What’s With All The Zombies?

by Tim Sommers

This year – 2018 – marks something truly auspicious. This is the semi-centennial of the invention of the Zombie. In these fifty years, let’s face it, we have been completely overrun. Zombies are everywhere. They are in our movies, tv shows, books, and comic books, plus, out here in the real world where the Center for Disease Control has a comprehensive Zombie preparedness and education plan and there are Zombie-walks, Zombie-conventions, and, anyway, didn’t you see them this Halloween? The most popular Zombie tv show, “The Walking Dead”, has been streaming for almost ten years – and the comic book it is based on is still going strong. At least one Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author has written a straight-up zombie novel – Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One”. So, what’s with all the Zombies?

I should just ask my mom. She’s 73 and she loves Zombies. I did ask my brother. He said, “Zombie movies are the new westerns.” I think he meant that they are about how people survive and cope, especially with each other, against a backdrop of lawlessness. And they both involve plenty of gun-play and violence. That seems basically right to me. But, still, if that’s the appeal of the genre, what is the appeal of the Zombies themselves? Let me come back to that. Let’s start with how the Zombie invasion started fifty-years ago.

The man who invented Zombies, as you probably know, was George Romero, though he called them “ghouls” initially in the script he co-wrote with James Russo for “Night of the Living Dead” – the original, amazing, shoe-string budget, indie Zombie flick. The word comes, of course, from 19th century West Indian religious practices – that’s “voodoo” to you – but those “zombies” have almost nothing to do with ours. We just stole the word (as we are apt to do). Romero’s Zombies are mysteriously-reanimated, formerly dead, people that hunger for human flesh – and they are relentless, but usually slow and clumsy, in their quest to eat you. What they have on their side, in most treatments, is sheer numbers. The horror of “Night of the Living Dead” is usually described as “claustrophobic”.

If you are not a fan, you might be surprised to hear that Zombies, unlike ghosts or vampires, are not supposed to be supernatural – at least not usually. Zombies are caused by radiation from a downed satellite (“Night of the Living Dead”), a disease (“28 Days Later”, “The Walking Dead”), or toxic gas (“Return of the Living Dead”). The closest we come, in the canon, to a supernatural explanation for Zombies is when Peter says in “Dawn of the Dead” that “My granddad…used to tell us, ‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth’.” But I take it Pete was just being melodramatic.

If I could choose, I think I’d rather be George Romero than, say, Cormac McCarthy – or even Colson Whitehead. First of all, Romero’s original trilogy (“Night of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead”, and “Day of the Dead”) were not simply great horror movies, but incisive, and often funny, social satires (about racism, consumer culture, and science’s troubled relationship with the military, respectively. In fact, the social critique is so central to the stories that when Tom Savini remade “Night of the Living Dead” it was, at least in part, to update the gender politics of the original. And even Zach Snyder’s flashy, kinetic remake of “Dawn of the Dead” – with its “fast Zombies” – wouldn’t work without the bare bones of the original’s social critique: Why isn’t living at the mall paradise?)

But, of course, that’s not really why I want to be Romero. I want to be the man who invented a genuinely new monster on par with the classics – ghosts, werewolves, vampires, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Giant Monsters (King Kong, Godzilla, etc.), hostile aliens, and mummies. Or, more accurately, I want to be the man who invented a new type of monster, maybe, even (as I think of it) a new archetype of a Monster. Sure, there are lots of great, original, contemporary, one-off monsters like the aliens from the “Alien” movies, the giant worms from “Tremors”, the thing that just endlessly walks towards you from “It Follows”, or whatever that thing is in “Splinter”. But the Zombie is its own unique kind of thing and something so compelling as a category of Monster that it is hard to imagine that it could have ever not existed.

Zombie movies, however, are not just about the monster. The typical Zombie scenario is one in which suddenly, again usually for sketchy but presumably naturalistic reasons, everybody who is dead or dies or gets bitten by a Zombie becomes a Zombie. Hence, the genre tends to be apocalyptic. Picture vampires who bite everyone they come across, turning them into vampires who bite everyone they come across. Think exponential growth.

In fact, vampires provide the standard comparison Monster for Zombies. They both start as human. They are both turned by being bitten. They are both sometimes referred to as “undead”. The difference between vampires and Zombies is that when you get bitten by a vampire you basically acquire superpowers, but when you get bitten by a Zombie you quickly become a shambling, decaying mess. The most relevant precursor to the apocalyptic zombie movie, in fact, is probably Richard Matheson’s vampire apocalypse tale “I Am Legend” – which has itself been made a movie four times (so far). It concerns the last survivor of Zombie-style, vampire apocalypse, Neville, who ends up concluding that, as the last human in a world of vampires, he has become the Real Monster. There’s the difference. No one would ever, ever conclude that in a Zombie movie. (Revealingly, in terms of the triumph of Zombies, however, in the most recent, Will Smith-version of “I Am Legend”, the “vampires” are basically indistinguishable from Zombies.)

Another interesting comparison is Zombies to ghosts. Ghosts are supernatural, obviously, but more importantly, they are spiritual in nature – Zombies are all body, stinking, rotten body. (It’s true, however, that ghosts, despite their spiritual nature, usually wear ghostly clothing, presumably to avoid embarrassment. Go figure. Wittgenstein remarked on this, by the way. He also liked Westerns. Maybe he would have liked Zombie movies.) Anyway, the idea that we will all have some kind of ghostly, spiritual afterlife is widespread across many cultures since ancient times, of course; so, as it is easy to forget, the greatest theological innovation of Christianity was not the idea of an afterlife, it was the idea of bodily resurrection. Zombies are bodily resurrection with a vengeance. Maybe, there is some extra horror for Christians in seeing bodily resurrection go so wrong. Or, maybe, the extra horror is for us nonbelievers. Maybe, Zombies are what bodily resurrection looks like in a world with no god.

I could go on like this all day. I should write a book on Zombies. But, for the moment, I said I was going to try to get at the appeal of Zombies. And I said I would start with my mom. So, here goes.

The first thing to say is that my mom does like a little gore. Once I brought a couple of friends over and we happened upon her burying a stray animal in our backyard. They told her they thought that was sweet. She told them, “No, you don’t understand. I’m going to dig it up later and make something out of the bones.” So, there’s that.

But I noticed that even though she had seen many Zombie movies before, the first one she really loved was the remake of “Dawn of the Dead”. And I think that one thing she loved about it is that the main character and, more or less the de facto leader of the group, is a woman. Then later she told me that her favorite character, by far, on “The Walking Dead” was Carol, who – over the course of the first season – goes from being a meek, abused wife to the most ruthless survivor of the group – sometimes too ruthless.

Eventually, I realized, from talking to her about it, that this wasn’t the deepest reason she loved Zombie movies. See, my mom grew up in true, deep poverty. Even though she clawed her way into the middle-class, I think, some part of her thinks (correctly, believe me) that she could have done more, had more, if she had had a better, fairer start. I think – no, I know – that she thinks she would be a survivor, maybe, even a leader, in a Zombie apocalypse. Or, anyway, some part of her secretly longs for a reshuffling of the deck and a second shot to come out on top.

I don’t know if other people feel that way or not. In Whitehead’s “Zone One” – as I read it – the appeal of the fallen, Zombie world is just straight-forwardly to the wild freedom it affords. Ironically, the main character feels trapped in the safe zone where he is holed up behind barricades with an entire army, so that when the Zombie herd overruns Zone One, and he must scramble to escape, a companion asks, “Why are you smiling?”

“Shame rippled through him,” Whitehead tells us, “the echo of a civilized self…He was smiling because he hadn’t felt this alive in months.”

So, that’s part of how Zombie movies are the new Westerns. They are about freedom and the possibility of a new start. And Zombie movies are not mainly about Zombies or our fraught relationships with Zombies – which is never very complicated (they try to eat us, we try, first, not to get eaten and then, later, and where possible, to destroy their brains so they will stop trying to eat us). Zombie movies are really all about our relationships with other people. They are about how we might treat each other in a new wild west with no law, no overarching authority, and no one in charge. The lesson of most Zombie movies is as straight-forward as it is depressing: the only thing worse than Zombies is other people.

But there are other kinds of apocalyptic movies about people struggling in a world without laws. There are the Mad Max movies. There are a bunch of movies where various sort of pandemics or other disasters, natural and un-, wipe out almost everyone. And more. But none of these seem to have had the draw of the Zombie apocalypse story. Why? It must have something to do with the appeal of Zombies themselves, the appeal of Zombies as Monsters.

Here’s one possibility. It turns out my brother is not the only one who thinks Zombie movies are the new westerns. Paul Cantor writing about “The Apocalyptic Strain in Popular Culture” gives the idea a decidedly racist twist (The Hedgehog Review, v. 15, #2 (Summer 2013).

He says that Zombie movies are westerns where the Zombies play the role of the “Indians” – “the barbarian horde” (his words). He makes Zombies the other. He has it exactly backwards. Zombies are not so scary because they are the other. Zombies are so scary because they are us.

Chuck Klosterman has an even worse, albeit less racist, theory about the appeal of Zombies – one that he shared in no less a venue that “The New York Freakin’ Times”. He says that the Zombie movie is all about repetition and its discontents. Zombies, he says, are like the internet. (No, he really says that. Go read it.) On the internet we are forced to delete crap over and over, endlessly. Which is like killing Zombies – in that, I guess, it is very repetitive. That’s the theory. It seems like a theory posited by someone who finds Zombie movies very boring. It’s bullshit, of course. (And to his credit, Klosterman has basically disowned this theory and admitted he knows nothing of Zombies – which is obviously true. (Well, what he actually says is it that the story he wrote is “about Zombies (but just barely)” and he admits that he only watched the first episode of “The Walking Dead” and he doesn’t mention a single Zombie movie other than “Night of the Living Dead”.)  Chuck Klosterman, X, Blue Rider Press, New York, p. 21.)

So, let’s be clear. The horror of Zombies is not that killing them is repetitive. Zombies are not “Indians” or immigrants or the revolting underclass (except in “The People Under the Stairs” where they are definitely the proletariat, but (spoiler alert) they also are not (as it turns out) actually Zombies after all). Part of the horror of Zombie movies comes from the gore – including people being eaten. There is also the claustrophobia created by Zombies’ sheer numbers. And there are any number of other horrors. But the great, resonant horror of the Zombies is that they are us – and doubly so.

Before the bit about Hell being full, what Pete says about Zombies in “Dawn of the Dead” is that “They’re us, that’s all.”  And they are us, first and foremost, literally, us. They are often presented in uniforms so that we can see they were, until very recently, firefighters, nurses, or crossing guards. Children are the worst, the most disturbing Zombies, because they are, as children, all of ours. And in the course of an average Zombie story, our immediate companions, our friends, even our step-Fathers and our mothers (“Shaun of the Dead”), are killed, and become, before our eyes, Zombies. And we know that if we are killed – unless our brain is destroyed – we, too, will become one of them. Zombies are what we ourselves inevitably become after the Zombie apocalypse. Which is horrifying, partly, just because, to oversimplify, Zombies have terrible hygiene.

But there is another sense in which they are us or, anyway, we can become them. The Zombie story is always about the struggle to survive. The line most-often repeated on “The Walking Dead” is, “We’ve all done things.” A line disturbing in its vagueness, as much as anything. What things? And, anyway, what are Zombies? They are shambling, shuffling, pointless appetite. They move – I won’t say live – just to eat, even though eating has no point for them, and going on as nothing but horrific appetite also has no point. They are the Monster of appetite. But the struggle to survive in the Zombie world requires of us that “we do things” – things that threaten our very humanity. If we go too far, if we are willing to do anything just to eat and run and go on, how are we not already them? That is to say, we are, if we are willing to do just anything, already pointless, inhuman appetite ourselves. To retain our humanity, we have to not only not get bitten and find food and supplies, we also have to refuse to do certain things, to sacrifice certain things. What things? That’s the deep question of the Zombie story. What things must we not do no matter what? We have to figure that out or, otherwise, we are not different from them – we also are mere walking appetite without scruples or remorse.

Maybe, though, Zombies need no explanation. They are dead people trying to eat you. What’s not to like? In any case, I’m sure you saw some Zombies this Halloween. What you didn’t see, I bet, is any people dressed up as the survivors of a Zombie apocalypse. Why do you suppose that is? Maybe, it’s just that the point of dressing up for Halloween, originally, was to dress as what you feared – to ward it off or fool it into passing you by. Or, anyway, what do Zombie survivors look like? Just anyone – maybe, with a machete or a little dirt on them. But, then again, what do Zombies look like? They look like you – only rottener.

I have seen the enemy. And they are us. And they are going to eat you. My advice? Run! And don’t stop running.