Gloria Withalm

From Ai no corridato Zombie: The dead body on the screen.

The web version of the article is based on the file sent to the editors.
Accordingly, there might be minor differences to the published text.

All illustrations are captures from video tapes. A click on the pictures will open a larger version in the "Notes" window.

"From Ai no corridato Zombie: The Dead Body on the Screen"
Conference: Semiotics Bridging Nature and Culture - 6th Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies
(July 13-18, 1997; Guadalajara, Mexico)

"From Ai no corrida to Zombie: The dead body on the screen".
In: Gimate-Welsh, Adrián (ed.) (1999). La Semiótica. Intersección entre la Naturaleza y la Cultura - Semiotics Bridging Nature and Culture - La Sémiotique: Carrefour de la nature et de la culture. Proceedings of the 6th Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Guadalajara 1997. CD-ROM

Everything connected with death and dying belongs to the most existential experiences human beings have to cope with. Given this existentiality of death and dying, no wonder that, from the earliest testimonies on, the arts have focused on this topic, and so did the film. Throughout film history and across all genres we find hundreds and hundreds of examples, both of the representation of dead human bodies on the screen and of the various customs related to death and dying. And since we are accompanying the movie characters when they are confronted with death and dying, we witness also the representation of experiences which link people at the same time to nature and to culture.

In my paper I present some major outlines[1] of a grid of basic plot patterns occurring in films when the characters find themselves confronted with a corpse. This grid includes the various attitudes towards, and actions carried out with, dead human bodies as well as the dramaturgic functions of the dead human body. The temporal frame spans from the very moment of dying on the screen, over the various situations where a corpse is present in the world of the living, until the dead body is put out of sight (be it in highly ritualized funeral ceremonies, or by mere disposal). After a brief description of each pattern I add some well-known movie examples, which are by far not exhaustive. Since my analysis[2] was situated on the level of the récit, I have also focused on the actual depiction, or modes of sometimes highly conventionalized representation, of screen corpses, but due to limits of space I will only briefly discuss some major motifs.

1.   When life comes to an end: Dying on the screen

When we start from the very moment of dying we can, first of all, draw a distinction according to the number of persons affected, and to the knowledge we acquired about the persons involved and/or how much sympathy we felt for them so far: are we witnessing the death of a single individual, even one of the leading characters of the movie, or are we confronted with innumerous and anonymous dying people?

1.1   The single death - lonely but not alone

Already a quick glance at the daily list of movies screened on the various television channels or in local cinemas will certainly show a large number of films where the characters are facing death. And the causes of death are manifold: old age, disease, a violent act (be it an individual criminal act, or a terrorist action, or war), natural disasters,...

In this first group we will not focus on the question why a character is dying, but pick out three particular motifs, reoccurring throughout the genres and at any time.

Many a loving couples in the movies are not destined for a happy ending, hundreds of melodramas deny the spectators this final "and they lived happily ever after". And some films go one step further. They recount the tragedy of an ultimate loss, an, indeed, final separation of those who care so much for each other, the tragedy of dying in the arms of the loved one.

Lost Horizon (USA 1937, Frank Capra). According to the literature on this movie, the face of the dying woman was a shocking sight for contemporary spectators. And it was horrifying for several reasons. We are introduced to a man, George Conway (John Howard), and a woman, Maria (Margo), who get to know each other under strange circumstances in a remote Himalayan monastery, and who - despite all obvious difficulties - fall in love with each other and want to live their love. Finally, they decide to escape and we watch how they have to fight nature, struggling their way through ice and snow. And, at the same time, we witness, together with the man in love and his brother, another fight against nature which can't be won: as soon as she left the valley, Maria's body begins to show the marks of her real age, her face covers with deep wrinkles, and she dies. George cannot stand to see the decomposing body of the beloved woman and throws himself over a cliff.

Destry Rides Again (USA 1939, George Marshall). During the final shoot-out, the showgirl Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) observes Kent (Brian Donlevy) carefully aiming his rifle at Destry (James Stewart). She rushes forward and takes the bullet intended for him. Destry answers her final "Would you mind?" with a kiss.

The same pattern is likewise applied to close friends or among close relatives (preferably brothers whose previous quarrels are, of course, ending in the face of death). Since there are already a number of parodies of this pattern, we can consider it to be a highly conventionalized motif (genre and plot parodies in mainstream comedies are only used when they are supposed to work, and they only work when the parodied elements are widely known devices). Just two examples of these spoofs:
The Burglar (USA 1987, Hugh Wilson). Bernice (Whoopie Goldberg), a small burglar, gets involved in a case of murder and counterfeit. When Bernie and another woman confront the murderer with evidence of his guilt, he stabs the woman just like the other victims. The shocked Bernie deeply regrets having asked her to come along and takes her in the arms. The woman looks like she is about to die and repeats saying "I don't feel anything". A couple of seconds later they both realize why: the weapon has only hit her purse.

City Slickers: The Legend of Curly's Gold (USA 1994; Paul Weiland). After a long treasure hunt Mitch (Billy Crystal), his brother Glen (Jon Lovitz) and a close friend find a trunk full of gold in a deserted mine. But a group of bandits is already waiting. One of them shoots at Mitch, and Glen races forward and catches the bullet meant for his brother. In Mitch's arms Glen recalls some memories, talks about not feeling anything and looks as if he dies. But nobody ever dies of a shot with red color: there were no real bullets and the entire hold-up was staged as part of an adventure package tour.

A great number of crime (or spy) movies proceed from the story line that somebody gets involved in a murder without his or her fault, and, more often than not, (literally) running into a person dying marks the starting point of the plot pattern of the "innocent defendant": for all characters, in particular for law enforcement agents, the situation gives enough evidence that he or she is guilty, only the spectators know better.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (USA 1956, Alfred Hitchcock). Ben McKenna (James Stewart) just wants to spend his holidays with his family in Northern Africa. On the bus to Marrakech they meet the mysterious Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin). The next morning, McKenna walks around the Great Market Place and watches some Arabs chasing another one. The chased man (it is Bernard) races towards him and dies in his arms. When McKenna discovers a dagger in Bernard's back he quickly takes it out. Now he is the one who is chased by the crowd believing he did it. And even the police hesitate to believe the weird story, "Out of five thousand people in the Great Market Place, why does he choose you when he is about to die?"

North By Northwest (USA 1959, Alfred Hitchcock). After he survived the kidnapping and the attempted murder, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) starts to investigate his own case. In the UN building he comes across a certain Lester Townsend (Philip Ober), but before he can show him a photograph, Townsend falls forward into Thornhill's arms - with a knife in his back. Everybody must believe that he stabbed Townsend. In a panic, he runs out of the building, and is soon wanted for murder.

Contrary to the previous motifs our average encounter with dying persons occurs in the sterile ambience of hospitals, full of high-tech medical equipment. And movies use this pro-filmic setting, most of all they integrate the audio-visual synonym for death, produced by the machines monitoring the life functions, in particular the heart beat: the colored oscillogram turns into a line, the intermittent peep is substituted by a high pitch tone - the "flat line" of death.

This term was even used for the title of Joel Schumacher's 1990 movie Flatliners about medical students experimenting with standstill of the heart and reanimation.

1.2   Dying by hundreds

Despite all differences concerning plot structure, genre conventions and film-aesthetic quality, movies on the epidemic outbreak of mortal diseases, on natural or man-made disasters, on wars, or on large-scale terrorist acts have one thing in common: they all present the dying of hundreds of human beings. Although, in order to raise our empathy, some of the victims are well introduced characters, there are, nevertheless, in all these films a large number of anonymous dead. And it is exactly this dramaturgic mix of known (or even leading) actors and unknown extras that constitutes the general tension and the horror of these movies.

2.   Unexpected encounters with a dead body

As mentioned above, in the moment of discovering a dead body, the spectators is usually "together" with one of the characters, and all the following motifs will follow this principle. But there is one rare moment where only the spectators are introduced to a corpse.

Sunset Boulevard (USA 1950, Billy Wilder). At the beginning we see a male corpse in the swimming pool of an elegant villa, and a voice-over starts to recount the story how all this happened - it is the voice of the dead screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden).

2.1   Stumbling across a dead body

The discovery of a killed victim in the opening sequence is the story-generating motif of crime movies and related genres. The comedy cop series Kottan ermittelt (A/ORF late 1970s/early 1980s, Peter Patzak) even transformed this motif into a running gag: An old bum, living under the bridges of the Danube Canal, cannot help but finding corpses wherever he goes...

In the case of Twin Peaks the initial corpse not only starts the usual some 100 minutes of a movie, but the whole series of almost 25 hours. And with the discovery of the dead body we are introduced to some of the leading characters.

Twin Peaks (USA 1989[-91], David Lynch [et al.]). Right at the beginning, Pete Martell (Jack Nance) goes fishing. On the bank of the river he sees something and approaches the light-colored man-size object - a human body, wrapped in a plastic foil. He bends down for a closer look. After he ran away, the camera mimics his position and shows us in a close-up some locks of blonde hair coming out of the half open end. Pete calls Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean) and can only stammer, "She is dead, wrapped in plastic". It takes another two minutes until the camera reveals who "she" is. Truman arrives at the river bank together with the deputy sheriff Andy (Harry Goaz) and the town's physician, Dr Hayward (Warren Frost). The behavior of all three clearly shows that the small town has not seen much murder before: Andy is told to make a picture of the corpse, but starts to weep. Truman first mildly critizes his deputy, but seconds later, when he is about to roll over the body together with Hayward, his gestures reveal his insecurity: he takes off his hat, kneels down beside the corpse, nervously strokes his face and his hair, and quickly glances at Hayward. Finally, it is the physician who seems to be the one the least hesitant in dealing with dead bodies: He opens the plastic foil. The sequence ends with the well-known close-up of the face of the dead young woman, Laura Palmer, the close-up which became the label for the whole series.

The first look at Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in
Twin Peaks1:1 (USA 1989, David Lynch)

Finding a corpse is certainly a most frightening experience, but film plots know even an enhancement to this: the horror of finding a heavily mutilated dead body.

The Birds (USA 1963; Alfred Hitchcock). After several bird attacks Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy) is going to visit her neighbour. On entering the house she finds broken dishes. She slowly proceeds to a room, but stops at the open door. Shots of Lydia are alternated with a view of the broken window, the messed up bedroom, and, behind the door on the floor, the legs of a man in bloodstained pajamas. After another close-up of Lydia, Hitchcock shows us what she is seeing in three consecutive shots (each of them less than a second long): the dead neighbor, lying on the floor in a corner of the room, his eye sockets are bloody and empty...

The deadly effect of a bird's beak on the
human face: The Birds (USA 1963, Alfred Hitchcock)

Another way to establish certain patterns of the unexpected discovery of a corpse proceeds from the location. And within this group there is one sub-motif where dead bodies are found in weird places.

In The Late Show (USA 1977, Robert Benton) Margo (Lily Tomlin) is in search of her cat, but, at first, she finds a corpse in the icebox.

Assault on Precinct 13 (USA 1976, John Carpenter). The two policemen who have to check whether there was really some shooting going on in the neighborhood of a deserted precinct are already about to leave, when blood splashes on the windshield of their car. As they look up, they discover a corpse hanging in the wires high above them.

The Thin Man (USA 1934, W.S. Van Dyke). During the search of the laboratory it is Asta, the terrier, who draws Nick Charles's (William Powell) attention to a particular spot on the floor, and there they find the decomposing body of the vanished inventor.

Some movies know still another device to raise tension: bodies that change in the moment after death, leaving the onlookers either puzzled about what is going on or revealing a secret about the dead person. In the case of vampires, or similar undead, the corpses turn into dust, showing in a sort of quick motion shot the normal decomposition of human remains over the years. Another type of change reverses previous alterations of the body, caused by drugs or the blood of a monster, or ... The classic formulation of this motif is, of course, the death of the leading character in the various screen versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (e.g., USA 1932, Ruben Mamoulian; USA 1940, Victor Fleming). When the ugly and ruthless Hyde dies, his body finally changes back to the one of Doctor Jekyll.

2.2   Alone with a corpse

What to do when you are waking up in the morning beside a corpse: the man or woman you went to bed with last night who was very much alive at that time is now very much dead - murdered... Who did it and why? Did you kill him/her yourself? Was there somebody else in the apartment? Will the police believe in your innocence?

Barton Fink (USA 1991, Joel Cohn). Barton Fink (John Turturro), the would-be scriptwriter, meets Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), the secretary of a famous writer, and sleeps with her in his hotel room. When Fink wakes up the next morning he puts away the bed sheet and sees a mosquito on the back of the still sleeping woman. An extreme close-up shows how the insect is sucking blood. Fink flaps his hand at the mosquito, and a small red blood stain is left on the skin. But Audrey does not react at all, and we look with Fink somehow astonished at the sleeping woman with the little blood stain on her back. Very slowly a dark red lining appears between her body and the white sheet, very quickly it grows thicker until there is a lot of blood between them. Fink takes Audrey by the shoulder and turns her around - she is dead, lying in her blood. Fink cannot but scream out loud.

"The morning after" has a bad awakening:
Barton Fink (John Turturro) & Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis)
in Barton Fink (USA 1991, Joel Cohn)

There are several examples of women who are facing a similar fate.

The Blue Gardenia (USA 1952, Fritz Lang). Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) has a date with the playboy Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). As soon as they are in his apartment he tries to rape her. She can grasp a poker and hits him on the head; then she faints. On regaining consciousness she discovers that Harry is dead and escapes in panic.

In Camorra (Un complicato intrigo di donne, vicoli e delitti; I/USA 1985, Lina Wertmüller) Nunzia (Angela Molina) sleeps with an old friend of hers who is a drug dealer. Again, when she wakes up, he is dead, killed, a syringe sticks in his scrotum.

Unlike the characters in the previous examples, sometimes the person who wakes up beside the corpse is the murderer.
Angel Heart (USA 1987, Alan Parker). In the course of his investigations, the private detective Angel (Mickey Rourke) meets the young and beautiful Voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet). One afternoon he takes her to his hotel room and sleeps with her. It's heavily raining, and from the ceiling of the room water is dripping on the bed. During the ecstatic sexual intercourse, the dripping becomes more intense, water turns into red blood, and, in the end, the young woman is dead, all covered with blood.
Circumstantial evidence would also be against those persons who all of sudden have a very silent companion in their car.
Night on Earth (USA 1991, Jim Jarmusch; Rome episode). In the middle of the night, a priest boards the cab of Gino (Roberto Benigni). Gino starts to recount some of his bizarre sexual adventures in rather drastic words and does not notice that his fare is gasping for breath. Arriving at the destination the clergyman in the rear of the car is very dead, and, in order to avoid complications, Gino just takes him out of the cab and puts him on a park bench.

3.   Handling of dead bodies 1: Professionals at work

Even in a society that avoids the direct contact with dying and dead bodies there are some professions where dead bodies are part of everyday life. These daily routines and the various specific techniques both in the medical professions and in the field of law enforcement are popular motifs in narrative film.

3.1   The transformation of a dead human being into a police file

A group of persons who are most of their time dealing with bodies are FBI agents or detectives of a homicide department, and most of us only know them and their work from the movies: almost every "Whodunit" shows us some details of their work. Immediately after arriving at a site with a body, they usually take pictures and take down some verbal notes on the dead person. And these actions are also used to show the spectator both some details of the way the particular detective is doing his or her job, and his or her attitude towards the job and the dead bodies.

The Detective (USA 1968, Gordon Douglas). In the opening scene, the detective (Frank Sinatra) walks around the apartment of the victim with the naked body still lying on the floor. When he talks to his colleagues he casually mentions that somebody has cut off the penis and both the thumb and the forefinger of the right hand.
The beginning of the investigations is also marked by the first examination of the dead body.
Silence of the Lambs (USA 1991, Jonathan Demme). Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) has not yet finished her FBI training, but she is, nevertheless, taken to a small town to investigate a case together with an experienced team. One problem they all have in common are the olfactory effects of the body's long exposure to water. But during her first confrontation with the mutilated body of a young woman, another victim of the serial killer "Buffalo Bill", she is the only one of the group who has a trembling in her voice and slightly unsteady gestures. In a few seconds, however, her investigative passion comes to the fore, and, finally, she finds one of the crucial cues to the whole case: the chrysalis of a moth deep down in the throat of the victim.

Jody Foster and her senior FBI colleagues
examine the body of a murder victim in
Silence of the Lambs (USA 1991, Jonathan Demme)

The sequence described above starts with a motif closely connected to the temporal storage of bodies, and, as such, present in almost every crime movie that shows the transport of a body: a thick plastic bag with a zipper. Another means to store bodies can be found in the morgues: large cooling boxes with man-size metal drawers.

3.2   Final examination - coroners and pathologists

The above mentioned location is the working place of those who have the final saying concerning the causes of death - the pathologists or experts in forensic medicine. A "predecessor" at work is depicted in The Name of the Rose (France/Germany/Italy 1986, Jean-Jacques Annaud) when William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) is examining a corpse.

Over the decades, crime movies and television series have developed a well-defined repertory of motifs with regard to the characters and their attitudes and habits as well as their working ambience: Pathologists are rather down-to-earth characters, sometimes they are cynical, and love to make practical jokes. They eat their sandwiches even when they are surrounded by corpses, and from time to time, they drink a lot of alcohol. But, in any case, they are always shown as top professionals who love their job and examine the bodies in a very careful way. And sometimes, their abilities go far beyond their job. In the case of the US-television series (USA 1977/78, Sam Wanamaker), featuring the pathologist Quincy (Jack Klugman), the cases are not solved by the homicide detectives but by the forensic experts.

4.   Handling of dead bodies 2: Attitudes and actions of laymen and -women

4.1   Sharing everyday life with a corpse - deliberately or rather undeliberately

Unlike the representatives of the various professions just discussed, most average people are not used to share their everyday life with a corpse - even if it is only for a short time. What to do when somebody realizes that for the next hours or even days he or she has to stay in the company of somebody who is very dead? Despite the weird situation, some examples for this plot pattern are full of black humor, and among the most famous movies in this group are certainly Arsenic and Old Lace (USA 1944, Frank Capra), and Trouble With Harry (USA 1955, Alfred Hitchcock).

Now you see him, now you don't, or:
how to get rid of a corpse that always re-appears
(Trouble With Harry; USA 1955, Alfred Hitchcock)

Although there are rather tragic moments connected to both the visit and the sudden death of Harry (Danny Glover), an old friend of the family, the circumstances have a touch of black comedy:

To Sleep With Anger (USA 1990, Charles Burnett). Harry's dead body is lying on the kitchen floor, covered with a quilt. Whenever somebody enters the kitchen he or she has to step over the corpse. And Harry lies there for quite a long time, since, despite several phone calls, the coroner just does not come. The second day, all the neighbors arrange a picnic in a garden while the family is still unable to use the kitchen.
A rather average movie which has a macabre twist concerning our topic is
Weekend at Bernie's (USA 1989, Ted Kotcheff). Two young employees of an insurance company, Larry (Andrew McCarthy) and Richard (Jonathan Silverman), are invited by their boss Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser) to his beach bungalow to tell him details about stolen money. When they arrive they realize that somebody has killed Bernie. They are frightened and place him carefully on a couch. And they do so just in time, since the regular late afternoon party guests are already pouring in. And none of them notices that their host is not as alive as he used to be...

Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser) can no longer enjoy the party and the beach
(Weekend at Bernie's; USA 1989, Ted Kotcheff).

Contrary to the examples in which the characters are stuck with a dead body in their home, travelling along with a corpse is mostly done on purpose.

The Deadly Companions (USA 1961, Sam Peckinpah). During a shooting after a bank robbery, a small boy accidentally gets killed. His mother (Maureen O'Hara) wants to bury him right beside his father in a remote Western town. But to go there, she has to cross Indian territory. And on this long ride with the coffin she is accompanied by the ex-army officer (Brian Keith) who shot the boy.
In almost all the other films, when a corpse is taken along on a ride, the bodies are preserved, at least they are deep frozen, like in Il grande silenzio (I/F 1969, Sergio Corbucci), Highway 61 (UK/CND1991, Bruce McDonald), Leningrad Cowboys Go America (FIN 1989, Aki Kaurismäki), or Dark Star (USA 1974, John Carpenter).

More sophisticated ways of preserving a corpse are necessary, when a character deliberately decides to spend his everyday life with a dead person. The most famous movie mummy (apart from the undead old Egyptian priests and pharaos) is, of course, Norman Bates's (Anthony Perkins) mother in Psycho (USA 1960, Alfred Hitchcock). Bates carries her around in the house, lays her on her bed, and, finally hides her in the cellar.

The mummified mother in
Psycho (USA 1960, Alfred Hitchcock)

4.2   Re-using/re-cycling a dead body

Under particular circumstances a dead body can serve for different purposes and can still be very useful for the living, for instance as a sort of messenger for a third party.

The Untouchables (USA 1987, Brian De Palma). Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) tracked down several bootleggers. During the shooting one of the gangsters gets killed, but his friends don't know. Mallone leans the corpse against the cabin wall and fires his gun at him, and the trick was quite effective: the smugglers give up.

To Be or Not to Be (USA 1942, Ernst Lubitsch). Poland at the time of Nazi occupation. The actor Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) impersonates the traitor Siletsky, but with the real Siletsky found dead, Tura is in danger to be exposed. When he is alone in a room with the corpse, he cuts off the dead man's beard, glues on a fake one and then coerces the Nazi colonel into pulling the fake beard off the corpse, thus "proving" that he is the "real" one, and only his double was killed.

In several movies the main character is a sculptor who, for one reason or the other, can no longer work as he used to. Nevertheless, his statues are marvellous as ever and are highly praised by the connoisseurs. And none of them knows that the are made of corpses, murder victims, covered with clay (A Bucket of Blood; USA 1959, Roger Corman), metal (Crucible of Terror; UK 1971, Ted Hooker) or wax (Mystery of the Wax Museum; USA 1933, Michael Curtiz & The House of Wax; USA 1953, André de Toth).

Among the various types of horror movies we find a sub-genre featuring mad scientists, and in many cases they are using body parts for their weird experiments of either keeping alive or re-vitalizing others, or even creating life, as it is the case in all the screen versions of the Frankenstein story from 1931 (Frankenstein; USA, James Whale) to 1994 (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; USA, Kenneth Branagh).

Finally, both horror movies and black comedies know a very particular way of re-using the dead: cannibalism. In some extreme cases, there might be a situation of emergency, when eating the dead is the only means to survive, as in Alive (USA 1992, Frank Marshall), the story of a plane crash in the mountains of Chile. But far more examples depict the organized preparation of food made out of human flesh for a clientele who does not know the ingredients of this particular recipe. And there is a great variety of food, from the favorite meal of 2022 called Soylent Green (USA 1973, Richard Fleischer), to the smoked sausages in Motel Hell (USA 1980, Kevin Connor) or the specialties of the roadside barbecue in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (USA 1974, Tobe Hooper).

Prepared by the Chef de cuisine
(The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover; UK/F 1989, Peter Greenaway)

Finally, there are some particular examples of cannibalism, where the person who is supposed to eat a dead human being has known the victim, as in Fernando Arrabal's J'irai comme un cheval fou (F/I 1973), in Fellini's Satyricon (I 1970), or in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover (UK/F 1989).

5.   Passage rites - from the wake to the funeral

The moment of dying stood at the beginning of this article. With the diverse ceremonies that accompany the final disposition of the dead body, the presentation of the topic has reached full circle. In movies we can find all the various phases, from the different rites of separation and transition to the various modes of corpse disposal, and all these activities would deserve an analysis; to name but two: where and how and how long close relatives and friends are gathering to watch the closed or open coffin; or the dramaturgic function of funeral customs (e.g. in crime movies when the police detectives take a discreet look at the mourning friends and relatives in order to find a suspect).

Of all these last farewell rites I can only include a particular one which has almost vanished in urban societies. Thus, many viewers know the wake in the family home only from movies. Some films like Fanny og Alexander (S 1983, Ingmar Bergman) show how disturbing it can be for children when they have to take part in this (first) confrontation with the death of a family member. And they show how the wake functions in the process of coping with death. In the case of Paul (Marlon Brando), the leading character of Bernardo Bertolucci's L'ultimo tango in Parigi (I/F 1973), it is not only the loss of this wife Rosa, but, moreover, the way she died: she committed suicide. In a six minutes monolog at the side of his laid out wife we witness the various steps of working up this experience: first he asks many questions; then he insults her; since her mother has exaggerated the make-up, he cleans Rosa's face and lips, and, finally, he starts crying and breaks down over her dead body.

Marlon Brando and Veronica Lazar in
L'ultimo tango in Parigi (I/F 1973, Bernardo Bertolucci)

There is even a film in which the family wake has a touch of black comedy. The sudden death of the father in Passed Away (USA 1992, Charlie Peters) gathers the whole family, including the daughter Nora (Frances McDormand) who works as a nun in El Salvador. And she brought somebody with her: a political refugee on the run. When, during the Irish wake, FBI agents start to search the house, she asks her brother Johnny (Bob Hoskins) for help. They decide to put a wig and make-up on the refugee and "hide" him in the open coffin.

Dead or not dead: Passed Away (USA 1992, Charlie Peters)

The vanishing of the wake in the family home is only one more evidence of the progressive exclusion of death and dying in our societies. Direct encounters with a corpse have become a rare experience and dying has become a taboo, but, on the other hand, the audio-visual representations of death and dying has constantly increased in the last decade, both in fiction and, even more "realistic", in the news coverage of crimes and wars. In this way, the encounter with corpses is brought back to us on the screen in a sort of "proxy experience" on a daily basis.

Copyright © 1997 / 2000 Gloria Withalm, <>   [ Home Page | Aufsätze/Articles – online

Created: 20 August 2000, Last Update 22 September 2003