Whither Zombies?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Tim Cavanaugh links to some pseudo-intellectuals purporting to analyze why zombies are such popular monsters these days, especially given the top-ten ranking of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (which might make it possible for me to get my teenage son to read something vaguely related to Jane Austin). The pseudo-intellectual ramblings linking zombies to everything from Reagan’s Cold War policies to the current economic uncertainty prompted me to post the following comment:

I remember reading an analysis of the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that waxed that the story was a red-scare allegory of communist infiltration. Seemed to make sense at the time (I was twenty.) 
Years later I read an interview with the writer/director the movie. The interviewer ask him about how the fear of communism influenced the work. The writer was confused. They’d had no grand allegories in mind. They made a movie about evil clones because they had a desperate financial need to make a cheap horror movie but they were to broke to afford makeup or effects for monsters.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a zombie is just a zombie. People like zombie movies because zombies and the apocalyptic you’re-all-your-own setting they come with is genuinely horrifying. You can easily write interesting variations around the basic theme. Financially, zombies are cheap monsters and isolated farm houses are cheap places to film. Cheap, horrifying monsters explains the appeal of zombies for both film makers and their audiences, not tortuous allegories or appeals to zeitgeist.

I think most modern literary criticism seeks to exploit the analysis for political purposes instead of seeking to understand why and how the artist chose to tell the story as he did. The critics avoid trivial but true explanations and instead grasp at exotic but false ones solely to gain attention for themselves and their pet causes. 

Why would anyone need to presume that people find zombies scary out of some broader contemporary social or political phenomenon? The modern zombie created in George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead“* encapsulates many core human fears. Fear of the dead. Fear of a painful death. Fear of decaying flesh. Fear of contagious disease. Fear of betrayal. Fear of a loss of social order and support. 

Is there any social or political milieu or even any culture ever in which masses of nigh-indestructible ambulatory dead people trying to eat people alive is not a frightening thought? Even cultures that mummify the dead and keep them around would find the idea that grandpa’s corpse could come alive and eat the family disturbing. George Washington didn’t live under the threat of nuclear war nor did he face modern economic problems. Did that mean he wouldn’t find the thought of zombies frightening? 

Zombie stories (and most survival horror or science fiction) also appeal to us as parables about cooperation.  Beyond the physical excitement of the zombies themselves, a zombie story’s main drama evolves out of the conflicts between the survivors.  The beleaguered survivors must organize themselves and cooperate to escape the zombie menace and all zombie stories spend most of their time examining that process. 

Zombie stories, then, have broad, timeless appeal because they spin tales about universal human fears and behaviors. Film makers like zombies because they’re cheap monsters to portray. The politics du jour has nothing to do with their appeal but it tells us rather a lot about the people who think it does. 


*Interesting Trivia: Some people believe that the original concept for Romero’s zombies came from the original Belgian version of the children’s cartoon “The Smurfs” written five years before Romero made his movie. In a story whose title translates as “The Black Smurfs” a fly bite causes one of the Smurfs to turn black, non-verbal and to develop a compulsion to spread his condition by biting. The black Smurfs spread the disease until only a small number of survivors remain to fend off the attacking hoards of mindless biting black Smurfs. In the American version, the producers made the Smurfs purple to avoid any negative racial connotations. [video]

For our purposes we have to ask whether Romero somehow read a Belgian children’s comic in French or whether he recreated the scenario independently. If it’s the latter, it goes to reinforce the idea that the zombie story arises out of universal human fears and desires. Two authors would only independently create the same scenario if they independently recognized that the scenario triggered universal emotional responses in their audiences. 

8 thoughts on “Whither Zombies?”

  1. One might just as easily argue that there are reasons why some cheap-enough, scary-enough scenarios are chosen over others, as well as the reasons why certain aspects of any given depiction of a zombie apocalypse are given more weight, and that’s leaving out the tendency of any content-makers to imitate the successes that preceded them. It’s certainly no stretch to demonstrate that (all else being equal (which, granted, it never is)) the more commonly and closely applicable symbolism with attract the larger audience. You can, for instance, track the success of some fictional motifs across cultures.

    But you’d be right to suggest that it is often self-serving to suggest that there is only one cause for any broad phenomenon, much less an overtly political one.

  2. All of what you say being true, Shannon, you ignore how easily the phrase “Obama zombie” rolls off the tongue, like a percussive riff of linguistic legerdemain. I fear we are in for a long run of zombie essays and allusions for that reason alone.

    I must admit, large numbers of Obama followers are beginning to give me the willies, with their wide-eyed acceptance of the wildest contradictions and absurdities. But then, that is only political and ideological enslavement of the mind. In order for them to be true Obama zombies, would they not need to display gaping wounds and sores that will not heal?

    Whatever. Keep us appraised of the situation, please, Shannon. Anything might happen at this point.

  3. “most modern literary criticism seeks to exploit the analysis for political purposes instead of seeking to understand why and how the artist chose to tell the story as they did.”

    True enough, but the reader/viewer’s opinion re. what it “means” is literally, absolutely, just as valid as the creators.

    For my own part, since the last presidential election, I can’t get the zombie metaphor out of my mind. Scary.

  4. I can’t speak for everyone, but there is one aspect to zombies that appeals to certain rugged individuals. A person who is prepared and keeps their head can deal with the situation.


  5. James R. Rummel,

    Yes, all survival stories appeal to the self-sufficient individual in all of us. They also present interesting thought experiments about how one would respond in different situations no matter how strange.

    My son and his friends have spent considerable time discussing responses to zombie attacks. It sure beats the hell out of the “how do we survive the coming nuclear war” which occupied my friends and I back in the late 70’s early 80’s.

  6. BTW, for the uninitiated, who may be interested, HULU (free movie provider) features Night of the Living Dead.

  7. Tryouth: Those viewpoints are ‘equally valid’ only in the trivialest sense. Someone viewing a Batman film and concluding that the Illuminati are running the government has a ‘valid’ POV, but it’s a useless one. My reading the Old Testament as a string of dirty jokes is valid–I read it that way, after all–but it has rather little to do with the intent of the writers nor the generally accepted view of its meanings.

    Only when I am able to convince a majority that my reading is superior to all others does my POV equal that of earlier ones. Until then, it remains an outlier that can be read as fruitcake.

  8. John Burgess
    I may be wrong, but I think that Tyouth’s point is not that all literary criticism is equally valid but that an author/director/painter channels culture as well as creates it, transcends as well as transforms his medium, etc. Sound criticism does not (and should not) always primarily value the creator’s stated purpose. After all, generally that stated purpose is to make money – sure the great Victorian novel is huge because most were first published as serials in periodicals and that was the demand of that marketplace. They wanted to sell. Superficial thinking may believe such statements trump all. Well, maybe for some who persist in seeing a two-dimensional world. But that is hardly the beginning and ending of a thoughtful understanding of art.

Comments are closed.