A Journey with the Yakut (Un)Dead
Maxim Seleznyov

Republic Z, 2018

Horror crept its way into the Sakhafilm studios almost immediately after they were founded. The past three decades have seen Yakut cinema take the incredible journey to achieving a unique and recognisable artistic style, the creation of a fully viable industry, and to success with audiences in the Republic, followed by acclaim far beyond its borders (much has been written on this phenomenon: Iskusstvo kino [“The Art of Cinema”] devoted a whole section to it in their printed edition of 2021, Seans [“Séance”] has likewise published a voluminous overview of the leading directors of the region, and Yakut cinema programmes have been held in many cities). From its first independent years, when it was occupied with the task of developing its own mythology, Yakutia’s film industry realised the utility of horror in shaping local identity, and did so long before the recent surge of interest in the genre. Tell me who your monster is, and I will understand who you are. As Yeva Ivanilova put it in her exhaustive text on the history of Sakha horror: “ghosts symbolise a suppressed historical memory – not one which is suffering from the incursions of a vengeful monster rebelling against oppression, but one which is simply speaking to them for the first time”. Albasty, ichchi and other figures from folklore enable us to discuss the characteristic themes of Yakut history and to advantageously lend their horror stories a stylistic distinctiveness in the context of world cinema.

Republic Z, 2018

But what do zombies have to do with any of this? Metee, the protagonist in the film Republic Z by Stepan Burnashyov, takes a seat in a rustic outhouse and casts his focused gaze on a book whose striking cover bears the title “Zombies in Yakutsk”. When a heavy hand starts banging on the door, his first reaction is to snarl in displeasure, thinking that he has been disturbed by a fellow villager, but then, when he encounters a zombie on the doorstep instead, he is not overly surprised, but pushes the revenant into the toilet and rushes out into the street. For the inhabitants of this local apocalypse, the walking dead are a dull part of everyday life, and people often shove them aside, just as you might do to some obtrusive passer-by who gets in your way at rush hour. Later, when the numbers of the “scum” (as Metee affectionately and habitually calls the living dead) grow much larger, the heroes are forced to break into flight through the contaminated expanses of the Republic, but they still never seem particularly astonished at how they had ended up in the seemingly outlandish genre of the zombie apocalypse.

There are no obvious zombie analogues in the rich folklore of the Yakut people. Nor does Burnashyov seek to play at pure parody or pop-cultural meta-narration, to make the living dead into foreign conquistadors of the 21st century. At one point, the main character, reproducing a Soviet cliché of the Cold War era, mutters something to the effect that this is all probably the fault of the Americans in some way, but this supposition ultimately proves unfounded. Moreover, the film also refrains from playfully making rhymes with the classics of zombie cinematography, as Konstantin Timofeyev had done while drawing open analogies with Japanese horror in Badlands, and with films about poltergeists in his Paranormal Yakutsk. No, in this case zombies do not feature as a symbol of global peace or the embodiment of the ancient history of the region, hidden in myths.

Republic Z, 2018

Paradoxical as it may sound, it seems that zombies are the flesh and blood of Yakutia itself. They have always been here, and so are incapable of causing much surprise. No matter how clumsy and devoid of will they may be portrayed by Haitian stories or entertainment on the silver screen, the truth about zombies is that they always bear within themselves the fleeting moment, and an aptitude for constant change and adaptation.

Let’s take a look at the plot of Republic Z. Zombies are ideal for making scenes of heart-pounding intensity: the film starts with something between a nightmare and an inauspicious start to the working day – Metee wakes up, bound to the bed with cables, and a charred, ravenous corpse approaches him from the hallway. But zombies can look just as effective on the territory of comedy: in another fragment, a satisfied Buyekke drags the famous Yakut actor Stepan Poryadin into the house after picking him up on the street – he has obviously turned into a monster, but is frozen and therefore motionless: “He’s warming up – he’s trying to speak. Let the man come to his senses!” The undead are also good in a dramatic role: during a key quarrel, the heroes cannot come to agreement and are shouting at each other, not noticing the slow approach of a dead man in police uniform, until, right at the emotional climax, Metee socks the looming zombie one right in the jaw. Finally, as has been said, these animated corpses have long since become a part of ordinary life. The very first dialogue between the characters unfolds before the gaze of an unfortunate representative of the “scum” impaled on a wooden stake, while Metee and Buyekke talk idly about how they will spend the winter and the durability of a fence that has just been put up.

Or else we might open the very book that Metee was reading on the loo – a real-life anthology of short stories about the walking dead in the labyrinths of Yakut culture, published in 2011. In the story “No Exit” by Yulia Privalova, we find a completely basic interpretation of zombies as a symbol of death, of inanimate matter, sealed away, as it were, in the walls of apartments and in household items: “I dreamt of the owner of the apartment. He came up to me, took my limp hand in his icy blue-tinged hand, and spoke in that same sad and sympathetic tone that he had used at our first meeting. As if continuing a conversation that had begun long ago, he said: ‘I still have things to do here, things that need finishing. You understand? And you will have to go there, since you agreed to stay here until dawn. This is not my house, you see, this is my tomb. The guests will be coming soon, receive them properly, they are quite famished...’”
In the adjacent tale “Zombie Diary” by Margarita Tuprina, we are faced with a slightly more metaphorical version, albeit not straying too far from the canon laid down by George A. Romero, according to which the walking dead are a symptom of consumerist society, of our lives spent on social networks and within the walls of corporations: “I don’t know how long it’s been any more. There are a lot more of us zombies now. If I’d kept my sarcasm, I might have said that it’s abundantly clear now who was a worker and who sat wasting their time on Facebook.”

A much more unexpected development of the theme is offered by the first work in the collection, “Mortgage” by Shimun Vrochek, which compares zombies’ craving for living flesh with how credit and the banking system, in taking time away from our lives, literally gnaw out our bodies: “Let’s say two hundred kilograms of flesh. You don’t have that much, so you take out a loan with them – they call it a ‘mortgage’. What irony. They’ll help out your wife, anyone you like, up to and including even the Lord God Himself, if He needed to resurrect His son. Nothing is incurable for them. The calculation is a simple one. Would you stint your flesh if it meant saving a loved one? No? There you have it, then.” On reflection, a mortgage is indeed a zombified kind of capital, that you cash in and then some in reality, but which you then have to pay for with your life.

The image of the zombie can thus be instantly adapted to any conditions or contexts, and feels equally at home wherever it finds itself. So it is with the title Republic Z [Respublika Z in the original Russian, where the Z is taken from the Latin alphabet], which not only plays on the obvious consonance with “Respublika Sakha”, the native name for the Republic of Yakutia, but, as Yeva Ivanilova accurately notes, the letter “Z” occupies the same position as the Cyrillic letter “Ya” (as in Yakutia) in the conventional keyboard layouts for each alphabet – you simply need to adjust the language settings on your computer to type it out. Another hypothesis as to the origin of the zombies is offered nearer the picture’s finale: supposedly the whole affair was connected with some excavations and the discovered remains of an ancient man, from whom the virus then spread. The zombie is thus equated with the very soil of Yakutia. Right at the end, having driven the heroes into a trap, the undead suddenly freeze, covered with the hoarfrost of this northern clime. “Welcome to Yakutia!” Metee shouts joyfully at them. But his cry marks not so much a victory over the enemy by the local forces of nature, as rather the final integration of the zombie tsunami with the climate and geography of the region; the frozen zombies stand in the middle of the forest like small defenceless trees, their black figures contrasting with the stark whiteness of the earth.
And so zombies have become a surprisingly convenient form in which to carry on the same old conversation about Yakut identity and society. The intermediate stage between an authentic but lost history and the looming onslaught of global pop culture. The topic that sees Yakut matters intertwine with those of the wider world, while at the same time preserving cultural features and concealing them, depending on your angle of view, on the circumstances of the moment, and on the weather forecast for the day.

Burnashyov’s next film to receive wide distribution, Black Snow, no longer contains elements of zombie horror, but it would not be too difficult to fit them into it as well. A trucker on a long journey has crushed his arm under the weight of his own truck, is forced to literally gnaw off his own limb, and thereby becomes both mutilated victim and flesh-shredding monster. He is a survivor, but he is also a dead man – exactly the sort that Henri Michaux once warned us against travelling with.