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