By Angela Tenga, Assistant Professor at School of Arts and Communication
It Seems Zombies are Everywhere
It seems that you can’t go far these days without running into zombies. Like the monster itself, zombie narratives and related artifacts proliferate at an astonishing rate. They are not only a subject of conversations between individuals but also a topic of cultural debate.
You’ve probably noticed that zombies come in a number of different varieties. The original zombie was a docile slave created through sorcery. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) brought us the flesh-eating, shambling corpse. Later, the fast-moving viral zombie (probably best known from the 28 films) arrived on the scene, followed by the swarming zombies of Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013). Today we even see sentient zombies, who are often curable or at least treatable (as in the 2013-2014 BBC series In the Flesh). This isn’t a complete list, but it covers many of the popular versions. Most people seem to prefer one type over others, but the popularity of the zombie in its various forms suggests that its flexibility and adaptability have contributed to its current prominence.
At a recent talk about zombies for Florida Tech’s Lifelong Scholar Society, I discovered that most people in the audience didn’t actually like zombie fiction but were curious about the source of the widespread fascination with this monster. This seemed like a great question, and the very fact that people came to hear a talk about a monster in which they weren’t fundamentally interested might be a clue. Like many people, they were drawn to what they didn’t understand. One of the things that monsters often represent is simply the unknown.
Undead zombies remind people of … death
Undead zombies remind people of one of the biggest and, for many, most frightening unknowns: death. The walking corpse visually conveys the terror that many humans experience when contemplating mortality. The dead who come to consume us and whose bite makes us like them express our knowledge that one day, each of us must become a corpse. Contemporary society also suffers from a related anxiety: fear of aging and disease. Our cultural obsession with preserving our youthful appearance and prolonging life is linked to both zombies and vampires, but in an inverse way. Most vampires produced for the popular marketplace reflect our fantasies of eternal youth and beauty (think, for example, of the CW’s The Vampire Diaries); zombies, in contrast, reflect our nightmares of physical corruption and decay.
Many scholars have also studied the link between the representation of zombies and the conditions of late capitalist society in the West. In particular, zombies represent rampant consumerism (remember how they were drawn back to the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead (1982)?). Consumption is the zombie’s only drive, and its bite turns others into ravenous consuming machines. The zombie as machine suggests another level of this monster’s symbolic range. The soulless, mindless zombie reflects concerns about the increasing reliance on technology in a mechanized age. Our daily interactions with machines of all sorts—including computers, cell phones, and automated voice response systems—may make us feel that we are surrounded by an unliving, unthinking, unfeeling world. We may also fear that we ourselves are becoming “zombified”—less aware of and responsive to the human beings right in front of us as we focus more and more on technologically mediated interactions.
Our anxiety about our identities in such a world is a further source of zombie meaning. Commonly depicted as a collective body or an undifferentiated horde, zombies represent the erasure of individuality. In most narratives, zombies no longer have the personal qualities that defined them before their zombification—unlike vampires, whose distinctive traits typically carry over from their human lives.
Zombie fiction stimulates debate about the human condition
Perhaps above all else, one of the key sources of the appeal of zombie fiction is its ability to stimulate debate about the human condition. Many of the best zombie narratives focus on the human survivors and their struggle not only to endure, but also to preserve vestiges of what they know as their “humanity”—their socializing and civilizing impulses, morality and ethics, compassion and community. Fans of AMC’s The Walking Dead will likely agree.
There are many other ways to think about zombies, but this brief review will, I hope, get you started on formulating your own approaches to reading zombies. Finally, I’d like to add that in the interest of economy, I’ve avoided incorporating specific references to the work of scholars in the fields of horror, monster studies, and zombie studies, but the ideas outlined above are informed by a wide body of work in these areas. I hope interested readers will peruse the list of references that follows this piece and learn more from experts in these interrelated disciplines.
Asma, Stephen T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Bishop, Kyle. American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture. McFarland, 2010.
Christie, Deborah, and Sarah Juliet Lauro, eds. Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human. Fordham University Press, 2011.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Dendle, Peter. The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia. McFarland, 2001.
Keetley, Dawn, ed. “We’re All Infected”: Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human. McFarland, 2014.
Paffenroth, Kim. Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth. Baylor University Press, 2006.
Poole, Scott. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Baylor University Press, 2011.
Waller, Gregory. The Living and the Undead: Slaying Vampires, Exterminating Zombies. University of Illinois Press, 1986.