“Zombies are so passé, so mass marketed,” my wife nonchalantly informed me while she nibbled on grilled sweet potatoes at lunch. Coming from a lady who was a devoted bedtime reader of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and World War Z, this was significant. For her, seeing zombies on inane car commercials was like me hearing the Ramones and Iggy Pop used as innocuous backdrops for multinational conglomerates. Zombies have been sedated and sold, prepackaged as pitiful empty signifiers.
Even the Center for Disease Control recently seized on the popularity of the zombie trope to disseminate Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. The usually dry, memo-like government bureau’s decrees amounted to “tongue-in-cheek advice on its blog to inspire people to make at least basic preparations for a real emergency,” reported the LA Times. Some 30,000 viewers rushed to the site, crashing it like zombies grabbing at the same skull. Recent articles that borrow zombie phraseology include “Does Legalized Marijuana Mean the Zombification of America?” (Steve the Zombie, Zombie Zone News.com, 19 March 2011), “Obamanomics and the Zombification of American Business” (End the Illuminati Conspiracy, author unknown)m “Germs R Us: The Zombification of America” (Sonia Aurora, Pink Ray Gun, 22 April 2011) and “Tunisia and the Zombification of War” (Jeff Sparrow, Overland, 20 January 2011).
And if you haven’t picked up Ryan Mecum’s Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry for Your… Brains and Scott Kenemore’s Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead recently, then shame on you, pop trend follower.
I am equally guilty, to some degree, of zombie fascination. I devote an entire chapter of my upcoming book Visual Vitriol: The Punk Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation, which dissects and explores the legacy of punk street art such as stencils and gig flyers, to the metaphors and allegories of horror. Punk lore swims with images of the undead and monstrous, the uncontrolled and the napalmed. Such symbolism is an intrinsic part of punk’s rhetorical position, rough writerly devices, and death-infused narratives.
Acid-drenched proto-punker Roky Erickson, who once called matinee movie horror his religion, released “I Walked with a Zombie”, an eerily beautiful mantra that consists of the single line “I walked with a zombie… last night” ad infinitum, while Detroit icon Iggy Pop released the album Zombie Birdhouse in 1982. The same year, during a transition from punk to hardcore, the Misfits released “Astro Zombies”. Other camp horror punk bands had already staked their ground by then too, including the Cramps, 45 Grave, and True Sounds of Liberty.
In punk flyer art, the so-called “normal world” is mobbed by ugly and ripped bodies, of detested bodies, which are supposed to subordinate themselves to law and order. Pathetic and lifeless, like a teenager’s life who cares little for organized sports, religion, or studies, such bodies are re-animated in these drawings and illustrations, cocooned in their own sense of power, revealing an instant visual vocabulary spelling out an anti-authority (God, parent culture, civil society) presence. Feared and loathed, unable to be disciplined or acculturated, the undead are nimble, fierce, gargantuan, and unbound.
They resemble the fragments of our dead past, re-making cities as their own. Carnivorous and devouring, they challenge the righteous inhabitants — the leaders of science and rationality. Incubated in pain, misery, and abjection, these morbid figures redefine being an ‘outsider.’ These atavistic, primordial figures transplant the goo of our most primal selves into the arena of body politic and social discourse. Parents, teachers, scientists, and police try to relegate youth, but imagined as avatars— the electrified dead bodies of the miscreant and maladroit – they are indeed uncontrollable.
George Romero’s undead films, beloved by the Ramones and many others, exemplify the zombie genre during the VHS era. Night of the Living Dead (1968), the black and white opus filmed in Evans City, Pennsylvania during the height of race riots and Vietnam, takes place at a lone rural house, racially integrated by necessity. Dawn of the Dead (1978) unfurls mostly at a secluded, shut-off mall, while Day of the Dead (1985), the third installment of his zombie series, features an embattled underground military bunker in Florida. As such, Romero deftly dissects America’s three-pronged institutions: the domestic, commercial/capitalistic, and military/technical spheres from the ‘60s to the ‘80s.
All three invoke and provide penetrating insight into basic human fears of otherness, science, and the integrity and sanctity of human bodies. As the humans are outflanked and surrounded by the living dead, Romero reveals a true gore aesthetic: the human body is less a vehicle for rational discourse than a vulnerable landscape of muscle, tissue, and bone. People are highly fragile units: a rib cage can easily be pried open, a heart yanked out, and an intestine gnawed on in total deprivation. He offered a campy pornography of morbidity.
The zombies transgress the boundaries of what it means to live in the age of enlightenment and reason. They seem totally depraved, lack any basic control, and their pure flesh-eating impulse and animalism is a surrender to pure over-riding function—must eat, satisfy a DNA instinct, not exactly hunger, but brain need. To witness 1968, Romero suggests in the first film’s cinema of in-fighting whites and black men in duress, was like (to quote a later song title by Funkadelic) watching “America Eats Its Young”. Humanity was gnawing at itself, pursuing out of control science and industry (pesticides, jelly bombs, radiation), consumerism, racism, and mass media hysteria.
The films underscore and reveal people’s intense fear of isolation and disconnection. Hunted by their own kind, people group together tenuously, and this microcosm embodies a Lord of the Flies conundrum. Writer Scott Bukatman once told my film class at the University of New Mexico that just as religion attempts to negate people’s physical being – “our fears that we may just be bodies” – the advanced technological state defends not the self, but the intellect, as an “autonomous and independent” machine that both represses base animal desires and tries to shape, shield, or disempower bodily instincts. The brain is treated like a microprocessor that can be tinkered, toyed, and fixed in order to make sure people postpone gratification. The zombies, however, have been unshackled from such constraints. They symbolize decontrol.