Why Zombies?

I’m sorry, but this can no longer pass unremarked.

What is this zombie thing?

Zombies are becoming a kind of running cultural joke. They are everywhere I turn: books, video games, movies, internet sites, kitschy Christmas giftware… Is there nowhere safe?

First off — and what makes me puzzled — is that the whole idea of human brain-eating sort-of-dead people with gruesome mutilations and decomposing bodies leaves me cold. There’s no fascination. No part of it appeals. What am I lacking?

Zombie-Warning-Chart-zombies-2503003-348-536I’m curious: Why “zombies”? And not, say, “frankensteins”? (Or “vampires”? Wait, that’s another cultural meme of the moment too…)

We have to go back, I suppose, to where the idea came from. The pop-culture zombies we have today are primarily filtered through Hollywood. Haitian Vodou, or Voodoo, though is where they started. The beliefs of Voodoo, descended from the religion of African slaves, involve one big unreachable god and many smaller deities. There are possessions by spirits with ceremonies coming out of Catholicism in the mix.

Voodoo sorcerers

A voodoo sorcerer or bokor is said to be able to revive the dead. Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, wrote two books about the use of powdered drugs to induce a deathlike state where the subject would be completely under control of the bokor. This is a matter of scientific controversy.

George Romero’s horror movie of 1968, The Night of the Living Dead, has been called the first modern zombie movie. This has spawned many such movies since. In these films, zombies tend to be reanimated corpses with cannibalistic needs, with a penchant for human brains.  The movie zombies are resistant to normal injury.  Normal people can be infected by them and turn into zombies too.

As Wikipedia describes it: “Modern zombies are depicted in mobs, flocks or waves, seeking either flesh to eat or people to kill, and are typically rendered to exhibit signs of physical decomposition such as rotting flesh, discolored eyes, and open wounds, and moving with a slow, shambling gait. They are generally incapable of communication and show no signs of personality or rationality… ”

These days, zombies have become a kitschy way to titillate oneself with darkness and death, a kind of Halloween theme park of the mind.

Walking like a zombie

zombiesThey’ve become like many other cultural trends, a source of in-jokes and in-groups, something to use as a metaphor. Take “zombie walks” for instance. These social events usually are organized by word of mouth and by way of the internet. People dress up and parade around, perhaps in support of a film festival or as a flash mob spectacle or even for political purposes. In October, for instance, there was a zombie walk outside the British Parliament, billed as The Parliament of the Living Dead, calling for political reform.

Then there’s the idea of “zombie apocalypse.” A zombie plague, something like the H1N1 flu was promoted to be, becomes widespread and collapses civilization.

The religious scholar Kim Paffenroth has said: “… More than any other monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic … they signal the end of the world as we have known it.”

You can find instructions on how to prepare for the zombie apocalypse at an eHow (“How to Do Just About Everything”) site. Tongue-in-cheek preparations include building a 12-foot high concrete wall with no openings around your home.


The Onion, by the way, has an exposé on how Pittsburgh is unprepared for a full scale zombie attack according to the Zombie Preparedness Institute.

zombieAll this is good for a snicker and a laugh. But there’s also an underlying layer of fear and anxiety, it seems to me. Zombies can be taken as the perfect symbol of the decay we see all around us, a decay not just of institutions and governments, but of persons and communities. Whether that decay is always with us, and zombies are merely this year’s metaphor of choice, or whether there is a discernible downward spiral in these matters, I won’t try to say.

There are many takes on what zombies really mean…

In an analysis of another of Romero’s films, Dawn of the Dead, Stephen Harper emphasizes the cultural importance of the modern shopping mall. He sees this zombie movie as a radical anti-consumerist blast, where “with the corpses of the exterminated zombies cleared away, the survivors indulge in a fantasy of purchase power.” Fortunately, I guess, the mall had a weapons shop where the survivors could “tool up.” Don’t see too many mall weapons shops in Canada…

Kenan Malik, in his book Man, Beast, and Zombie, writes about human psychology and what it is not. His claim is that modern science and philosophy sees humans as either well adapted animals or soulless automatons.

Raymond Tallis in his review of Malik’s book, says that Malik objects to the contemporary defamation of humanity. Our capacity for noble, rational response is often studiously ignored and even discouraged. To me, there’s something about the whole zombie phenomenon that seems part of that.

Zombies as a theme in Jane Austen’s work

John Granger gives a review on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a mash-up that combines the literary sensibility of Jane Austen with occasional visceral passages about fighting off brain-sucking zombies. “The incongruity makes the reader experience and explore both the original and the wild meaning, if only to try to answer the inevitable question, ‘what the heck is going on here?'”

frankenstein-novel-portraitCory Anotado has written an interesting essay on Literary Appropriation, Popular Culture, and Brain-Eating Zombies where he carefully considers Pride, Prejudice and Zombies as an example of using zombies to deepen some of the themes in Austen’s work such as human ineptitude and prejudice.

James Turner in an article on Forbes sees zombies as personifications of technology gone wrong:

“It seems you can’t throw a half-eaten cerebrum these days without hitting a posse of zombies brought to life by some kind of biological mishap (28 Days Later, Resident Evil, Planet Terror, Quarantine). Like Godzilla, zombies keep up with the times, always ready to mirror whatever aspect of science and technology people feel most uncertain about at the moment.”

In a post on io9.com, Annalee Newitz shows a chart correlating zombie movie production with war and social unrest.

Zombies and eugenics?

On the blog Popular Symbolism, in an essay called The Impact of Zombies on Society, the writer relates zombies to the perils of eugenics — the selective breeding of human beings in efforts to improve the species.

The unknown writer sees the distinction made in so many of the zombie stories between those of inferior breed and those unpolluted and “normal.” She (?) cites, as one example, a racist scene in a video game called Resident Evil 4 where:

“There are scenes where a white girl is dragged into a room by black ‘zombies’ and it is implied they are going to ‘infect’ her.”

Although I am sympathetic to many of the writer’s points, I tend to think the whole thesis suffers from taking too seriously the artefacts of a highly analytical thought process without any consideration for the zombie phenomenon’s campier aspects.

Guilt-free violence

But then I found quite thought provoking and insightful James Davidson’s article on the humor site Cracked.Com: 5 Reasons You Secretly Want a Zombie Apocalypse.

#1. ” Guilt-free violence (that’s politically correct)” — no-one can complain when you’re saving the human race by having a blast shooting and killing as many of the living dead as possible. It’s not only acceptable, but mandatory.

#2. “Free stuff, without all that damned hard work” — when civilisation collapses and the authorities are on the run, there’s a lot of great free stuff in the malls (although what happens when the power grid goes down doesn’t seem to be on the horizon).

#3. “Simplicity” — modern life is just too complex and harried. Let’s just get back to basics and deal with mindless cannibalistic killers.

#4. “Acting like a dick, without consequence” — this ties in with #1. You now have permission to be socially unacceptable yourself. In defense of humanity, of course.

#5. ” Being the alpha dog” — fulfilling some kind of male fantasy by coercing others to do your will as you battle the zombies, since you will have all this cool firepower. You can be like Al Pacino in Scarface, maybe.

This sounds a lot like young male fantasies. Perhaps that’s where a lot of the energy for the zombie meme is coming from, this kind of testosterone-induced dreaming. Zombies for guys, vampires for girls.

There is darkness in the zombie dream. Fear of the other, in whatever form “the other” takes for you. Projection of what one fears, or feels, about oneself onto all those indifferent others. Making others into objects, neither needing nor deserving empathy.

A fear-of-zombies religion, for instance, could be breathtaking in its cruelty. It would make the most intolerant aspects of Christianity, Islam and other religions pale in comparison. And if identification of zombies couldn’t always be clear cut but identified by some kind of prejudice or stereotype? Humans are already prone to this kind of craziness. That zombies don’t exist is no barrier.

There’s a book store I often go into at noon in the mall right next to where I work. They have a good sized table there stacked with all the new zombie publications: The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead; World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War; Zombie Haiku; The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Vision of Hell on Earth; The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless; City of the Dead. That’s only some of them.

This sight always leads me to pause in puzzlement.  I wonder what Emerson and Thoreau would make of it.



Notes on images: With apologies, I lost track of my notes for sources for the images. They are certainly plentiful on the web.

But I do especially like the Frankenstein gentleman. Not a zombie, but so Jane Austen, don’t you think?

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Awareness, Culture, Internet, Politics

9 Comments on “Why Zombies?”

  1. rickmatz Says:

    I think Thoreau would have armed himself with a briar axe.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    That made me chuckle… You may have something there. He might put zombies, or even those who insist on fantasizing about the creatures, in the same category as those coming to do him good:

    “If I knew … that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”


  3. Doug Says:

    Hey Fencer,

    In case you want to “do the math”, here is a little something published by some math researchers at U of Ottawa. http://www.mathstat.uottawa.ca/~rsmith/Zombies.pdf

    Apparently co-existence is impossible. Here is the summary:
    “In summary, a zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilisation, unless it
    is dealt with quickly. While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may
    lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of
    the undead is to hit hard and hit often. As seen in the movies, it is imperative that zombies
    are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble.”

    Nuclear weapons are indicated!


  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    Nice to hear from you… how goes NaNoWriMo? That’s an ambitious project.

    Thanks for the link… although the math is beyond me, I admire the authors’ dedication to the question. You can believe the movies!


  5. flandrumhill Says:

    Thanks for stopping by fencer.

    I’ve been wondering lately why zombies seem to have hijacked the Space channel. It seems like every second commercial has zombies in it.

    This reason for its present popularity gets my vote:

    ‘#3. “Simplicity” — modern life is just too complex and harried. Let’s just get back to basics and deal with mindless cannibalistic killers.’

  6. Zombies, vampires and all that sort of thing are the harvest of our Gothic imaginations. As The UK Subs put it, quite some time ago, “We are the dead/The living dead.” Try and find yourself a copy of “Nightmare on Main Street – angels, sadomasochism and the culture of gothic” by Mark Edmundson. (Harvard Press, 1997) If Edmundson were revising his wonderful book today he would be writing a chapter on Tiger Woods.

  7. fencer Says:

    Hi flandrumhill,

    I was in another large bookstore today… the zombification was rampant…

    Thanks for coming by!


  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Mr. Beer,

    Thanks for your comments…

    Sounds like an appropriate book for this subject of “ghoulish obsession” in our times. I will see if our library has it…

    The culture does seem kind of stuck in that trend, but then I wonder if it isn’t all marketing… come up with something ever more outrageous to catch people’s attention, and the extremes of sex (vampires) and death (zombies) are guaranteed to do that.

    I keep returning in my own mind to the theme of Malik’s book noted above.

    I think my own gothic imagination is lacking. I wonder why do we only stop to look up at the stars from the gutter where we’ve just finished retching out our excesses?

    And poor old Tiger… he’s devised his own horror show…


  9. […] I’m not a horror movie buff nor one normally interested in zombies or other such boogeymen. I’ve even written about my bemusement at the entire notion of zombies (see Why Zombies?). […]

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