188922-the-years-work-at-the-zombie-research-center

The Year’s Work at the Zombie Research Center

The Year's Work at the Zombie Research Center answers any questions you might have about the burgeoning field of zombie studies.

Introduction: The Zombie Research Center FAQ

Excerpted from The Year’s Work at the Zombie Research Center, edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

We’re sure you’ve noticed that zombies are everywhere these days. Why else would you be reading this book? As it says in the stairwell: the end is extremely fucking nigh. [#zombies.] In the bunker, out on the rooftop, inside and out back, stalking the horizon, zombies pose significant threats to both human identity and human civilization. Who are they? What do they want? How do they “think”? What do they mean? The recent explosion of zombies in film, literature, graphic novels, video games, and fan culture is inescapable. Even sociology, philosophy, and literary theory have gotten into the zombie act, elaborating core concepts around borrowings from this undead corner of pop culture. But who has time to read a book—let alone a tome as hefty as The Year’s Work at the Zombie Research Center—during a zombie apocalypse? Perhaps you’re curious about your world. (A little late, no?) Perhaps you need a few tips. In this book we’ll look at zombie cult classics; historical documents from America, Europe, and the Caribbean; and some “zombie theory” by philosophers, sociologists, and literary theorists. We’ll also consult some of the more recent hits from the ever growing zombie corpus in order to explore the contemporary meanings of the zombie and the zombie world. At the Zombie Research Center we’ve grown desensitized to the groans and eye rolls that names like Freud, Derrida, or Lacan sometimes elicit. You should never feel stupid for ordering brains. As you’ll find, though, zombie culture today is as shapeless and mutable as an actual zombie horde—and often just as violent. Since any total theory of this field seems impossible, we’re here to provide not so much the “answer to infection” (as the broadcast in 28 Days Later says), but a few suggestions for brain work, tactical maneuvering, and sufficient day-to-day survival.

Why are we obsessed with zombies?

Obsession is a good word, but we like zombie fixation even better. Zombies are clearly the pop-cultural fixation of the moment; more than anything else, we seem to be under siege by an endless stream of zombie commodities (zombie-themed mugs, doormats, onesies, bumper stickers, etc.). Because people know we at the Zombie Research Center are keenly interested in the topic, sometimes we hear refrains like “zombies are so over” or “zombies are so dead.” It’s not hard for us to agree, but isn’t that the point? Zombies are dead, but they’re not. The zombie fad is perfect, because it’s autoimmunized from the kind of obligatory boredom dooming other fads. The zombie is “born” exhausted. It can’t die, because you can’t kill what’s not alive. “I’m so sick of zombies” doesn’t work either, because you’re supposed to be sick of zombies.

Psychoanalysis—in its examination of undying ideas and imperishable drives—provides one avenue for understanding zombie fixation. About the prefix un-: Freud gives us the definition of uncanny as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar” (Uncanny 124). The buried past returns, but in strange, distorted form, as in a dream, something at once desired and feared. The shock of the survivor in the face of the zombie is the shock of no longer knowing what’s on the other end of the gun: mother or other, father or fiend. Or the prefix ab-: in her feminist revision of Freud, titled Powers of Horror: An Essay on Objection, Julia Kristeva flags the abject as the decrepit thing that transgresses the boundary between subject and object. It occurs in four forms—disgust of (1) food, (2) bodily waste, (3) dead bodies, and (4) the mother’s body—which, taken together, harken back to the forbidden pleasures of infancy (which, not incidentally, supplies the grotesque fourfold in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive [aka Braindead; 1992]).

img-42656

0.1. Sean Bieri, “Ordering Brains” (2008)

Where Freud sees the castrating threat of the father, Kristeva detects the smothering power of the mother; where the uncanny signals psychological anxiety, the abject produces physical disgust. Faced with abjection, the survivor experiences not so much the immobility of shock, but a sort of convulsion—an instantaneous attraction/repulsion toward that which threatens pleasurable destruction: to smell the sour milk, to play with the shits, to kiss the corpse. Thus, the survivor as lusty wanderer, manic territorialist, sniffs out the sweet-smelling corpses in order to kiss/kill them: “A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of non-object, the abject—constantly question his solidity and impel him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray. He is on a journey, during the night, the end of which keeps receding” (Kristeva 8). (For more on the uncanny and the abject in the zombie tradition, see Stephen Watt’s report in chapter 1.)

And yet we hardly need to think about zombie fixation in human terms at all. Ozone holes, AIDS, Y2K, computer viruses, mad cow disease, SARS, MRSA, terrorist attacks, unending wars, miscellaneous hazmat, environmental degradation, climate change, self-replicating Ponzi schemes—panic culture grows around us, one unmanageable crisis after another, pushing our fascination with the zombie into the realm of hard science. In fact, given the state of emergency in which we currently conduct our lives, one can only chuckle at the quaint postmodernism of the “panic” concept as first outlined in the Panic Encyclopedia of 1989: “Panic is the key psychological mood of postmodern culture … as a floating reality, with the actual as a dream world, where we live on the edge of ecstasy and dread” (Kroker et al. 13–14). The Panic Encyclopedia locates its titular crisis in an imaginary collusion of science and culture (with postmodern physics affirming the hyperrealism of postmodern culture), but today’s panic culture seems to have leaped beyond anything like sociological critique. The zombie infection module has us thinking beyond all human perspectives and institutions, thinking through the organism rather than the person, thinking corporately instead of nationally, leaping anxiously between the microscopic and the macroscopic.

img-42656

0.2. Plague Inc., Ndemic Creations (2012).

As seen in the recent outbreak of outbreak films and the viral success of viral smartphone apps such as Plague Inc., zombie fixation flows everywhere through a mass-mediated virophilia. Derived from virus, a Latin word meaning a poisonous sap (“I tried to take a blood sample and instead extracted only brown, viscous matter” [Brooks, World War Z, 7]), and the Greek –phile, meaning, of course, one who loves, virophilia = infection + affection. The word speaks to (1) our fascination with both real and hypothetical contagions, plagues, viruses, and other agents of noxious transmission and (2) our obsessive etiological tracking of ideas, trends, and parasitic social malfunction back to its presumed origin, whether a batch of toxic sap, a polluted patient zero, a bite-marked child, rabid critter, microbe, prion, or spilled barrel of radioactive matter.1 In a way, virophilia points toward a much larger attempt to police cultural boundaries that have been delegitimized by the fluidity of multinational capital, the decentered power networks of transnational terrorism, and the rampant effects of pollution and ecological degradation. Susan Sontag nailed it years ago in Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. To represent disease as an “alien invasion” allows society to mobilize not just its more conservative emotions and desires, but also the necessary funds, resources, and power to preserve them. Thinking microscopically and macroscopically about infection frees us from the ethical considerations that marked prior treatment of other humans in our midst; science colludes with power to confront, paranoically, what is always couched as a “domestic disturbance” in an otherwise “pluralistic world” (105–106).

“I’m so sick of zombies” doesn’t work… because you’re supposed to be sick of zombies.

There’s no need to squabble about the precise nature of the outbreak. The film 28 Days Later (2002) stages it in a secret government lab at a university, a setting that speaks as much to widespread ambivalence about scientific research as it does to the failure of both liberal human ism and militarist nationalism to staunch the imperium in decline. They know not what they do, sayeth the chimp, moral animal-rights activists/ campus protesters, and venal university-military-industrial praetorians alike. Nothing in the film, however, seems so scary—or so poignant— as the drop of infected blood that falls from a crow’s foot into the eye of loving father Frank, one castrating drop that immediately sets him into a spastic, zomboid age and draws out a fatal rain of suppression gunfire from the military. But for virophilia-as-technophilia nothing beats [REC] (2007), the Spanish zombie classic that locks a bubbly late-night television reporter inside a quarantined building infected with a virus that is as much biological as it is demonic. [REC] is notable for the way it stages Angela’s degradation as spectator and spectacle; as the reporter confronts the stages of female life as a process of bodily corruption (culminating in the horrific sunken-breasted image of the “Medieros Girl”), so the audience is forced to confront its own desirous relation to gendered violence and decay. Here, though, the camera proves the best mediator of zombie fixation. “We have to tape everything,” Angela lustily shouts at Pablo, her cameraman, shifting her role from spectacle to spectator. The recording device serves to manage an OCD-like relation to abjection, containing as well as copying (inoculating and incubating) the disease that threatens bodily integrity. (For gender and feminism in the zombie tradition, see Andrea Ruthven’s analysis in chapter 10; for zombie technology and media, see Erik Bohman’s research in chapter 4.)

The Differences in New and Early Zombies

Are today’s zombies different from earlier ones?

We’re living in times of “peak zombie,” but some of the things that make zombies uncanny now have always been part of the zombie mix: their vacant robotic quality, their being neither alive nor dead, their association with rot and contamination, their underclass demography, and so on. The earlier varieties—both the Afro-Caribbean kind and the schlocky space vampire kind—seem quaint compared to the ravenous postapocalyptic schlock-fest on the loose today, but the changes have more to do with quantity rather than quality, speed over significance. Part of the reason for so much zombie stuff today is simply an issue of numbers. Zombies are contagious; thus, the horde can only grow in size, a fact that seems to speak to a culture that increasingly defines its hopes and fears in terms of statistics and demographics.

And nothing seems to die anymore. Everything thought or said exists in a virtual half-life, literally, in the massive digital crypt of the Internet, and experientially, in a world haunted, morally, philosophically, by its own pasts. Zombie philosophy, zombie economics, zombie computers, zombie genes—are these really any different from the zombie bikers, zombie nuns, zombie baseball players that first stalked the frames of George A. Romero’s films, generic doubles of their original, vital selves? Today’s zombies emerge with the pop culture of the ’50s and ’60s and thrive in the reduplications and redundancies of the culture industry; they are the dark shadows haunting the tragic margins of Andy Warhol’s repetitive pop art, the shadows that explicitly marked Warhol’s own death series, and they persist in the genre schlock of mainstream cinema and the memes of the Internet. Indeed, zombie killing has become as banal as deleting four hundred emails on a Monday morning, as Chuck Klosterman claims, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they must be killed or that the killing is not without its pleasures. In fact, today’s zombies—as numerous as they are virtual—cannot be conceived apart from the recent rise of video games, especially first-person shooters, such as Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, for which zombies are the perfect foil because they can be destroyed without the same moral hazard as killing other baddies.

img-42657

0.3. The Three Living and the Three Dead. Collotype after the Master of the Housebook (1488-1505).

But “today’s zombie” is a contradiction in more ways than one. Wherever there’s been culture (and culture might really be another word for germ, for the organization of life and death), there have been zombies. The pastoral tradition, one of the earliest forms of Western literature, is also essentially a zombie tradition. The shepherd is always essentially a shepherd-survivor. In Virgil’s Eclogues, for example, the shepherd’s life exists precariously, barely, between nature and civilization both; his flocks are threatened by disease, infection, and mis-breeding; his land and livelihood are subject to the violent whims of political and economic force. Everywhere, in the midst of sylvan reverie, there are shadows—dark “umbrae”—intimations of powerlessness and death. “Look where strife has led Rome’s wretched citizens,” cries the dispossessed Meliboeus. “We have sown fields for these” (35). Again and again, as much here as on Hershel’s farm or the prison camp or the streets of Mayberry in The Walking Dead, the law exposes its own lawlessness and thus opens the way for apocalypse: the oceans leave their fish on the shore, stags feed in the sky, mares mate with griffins, and, in Eclogue VIII the dead rise from their “deepest graves” to haunt the crops (91).

In the medieval legend of “The Three Living and the Three Dead,” too, the representatives of the civilized world—a duke, a count, a prince—encounter their own undead doubles at the fringes of civilization. The country jaunt always seems to imply a massacre, urging all witnesses to repent: “Such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be. Wealth, honor and power are of no value at the hour of your death.” Similarly, consider two pastoral paintings from the early 1600s, both titled Et in Arcadia Ego. In the work by Guercino from 1618 to 1622, the shepherds are startled by a grinning skull, here being picked over by a field mouse and a fly, well-known symbols for temporal decay and infectious disease, respectively. In Poussin’s version, from 1637 to 1638, the treatment is far subtler, more melancholic, and yet the shadow on the tomb suggests that here too death escapes its own monument. As Paul Alpers claims, pastoral depictions of landscape have little to say about actual nature. They are designed to address human strategies for living in the face of power—they give expression, in Alpers’s terms, to “human strength relative to world” (44). Remember, too, Romero’s first film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), opens with a weekend ride out to the country. Johnny and Barbra are planning to visit their father’s grave, but Johnny goes down in the graveyard and Barbra loses it behind the poorly boarded walls of a farmhouse. (On the topic of survival and the spaces of country and city, see Dan Hassler-Forest’s report in chapter 3.)

img-42657

0.4. Guernico, Et in Arcadia Ego (1618-22).

Zombies are as timeless as the genres in which they are ceaselessly revived. If the pastoral opens onto power and violence, then it is through convention—the deathliness of form itself—that death is confronted and honored. According to Alpers, the shepherd-survivor marks his relation to death via song. He sings his distress, his vulnerability and weakness, and thereby makes himself “representative” and gives his world “pleasing aesthetic form” (58–59). In this, genre proves the death of death. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and so on: representation—as re-presentation—becomes a form of survival and habitation, a way of maintaining order and balance. In fact, the shepherd-survivor usually sings of the death of an earlier shepherd. He sings both in honor of some fallen shepherd and in place of that shepherd and thus resurrects that shepherd in his song. In this the shepherd-survivor is always a genre artist, playing cover songs, using the undead forms of the past to confront the present, using the very deathliness of form to ward off death itself. Virgil takes up Theocritus as Danny Boyle covers George A. Romero as, in Eclogue V, Mopsus covers Daphnis—so one shepherd answers another, using the forms of the past to create not just a tradition, or lineage, in time, but a space, a community, in the present. Hence, Et in Arcadia Ego, the inscription—as undead refrain—speaks of and for the deathliness of form and in its very repetition proves its ability to be repeated, a source of sustenance and survival. As inscription, as monumental refrain, these words themselves mark a space, a convention; as utterance they make of their speakers both mortal and immortal, present in their absence, rich in their barrenness. (For more on zombie genre and literary invention, see Jonathan P. Eburne’s report in chapter 12.)

img-42657

0.5. Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego (1637-38).

What makes zombies so symbolically flexible?

Zombies come to light in some surprising areas of culture and cultural discourse—not just in Marxist manifestos and senate filibusters but also in themed weddings and kids’ movies. They’re not the branded monsters of the Universal Studios lot (even though there are “Romero” zombies, R-zombies, Romero fittingly never asserted his “moral right” of ownership on the idea), but are common, generic, allegorical. They’re low-rent by design—DIY, punkish, populist—anyone with some cheap makeup and fake blood can work up a decent, half-disgusting zombie. They (usually) don’t speak for themselves, so it’s easy to project all kinds of meanings onto them—dress them up in all kinds of costumes. “Ugh, I drank so much beer last night,” moans the student in the back row, “I feel like a zombie.” “I’m dying for a cup of coffee,” growls the office worker. “This meeting’s turning me into a zombie.” (On popular zombie performance, see Atia Sattar’s report in chapter 7.)

No one wants his or her son to be remembered as a zombie.

But even though zombies come across as (over)ripe for metaphorization, they themselves are not metaphors. If anything, they seem—in their quick violence and slow decay—to eat through the logic of metaphor. Is the biker zombie really an interpretation of the biker? Does the tap dancer zombie or the nun zombie offer a theory of the tap dancer or the nun? Like other signs, zombies tend to repeat themselves, but their jerky repetition is not animated by any apparent sense or meaning. Yes, they are remarkably formal—insofar as, in their death, they continue to mark out some formal coherence—but their decaying, discombobulated state tends to expose the arbitrariness of all such forms. The zombie’s status as undead— immortal in its mortality—exists in its being as sign, but only as it wreaks havoc on signification. Its weird temporality—the ideality of its repeatable form at odds with its corrupt moment-to-moment becoming—mirrors as it mocks the sign as such. As Jacques Derrida notes, “I am immortal” is an impossible proposition, because it contradicts the relation to death (my own disappearance, my own mortality) that marks the ideality of linguistic form. And yet this is precisely what the zombie says with every groan and growl—“I am immortal”—even as such “expressions” reflect back on our own impending demise (Speech and Phenomena 54).

Something of this formal repetition and its relation to time informs the very first scene of the very first film of the contemporary zombie era. Night of the Living Dead opens on a conversation about daylight savings time; Barbra and Johnny, visiting their father’s grave, argue about the long drive and the effects of the time switch. Johnny, in particular, grouses about the missing hour, suggesting that they’ve been pushed (or “dragged”) across time. This temporal slippage is doubled a moment later when Johnny, recalling his youth, chases his sister across the graveyard, pretending to be a monster. Oddly, he mocks a creature he has not yet encountered in the film, referring, ironically, to his own later doom. “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” he moans, as he is already coming to get her, making himself both a figure of her past and her future. In fact, he mocks a zombie that is now literally behind his own back, an only slightly paler man comically stumbling through the graveyard behind him, one whom he will later join as part of a larger zombie horde. In this, oddly, the zombie attack seems already past and always impending, always—like the zombie itself—behind and in front of you, marking an expansive temporal horizon of violence and terror. As Kanye West puts it down on his track “Monster,” “Everybody know I’m a motherfucking monster … / I’m living the future so the present is my past. / My presence is a present, so kiss my ass.

There’s something about these temporal lapses and repetitions that challenges the two most common interpretations of the genre: (1) that the zombie refers to some earlier trauma and thus figures as a form of collective psychosis, and (2) that it serves as a metaphor for a future revolutionary break and thus as a historical parable. All such theories assume the presence of repressed material as well as the possibility of its representation. But the zombie has no corporeal integrity; with its rotting flesh and exposed layers of muscle, bone, and organ, it has no depth, no repressed wish to be revealed or decoded. In a way the zombie body is not a sign, but rather a sticky surface that signs cling to and fall off of again—baseball caps, ball gowns, ties, watches. The zombie horde is the groundless ground against which the individual zombie rises and falls as a formal limit rather than an expression; it is like a refrigerator covered in poetry magnets, exposing the temporal decay or drift of all sign systems, their slow rot and ultimate arbitrariness. In turn, the zombie apocalypse becomes the moment of denegation, the negation of negation, when all signs lose their naturalness, when the figural becomes unbearably literal, splattered with blood and brains.

img-42657
img-42657

0.6. Jack Laughner, The Triumph of Death over Man
(KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON) (2011).

In other words, if the zombie eats through the expressive fantasies of cultural analysis, he exposes the activity of indication. For Derrida, expression involves a pleasing doubling of self within self, the moment when an intention—once it takes shape in language—reflects upon the intending mind. Indication, however, refers to the gestural dimension of language, its terrifying tendency to point elsewhere; indication makes language an external or exteriorizing phenomenon, forever faced outward; it brings the entire mortal world into play—“the living present”—if only as dark potential. In other words, indication, insofar as it exposes us to mortal space and time, figures as a mode of “orientation,” a way of placing ourselves in relation to mortal hazard (Speech and Phenomenon 37, 94). “Indication,” Derrida writes, “enters speech whenever a reference to the subject’s situation is not reducible, wherever this subject’s situation is designated by a personal pronoun, such as here, there, above, below, now, yesterday, tomorrow, before, after, etc.” (94; italics in original). Suddenly, speech exposes the speaker in space and time and thus sets the stage for the necessary work of orientation. The zombie as sign, behind you, over your shoulder, to the side, behind the door, in each instance, with each repetition, locates you within an unstable horizon of time and space. Linear time, epochal time, gives way to peristaltic convulsion, formal dilation, and contraction across an open field of intensities. (The word monster, we note here, derives from the Latin monstrum, meaning “omen, portent, sign,” as in demonstration.)

So we read zombie films not just for metaphors (of, say, consumer culture or Vietnam or AIDS) but for the explosion of sign systems that litter their frames—the blown newspapers, floating bills, illegible graffiti, unheard loudspeakers. As in Jack Laughner’s zombie-world masterpiece, The Triumph of Death over Man, the debris signals not just the terror of infrastructural collapse but also a giddy release from the discursive foundations of the law. Romero’s zombies are never so comically clueless as when they trip over the bright advertisements and parking signs that no longer signify anything in their defunct suburban “mallscape.” In fact, something of this linguistic subversion lies at the heart of all subcultural subversion; as in the Cramps’ “Zombie Dance,” the death of the signifier proves the life of the party (no squares allowed):

At the Zombie Dance Here’s Ben and Betty They tap their toes

But they don’t get sweaty They don’t give a damn They’re done dead already

At the Zombie Dance

Nobody moves

They tap their toes

Yeah, wiggle their ears to get in the groove, yeah

They do “The Boogaloo” At the Zombie Hall

They write “born to lose” On zombie restroom wall The kinda life they choose Ain’t life at all.

“No Future” is scrawled across the gates of Resurrection Cemetery in Return of the Living Dead (1985). (“I like it,” says Trash, “It’s a statement.”) “Who Cares?” is inscribed on the side of Suicide’s car. (“You think this is a fuckin’ costume?” he says. “This is a way of life.”) Et in Arcadia Ego. The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh. Watch Your Head. The zombie is always its own situationist slogan, raising all kinds of indiscernible charges and demands.

Zombies Are Fun Tools for Storytelling

What makes zombies such a “fun” tool to deal with heavy issues—mortality and civil rights, for instance?

This is how we know zombies are make-believe. And don’t tell us any of the usual stuff about Leuchochloridium paradoxum (zombie snails) or Ampulex compressa (zombie roaches) or Toxoplasma gondii (zombie rats). We know that zombies are make-believe because they are “fun.” If there really ever were a zombie apocalypse, then the “zombie walk”—where everyone dresses up as a zombie and stumbles through Main Street—is done (unless the idea is like the Bill Murray stratagem in Zombieland [2006], where you “zomb up” to sneak in a round of golf). Because zombies are already dead, they don’t inspire the same ethical handwringing as other monsters, and they can be killed with impunity. Zombies are like cartoon characters: they always bounce back, and then they don’t. In their dumb plasticity, they allow us to travesty death and other tabooed topics. In fact, a zombie might be nothing more than the butt of a joke. As Henri Bergson claimed, we laugh at a human behaving like a thing in order to relieve ourselves of our own thingliness. Laughter, like a good head shot, works to “soften down whatever the surface of the social body may retain of mechanical inelasticity.” It dissolves the “rigidity of body, mind, and character that society would like to get rid of in order to obtain from its members the greatest possible degree of elasticity and sociability” (73–74). The Evil Dead (1981), Dead Alive (1992), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland— zombie comedy, as splatstick, works a fine line between the laugh and the scream. “Horror, in some sense, oppresses; comedy liberates,” writes Noël Carroll in his influential essay “Horror and Humor.” “Horror turns the screw; comedy releases it. Comedy elates; horror simulates depression, paranoia, dread” (147). Cue Tallahassee and his banjo routine. Or, better, Bill Murray doing an impression of Bill Murray doing an impression of Zombie Bill Murray. The survivor becomes stand-up comedian, “killing it” night after night of the living dead.

We arm ourselves sufficiently—lightly, loosely, tactically—for academic survival.

And yet the thrill of such humor (as black humor, usually) no doubt derives from the very seriousness of its targets. We might as well argue that because zombies are not already dead, they do inspire ethical hand-wringing, and so they can never be killed with true impunity. Indeed, despite the popularity of first-person zombie shooters, the undead often have a special hold on our hearts. Their uncertain status—as alive or dead, sick or evil, misunderstood or hateful—often puts a halt to the killing spree. (See John Gibson’s report on zombie ethics and philosophy in chapter 13.) While earlier zombies carried associations with slavery and the slave trade (associations that Romero sometimes references in his films), more contemporary versions come across as misunderstood minorities. One encounters the inevitable sensitive zombie portrayal in romance novels such as S. G. Browne’s Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament and Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, in which the zombie follows its vampire kinfolk into the generic trope where the revenant monster provides some lesson about the misprision of identitarian difference. Tellingly, these allegorical narratives feature zombies who [sic] lead richly subjectivized inner lives and thus come across as a little less zombie. In Marion’s novel this quality is itself a side effect of brain consumption; the first-person-zombie narrator named R ingests memories and experiences from the gray matter of his prey. Something similar occurs in Warm Bodies, a tweener retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but here rehumanization and social assimilation occur mostly through the warming passions of young love.

Better, Bruce LaBruce’s films, especially Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008), explores the links between zombies and queer sexual difference (the two groups are conceptually united in the film via their shared desire for “man-flesh”). As an ironic documentary of the “gay plague,” the film smartly toys with the metaphorization of the zombie figure: each character wants to read Otto’s zombification as an expression of something else: late capitalist accumulation, environmental collapse, heteronormative power, and so on. “Now raise your hand up out of the grave,” shouts the director, Medea Yarn (who is obviously a Marcuse fan). “Raise it as a protest against all the injustices perpetrated against your kind. Raise it in solidarity with the weak and the lonely and the dispossessed of the earth, for the misfits and the sissies and the plague-ridden faggots who are buried and forgotten by the heartless, merciless, heteronormative majority. Rise! Rise!” The film, though, cuts through such clatter to focus on the emotional intensity of queer desire and the necessity of care in the face of hate. In the end, Otto accepts zombie performance as a potential form of social critique, but, while preserving something of his critical coldness, he nonetheless goes off down the road seeking others of his kind.

Matthew Shepherd and Roy Boney Jr.’s Dead Eyes Open—a graphic novel about civil rights for zombies—makes being dead the only functional difference between zombies and non-zombies (they can talk, they have feelings, they think, they’re not ravenous for fresh human flesh), and it also tries not to trivialize it. When it comes out that a doctor, who just happens to be a zombie, is secretly experimenting on himself—cutting open his abdomen to undertake covert medical forensic research on his strange condition—his non-zombie colleagues are disgusted by this development, though they follow good form by concealing their revulsion from him and vomiting around the corner. In this case, zombiehood becomes a cipher for illness and stigma, and the lesson is mitigating against aversion to the suffering human other, gruesome or otherwise. The questions raised by all such texts, however, concern less the ins and outs of zombie physiology than the relation of identity and its social performance. They do not necessarily ask “What is a zombie?” but rather “What does it mean when I say ‘you are a zombie’ or you say ‘I am a zombie?’” And “What kinds of treatment and rights can be expected from one who is called a zombie?” (See Stephen Shapiro’s report on zombie health care in chapter 5.)

It’s hard out there for survivors, though, too. At its most theoretical, the zombie narrative asserts a “state of nature” paradigm in which, with the breakdown of sanctioned law and the rational public sphere, each survivor is forced to revisit his or her ethical principles. In fact, with its emphasis on the “extreme case,” the zombie genre has risen in recent years to provide something like a vernacular forum for the study of ethical deliberation. No zombie text demonstrates this better than The Walking Dead, which seems with each entry more and more like an Aristotelian proving ground for the testing of moral virtue in the face of extreme passion and violence. The series—both the graphic novel and the television show—originally proved notable for showing that the basic zombie genre could be extended beyond the scope of immediate apocalypse. Splicing the DNA of both the soap opera and the horse opera into a postapocalyptic framework, writer Robert Kirkman and his collaborators turned what has always been little more than a ninety-minute countdown to death into a multiyear epic with both character development and intergenerational conflict. And yet the series remains urgent today insofar as the circumstances of its world continue to press its characters to assess their ethical investments in the old world and its institutions: marriage, family, friendship, the law, religion, work, and so on. While examples abound, we only need point here to Dale, the bucket-hatted octogenarian and ex–car salesman. Dale’s undying liberal heart comes to the fore as he makes his impassioned speech near the end of season two of the TV version, urging his fellow survivors to spare the life of a prisoner locked in their barn:

Killing him, right? I mean why bother to even take a vote? It’s clear which way the wind’s blowing.. So the answer is to kill him for a crime he didn’t even attempt? If we do this, we’re saying there’s no hope. Rule of law is dead. There is no civilization… This is a young man’s life, and it is worth more than a five-minute conversation. Is this what it’s come to? We kill someone because we can’t decide what else to do with him? You saved him, and now look at him. He’s been tortured. He’s gonna be executed. How are we any better than those people that we’re so afraid of? … Not speaking out or killing him yourself, there’s no difference… You once said that we don’t kill the living… Don’t you see if we do this, the people that we were, the world that we knew is dead. And this new world is ugly, it’s harsh, it’s survival of the fittest. And that’s a world that I don’t want to live in. And I don’t believe that any of you do. I can’t. Please. Let’s just do what’s right. (“Judge, Jury, Executioner”)

“What’s right” is precisely what comes into question as soon as the laws and institutions that enforce its meanings start to crumble. Yet it takes nothing less than an apocalypse to make us aware of this point, an apocalypse in which both the efficacy of these values and the man who proclaims them meet, by episode’s end, an ignoble end.

Are there any famous—even celebrity—zombies?

How could there not be zombie all-stars—or, what we like to call S- zombies (special- or star-zombies)? Living death is such an anomalous condition. Until recently, the few exemplars who walked around after death were unfailingly sources of notoriety and controversy, and in that alone they have well-remembered names. Among the “special” zombies for an all S-zombie team, in addition to Johnny, Bub, Big Daddy, Tar-man, Otto, Fido from Fido (2006), Eddie the Head (the mascot of the metal band Iron Maiden), and Ed from Shaun of the Dead, we might include Samuel and Lazarus from the Bible; Felicia Felix-Mentor and Clairvius Narcisse, two real-life Haitian zombies; Jeffrey Dahmer and Rudy Eugene, killers whose deeds have been associated with zombies; and Zombie Boy, a real person who has tattooed himself to look like a zombie. For obvious reasons there are more zombie fans—deadheads, metalheads, phishheads, and so on—than there are zombie celebrities. In most cases, fictional or otherwise, names just don’t stick with decaying corpses after death. Like Johnny from Night of the Living Dead, zombies won’t answer to their former names. Remember, Barbra, Johnny isn’t Johnny anymore; he’s just a zombie that wears driver’s gloves. Sometimes the living tag the dead with new nicknames, pet names—Bub, Tarman, Fido—but these don’t so much designate inward as indicate outward, pointing to something terrific on the screen or something horrific up the path (see discussion of “indication” above).

And yet Western culture provides more than its share of proto-zombies, figures that, in contrast to their slaving Afro-Caribbean counterparts (which we’ll turn to below), serve mostly to test the boundaries of life and death, the fragility of genealogy, and the power of creation. Among the first S-zombies is the Hebrew prophet Samuel. Samuel’s strange return—through the exertions of the Witch of Endor as requested by King Saul—provides an early version of the unhappy, abominable dead: “Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?” asks the undead Samuel before prophesying Saul’s downfall (1 Samuel 28:15). Bracketing all controversies about the zombie character of Jesus, the notable instance of living death in the New Testament is, of course, Lazarus—a name significantly intertwined with zombie discourse. The raising of Lazarus after four days in the tomb, stinking of death, provides an object lesson of Jesus’s divine powers (John 11:38–44). The “undeath” of Lazarus—whether he remains a “dead man” after death or a “man that was dead”—gives the episode its nagging zomboid quality. “Lazarus, come out!” sayeth the zombie master (John 11:43). But why doesn’t Lazarus speak? Why no proof viva voce? Is seating the undead Lazarus at the dinner table in the next chapter a normal occurrence? Does all the business about costly ointments also have something to do with masking away the stink of death away from the Seder (John 12:3–7)?

John Connolly’s excellent short story “The New Lazarus” picks up on these themes. The Deadman from Bethany returns as bare life, a filthy abomination, cursed, infested with “small things burrowing in his flesh,” “bloated with gas and fluids”:

His sisters are kissing him and speaking his name. “Lazarus! Lazarus!”

Yes, that is his name.

No, that is not his name.

It was once, but Lazarus is no more, or should be no more. Yet Lazarus is here. (1)

Connolly’s story puts a bright line under a certain embarrassment about the dead (and the more illustrious resurrection narrative it prefigures). What happens to Lazarus after all the hoopla dies out? There were no doubt furtive whispers, anxiously considered RSVPs, sudden changes in plans. But the episode also emphasizes the perennial aesthetic power of displaying the corpse, at once horrible and terrific—another decisively Western trope. The terrible beauty of Lazarus is made clear in paintings such as Caravaggio’s The Raising of Lazarus (c. 1609), Rembrandt’s The Raising of Lazarus (1630–31), and Vincent van Gogh’s masterly copy of Rembrandt’s version, which cuts Jesus out of the frame and focuses on the horrific astonishment of the onlookers (1890). (On zombies as “bare life,” see Seth Morton’s work in chapter 9.)

img-42658

0.7. Vincent van Gogh, The Raising of Lazarus (After Rembrandt) (1890).

Textual Sources of Zombies: From the Bible to Literature

Turning from biblical zombie sources to literary ones, it’s curious to find that Mary Shelley doesn’t name Lazarus at all in her 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. If popular reception factored into subtitle selection, “The Modern Lazarus” might be a better choice. In the original 1931 uncensored film version, for instance, Dr. Frankenstein clearly has Lazarus on his mind when, after the more familiar exclamations, he says, “Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” But the emphasis of the subtitle, a reference to the doctor and not the monster, speaks to a larger issue concerning naming and identity. Anyone who’s read Shelley’s novel knows that a perplexing mirroring of creature and creator organizes its plot. The erosion of the self’s boundaries, in the creative act, defines the book’s uncanny horror, from the very moment of the monster’s awakening:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. (35–36)

The perennial confusions between the world-famous, nameless living-corpse catastrophe and the indifferently remembered corpse reviver (was it Victor? Henry? Frederick?) is telling. It’s a puzzle that cuts to the heart of the romantic ideology on which Frankenstein depends, a patronymic breakdown that codes the present as botched paternity for the past—or vice versa. Indeed, from Lazarus on down, the S-zombie— as miscarriage or stillbirth—seems to vex the family line, a fact most clearly reflected in its inability to maintain a proper name (the name as the name of the father). Arguably, every zombie is in search of a father— the deadbeat zombie master (aka, the bokor), scientist, government official who abandoned him at birth in the dumpster behind the lab. Or, better, in Pontypool (2009), every zombie is in search of a lost mother, not so much looking to consume human flesh, but to gnaw and burrow its way back into the womb. This family plot becomes a running joke in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974), doubly marking the hilarious reunion of scientist and monster:

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Hello, handsome. You’re a good-looking fellow, do you know that? People laugh at you. People hate you, but why do they hate you? Because they … are … jealous. Look at that boyish face. Look at that sweet smile. Do you wanna talk about physical strength? Do you want to talk about sheer muscle? Do you want to talk about the Olympian ideal? You are a god. And listen to me, you are not evil. You … are … good! This is a nice boy. This is a good boy. This is a mother’s angel. And I want the world to know once and for all, and without any shame, that we … love … him! I’m going to teach you. I’m going to show you how to walk, how to speak, how to move, how to think. Together, you and I are going to make the greatest single contribution to science since the creation of fire.

Inga: Dr. Fronkensteen! Are you all right?!

Dr. Frankenstein: My name … is Frankenstein!

Conversely, in the Wachowski siblings’ Doc Frankenstein comic, the undead creature decides to adopt his creator’s moniker as a celebrity-style brand, and with it goes on to earn PhDs; assist the causes of Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow, and abortion rights; and become a multipurpose liberal übermensch/secular messiah. “My name is hermeneutic,” he says. “It has become a meaning, a symbol, a tale.” Here, the instability of the name becomes the power of self-creation, the first principle of literary fantasy. (On zombie speech and language, see Tatjana Soldat- Jaffe’s report in chapter 11.)

Yet Frankenstein’s hermeneutic universe is weirdly rich precisely because he is as sympathetic to us as his non-name is semiotically overloaded. In Shelley’s novel the monster speaks, reads literature, feels things, experiences qualia, yet he’s still loathsome and ultimately inassimilable. In all this, though, Frankenstein isn’t really a representative zombie text. Most of the time what’s scary about zombies is their blank inhumanity and the fact that there’s usually more than one. The monster in Frankenstein no doubt leaves a trail of corpses behind him, but this proliferation of death can be understood only as a product of his creator’s unnatural transgressions. If anything, the novel’s influence on the zombie tradition concerns the abuses of science and broken taboos about death and the corpse, themes that are most clearly revisited in Romero’s Day of the Dead in Dr. Logan’s research lab and the comic pathos that surrounds the gentle Bub’s efforts to shave, read, and use a telephone. (For more zombie science, see Jack Raglin’s research in chapter 6.)

img-42659

0.8. A Zombie Learns French, betterbooktitles.com

What about those real-life zombies?

Paradoxically, so-called real-life zombies may have more to tell us about fictional zombies than any retrofitted genealogy of S-zombies’ atavistic forerunners (golem, draugr, ghoul, pod people, etc.). Because real-life zombies are not zombies (you know this, right?), they are more conspicuously sensationalized and thus expose the excesses of the idiom. When it comes to real-life zombies, three sorts of claimants come to mind: (1) historical-ethnographic representatives such as Felicia Felix-Mentor and Clairvius Narcisse, studied to instantiate the Haitian/West African folkloric roots of the zombie concept; (2) heinous killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer or the Bath-Salts Zombie, humans who did terrible, ultraviolent things to other humans, attackers for whom the word zombie has become a kind of shorthand for journalists unraveling their stratagems; and (3) Zombie Boy, a (real, living, non-zombie) person who is a passionate fan of zombies (an F-zombie), who has altered his physical appearance to seem more zombielike.

Beyond anything else, these supposed real-life zombies bring to the fore the colonizing powers of zombie as a word and a phenomenon. Unlike other pop culture monsters—ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, vampires—whose names came to the English language through European folklore, zombie comes into the lexicon from non-European sources, carrying an etymology, according to the OED, “of W. African origin; compare Kongo nzambi god, zumbi fetish.” The OED, in fact, gives several instances of the word used as “the name of a snake-deity in voodoo cults of or deriving from West Africa and Haiti” from the nineteenth century and then cites, for the earliest instance of the word used to mean “a soulless corpse,” William Seabrook’s hit, sensationalist account of Haiti, The Magic Island, published in 1929. “At this very moment, in the moonlight,” Seabrook intoned, creeping out his American readers, “there are zombies working on this island, less than two hours’ ride from my own habitation” (94; italics in original).

A decade later, in Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, Zora Neale Hurston published an ethnography that, in its consideration of this same theme, attempts to avoid Seabrook’s sensationalism, or at least counters it with her own. Hurston had applied for a Guggenheim fellowship and traveled to Haiti to conduct research and interviews. Focused on a series of local zombie tales and one startling photograph, her account frames the Haitian-zombie, or historical-zombie (H-zombie), within the legacy of slavery. Folklore, in her account, no matter how outlandish, serves as a negotiation of material history, with the zombie stalking the colonial horizon as the dehumanized refuse of imperial capital. Despite her documentary claims, though, Hurston’s text is most notable for its own folkloric bent and subtle play with voice and narration, features that complicate the startling photograph of Felicia Felix-Mentor that centers her presentation. “What is the whole truth and nothing else but the truth about zombies?” Hurston writes. “I do not know, but I know that I saw the broken remnant, relic, or refuse of Felicia Felix-Mentor in a hospital yard” (179).

Marina Warner objects to Hurston’s lack of sympathy for her subject, complaining that the photographic image of Felix-Mentor in Tell My Horse reenacts the kind of soul theft that Warner posits is the essence of zombie-ism: “Felicia looms into the lens, her body tilting, her arms lifted, her gaze blind, her face blurred in shadow… [The image] only allows its subject a desolate and tormented vacancy” (Fantastic Metamorphoses 131). Yet the actual photograph—also printed in Life magazine—gives the episode a strangely ruined Sebaldian flavor in the context of Hurston’s research project. Hurston calls it elsewhere the first and last photograph of its kind, suggesting that photographic documentation might rescue a zombified person from oblivion by providing a kind of restitution of identity. In 1945 one Louis P. Mars, MD, published another account of Felix-Mentor in Man: A Record of Anthropological Science, making a related case:

Her occasional outbursts of laughter were devoid of emotion, and very frequently she spoke of herself in either the first or the third person without any sense of discrimination. She had lost all sense of time and was quite indifferent to the world of things around her.

Felix-Mentor is not a container emptied of its content, a lifeless husk. Rather, she is refugee, homeless, displaced, dispossessed—a victim of colonial possession (a variant of voodoo possession) as dispossession. In fact, the photograph is nothing without its accompanying narrative. Hurston presents Felix-Mentor as a victim of patriarchy and colonialism both; her book merges folklore and ethnography to craft a sympathetic tale of a woman abandoned and betrayed by cowardly male exploiters. (For issues related to zombies and race, see Edward P. Comentale’s findings in chapter 8.)

Killer Zombies in Real Life

Later in the twentieth century, H-zombies abandon their masters (and their dullness) and become free-range roamers. Some early Caribbean tales ended in anarchy, but only because H-zombies, after tasting the master’s salt, wanted to return to their graves. Their true revolutionary fervor would erupt only later, on American soil, in the work of Richard Matheson and then Romero, in the context of suburban boredom, the Cold War, and civil rights (see below). But because H-zombies depend on a notion of the remaindered human—remnant, relic, refuse, enduring ruin, unworried by signs of interiority—they remain today redolent with folk philosophical, psychological, and anthropological import. For example, the elaborate thought experiment about philosophical-zombies, or P-zombies, by analytical philosophers depends on the H-zombie puzzle that there’s no way to tell the difference between someone who has a “mind” (or “consciousness,” or “qualia,” or “understanding”) inside and someone who doesn’t if their outward behavior is identical. Most movie zombies are spotted the minute they loom onto the screen, but some still test their audiences’ power of discernment. From the Romero canon, Roger’s turn in Dawn of the Dead, for example, may best illustrate the P-zombie point. The precise moment his lights turn out is inscrutable; it happens under a sheet, as it were; we only know Roger is not Roger when he’s green.

Nearly four decades after the photographing of Felix-Mentor, Wade Davis, working on his Harvard doctoral dissertation in anthropology and ethnobotany, traveled to Haiti to search for local H-zombie informants as well as “zombi powder,” the potent mixture of chemical compounds, poisons, beliefs, and practices that he hypothesized might, in the right proportions, cause actual physiological zombification. Beware all fugu! From a “straight” pharmacological perspective, we now know, “The composition of the powders varied widely: each one was a witch’s brew of strange ingredients, including toads, tree frogs, snakes, lizards, centipedes, and sea worms. However, three classes of ingredients were common to all the preparations: (1) charred and ground bones and other human remains, (2) plants with urticating hairs, spines, toxic resins, or calcium oxalate crystals, and (3) puffer fish.” (On the relation between zombies and another kind of evil potion, see Stephen Schneider’s report on zombie cocktails in chapter 14.)

img-42660

0.9. Felicia Felix-Mentor, “the broken remnant.”

Davis always insisted that the potion produced a state of suspended animation that only imitated death, but he never denied the culture of terror that informed the zombification ritual. In Haiti he tracked down another H-zombie, Clairvius Narcisse, whose case supplied him with much of the evidence for his PhD. Zombified by a malicious relative in 1962 over a land dispute, Narcisse “died,” was entombed, exhumed, reanimated, and then impressed into forced labor for a period of time, from which he eventually escaped. Decades later some of Narcisse’s relatives (more sympathetic ones, we gather) stumbled upon their “dead” kin shambling around and reinstated him into their community. In this, for Davis, H-zombie-ism proved to be an ethno-chemically enhanced ostracism, “a form of social and spiritual death, and so someone who’s been made a zombie is marked for all time. No one wants them.” Like Hurston, Davis associates the H-zombie with a folkloric legacy of slavery that naturally asserts that some forms of labor are worse than death. As Davis puts it (echoing Seabrook, if only incidentally), the menace of H-zombies turns on “not of being harmed by zombis, but rather of becoming one” (Serpent 139).

img-42660

0.10. Clairvus Narcisse, “marked for all time.”

Ok, then, H-zombies sound kinda tame. What about the real-life killers?

In a sense, zombie means much the same in the context of Davis’s research as it meant during the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer, which began on January 30, 1992. Dahmer’s deranged objective in his grisly killings of seventeen victims, according to his defense team, was to create zombies, docile slaves to his (sexual) bidding. In this he followed the H-zombie blueprint, imagining himself as a malevolent zombie master. The idea that he was trying to create zombies wasn’t merely a feature of his legal defense or a handy framework supplied by media coverage; it also played a prominent role in his own obscene efforts to divulge his motivations in subsequent television interviews. As media spectacle, Dahmer speaks of feeling “so hopelessly evil and perverted.” He wanted to “possess [his victims] permanently,” to “control them.” Saving skulls, skeletons, and body parts, eating hearts, and taking Polaroids were simply his attempt to commemorate their failed role in his work.

And yet Dahmer is sometimes called the Milwaukee Cannibal, a moniker that shifts his role in the common trope. In a sense he exists at the uncomfortable intersection of two zombie definitions: the H-zombie, in which the zombie is a figuration of life-in-death (a human automaton worked by remote control by a malevolent zombie master), and the R-zombie, in which the zombie figures as an ultraviolent example of death-in-life, material evidence of the (increasingly) macabre inhumanity of real-life humans to other humans.

The latter definition of zombie—the R-zombie—remains the ruling hermeneutic when it comes to celebrity zombies today. Take the 2012 case of the so-called Bath-Salts Zombie, Rudy Eugene, who was allegedly tweaked out not on zombie powder or muriatic acid injected in his skull, but on bath salts, a slang-term for a type of designer amphetamine (a claim that subsequently turned out to be untrue; it was simply marijuana). Eugene made headlines for chewing the face off of Ronald Poppo, a homeless man. Let’s bracket whatever brought him to this deed (and his death through lethal force by the police) and focus on what it means to identify him as a zombie. Not long ago it would have been sufficient—sensationalist enough for headline writers, that is—to describe Eugene as a cannibal. There’s no suggestion in any of the public accounts that Bath-Salts Zombie was actually undead, let alone controlled by an evil master, only that the undead zombie has, in effect, replaced the cannibal as a living category for understanding certain incomprehensibly violent acts.

That Eugene’s attack involved chewing the face of the dispossessed seems evocative of the zomboid turn in Romero’s work: an extreme failure of sympathy for the other that radically enacts the typical disregard that homelessness elicits. But this brutality no doubt cuts both ways. The public framing of such heinous figures as zombies or cannibals raises significant issues for the modern discourse of human rights and citizenship. Playing the “zombie card” here not only brings a primitivizing logic to bear on the case but also loosens both figures as well as their prosecutors from any humanist accountability. Moral culpability vanishes in a voodoo haze, removing such incidents and their aftermath from the moral grounding of the law. Eugene, in the extremity of his act, received no due process. Far from it, he was immediately dispatched, most likely by a shot to the head. (And, as of this writing, his victim remains blind and disfigured, a permanent resident at the Jackson Memorial Perdue Medical Center.)

One telling feature of this incident is that Bath-Salts Zombie’s mother strongly objected to her son’s designation in these terms:

“He was a good kid. He gave me a nice card on Mother’s Day. Everyone says he was a zombie. He was no zombie. That was my son,” the mother, who asked that her name not be revealed, told CNN affiliate WFOR.15

No one wants his or her son to be remembered as a zombie, one would think. Ironically, though, the ruined fragments of moral economy in this last vignette is what makes the news item most typical of zombie worlds: a chewed-off face, a Mother’s Day card, a name not revealed. The credit of a card on Mother’s Day doesn’t offset the wholesale human debasement of this horror show, but it does supply a nugget of pathos for representing maternal loss amid ultraviolent wretchedness.

Edward P. Comentale is Professor of English at Indiana University. He is editor (with Stephen Watt and Skip Willman) of Ian Fleming and James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007 (Indiana UP, 2005) and author of Sweet Air: Modernism, Regionalism, and American Popular Song.

Aaron Jaffe is Professor of English at the University of Louisville. He is editor (with Edward P. Comentale) of The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies (Indiana UP, 2009) and author of Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity.

Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers
APPLY APPLY