects of modern capitalist societies as zombies: “mortified schizos, good for work, brought back to reason”. The zombie figure they are referencing here is not the apocalyptic cannibal zombie that had recently made its cinematic debut in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) but an earlier incarnation of the figure associated with the hypnotized somnambulist that had come face-to-face with ‘Voodoo’ slave-zombies in films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943).
This earlier version of the zombie as remotely-controlled and entranced agent-without-autonomy had been used by Marshall McLuhan three years before Anti-Oedipus in his famous Playboy interview in which he used the term to describe people stupefied by the effects of the new media environment of the mid 60’s. The correlation between somnambulism (or sleep walking) and possession-trance in Vodou ritual is one which dates back to 18th century commentaries on Haitian culture. But the consolidation of the association between zombies and somnambulists in cinema starts with the first zombie film White Zombie in 1932.
The short clip above is an extract from the first explicitly psychoanalytic film Geheimnisse Einer Seele (Secrets of a Soul) directed by G.W. Pabst in 1926 (under with the guidance of two practicing psychoanalysts Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs). The psychological horrors plaguing the central character are of the kind Deleuze and Guattari would identify as explicitly oedipal, with the parade ground, the mad house and the prison looming large. If they had chosen Romero’s apocalyptic cannibal zombies rather than the traumatized somnambulist version the meaning would be very different. Jason J. Wallin has proposed something like this in his essay ‘Living…Again: The Revolutionary Cine-Sign of Zombie-Life’ (recently published in the Jan Jagodzinski edited collection Psychoanalyzing Cinema: A Productive Encounter with Lacan, Deleuze and Žižek).