Over the last decade or so zombies and their apocalypses have shambled into our lives everywhere: in movies like Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and World War Z; video games like Resident Evil and The Last of Us; board games like Zombicide and Dead of Winter; flash mob zombie walks; and in the hit TV show based on comic of the same name The Walking Dead. A quick look at Wikipedia’s long list of zombie films reveals that over half were produced after 2001.
Why do we love (and love to hate) zombies so much? Why have they dethroned those sexy Transylvanian bloodsuckers that ruled the horror roost before 2003 — when Mark Zuckerberg was tinkering with Facebook at Harvard and the first Walking Dead comic appeared — in games, films, and TV shows such as Blade, Interview with a Vampire, Bloodrayne and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Indeed, in the large European horror film industry from the late ’50s to the ’70s vampires clearly dominated, from Christopher Lee’s numerous interpretations of Dracula for Hammer Films to Mario Bava’s seminal Black Sunday (1960) and Jean Rollins’ languorously sexy surreal opus. Mummies, werewolves, and zombies were mere afterthoughts for these European filmmakers.
The classic old-school zombie archetype comes from stories about Haitian voodoo when shamans used magic or a secret potion to bring back the dead as their mindless slaves. They appeared sporadically in stories like H. P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West in Reanimator (1921), in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and White Zombie (1932), and in comics like EC’s Tales from the Crypt (early ’50s), but without any canonical rules.
The rules of the modern zombie game came largely out of George Romero’s shimmering black-and-white 1968 indie classic The Night of the Living Dead which, ironically never mentions the word “zombie”, preferring the term “ghoul”: they are relatively slow and stupid, but inexorable in their hunger for human flesh, attacking in packs, unable to speak or reason, operating on instinct. For Romero, their key aspect is that they seem to share a slow-witted group mind: they are no longer individual people, but a ravenous herd. They are also “uncanny” in Freud’s sense in that they still look more-or-less like us, with considerably more pallor, but without that inner spark: they are soulless.
Inevitably cultural critics have speculated on the cultural meaning of all this zombie love. Maybe zombies represent our all-too-human fear of aging, decay, and death. But that fear is a constant part of the human condition. Besides, many of us live longer and healthier lives now than we did just a half-century ago. Yes, the love of zombies touches on our fascination with the morbid within us. But also touches on so much more…
Other critics have come up with more sophisticated explanations for our current zombie mania. Writing in Esquire, Stephen Marche sees them as symbolic of an atheistic fear of the dead. Daniel Drezner is vaguer, describing them in The Wall Street Journal as a response to a variety of economic threats, while Nicholas Barber sees them in a BBC online article as embodying our fear of a global catastrophe. Finally, Michael Ricciardi hedges his bets by seeing zombies as connected to a variety of social anxieties such as consumerism, displaced persons, crumbling social structures, or public health emergencies. The etiological blood has been splattered far and wide in the blogosphere.
In cultural studies monsters in horror stories have traditionally represented some Other feared by those in power, that is; fear of immigrants, of dark-skinned races (in white-dominant cultures), of the poor, of the homeless, of the insane. A quick look at history punctures this explanatory balloon. Other than Islamophobia post-2001, our fears of outsiders pale in significance to past fears: of armies of unemployed drifters in the Depression, of Jews in Nazi Germany, of Japanese nikkei in wartime America, of communist subversives during the McCarthyite ’50s, of white America’s fear of black people in the pre-Civil Rights Old South. Interestingly, the very capable hero of the first modern zombie movie The Night of the Living Dead is a black man.
Admittedly, as I write this, several Eastern European countries are closing their doors to hordes of immigrants created by the Syrian and Middle Eastern conflicts, showing that fear of the racial outsider has perhaps risen from the grave once again, ironically in the very neighborhood where Gothic romances featuring creatures of the night have traditionally taken place. I almost expect to see Peter Cushing in a Hungarian police uniform informing the public of the social danger of these outsiders as Christopher Lee lurks in the shadows, clutching a Koran.
Instead, zombies, in general, represent an open signifier of any social danger that we fear will rob us of our free will and thus our humanity. What this signifier points to changes from decade to decade, but the popularity of zombies post-2003 indicates that powerful techno-social forces have ramped up our fear of joining Romero’s mindless zombie herd.
So what do they represent today? There are two social forces that cause people to fear zombie-ism. First, the rise of global capitalism, which brought with it a de-industrialization of North America, “McDonaldization” if you will, the growth of contract work, the 2008 financial crash, the Occupy movement, and a greater gap between rich and poor: the Western economy is now perceived by the average wage worker to be unstable and dangerous, no longer controlled by the governments of nation-states. This new system, with its hidden and mysterious corporate controllers, threatens to turn most of us into low-wage zombies dependent on undemocratic institutions for our pounds of flesh.
This is linked to the end of the Cold War, opening up the possibility of an “end of history” where all we have left is consumer capitalism. Socialism is dead, and religion is in serious decline. Formerly social democratic parties like Labour in Britain and the New Democrats in Canada have politically zombified and turned right, embracing the supposed “realities” of the global consumer economy. Formerly the bastion of Maoism and cultural revolution, China has been infected by the virus of big profits and has become – 28 or so years later – the world’s main purveyor of cheap mass-produced goods.
For many, the meaning of life is now “get a degree, get a job, shop ’til you drop”. Indeed, in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) survivors are trapped with zombies in a shopping mall, where the zombies are clearly meant to be a metaphor for mindless shoppers. This movie was remade in 2004, a few years after George W. Bush reminded people to keep shopping if they wanted to defeat the terrorists. So the zombie is a consumer or shopper in an era when a post-capitalist horizon has disappeared: “is this all there is?” asks the zombie-consumer in a rare moment of sentience, with a younger Francis Fukuyama answering “that’s all folks!”
To be fair, this is a zombie consumer who is afraid they might not get enough flesh (consumer goods) to sustain their insatiable hunger. This other side of zombies-as-consumers that young people especially fear is being stuck in a dead-end, low-wage, mindless service industry jobs like Starbucks baristas, Wal-Mart clerks, McDonald’s burgeristas, or telephone solicitors. They’re afraid that their future won’t be meaningful full-time employment, but jobs as service-industry zombies are robbed of their free will by scripts, robotic policies, mindless labour, and endless job insecurity. It’s globalized, McDonaldized capitalism, not its workers, which shambles up to the unemployed groaning, “Brains! Brains!”
Second, something even the casual non-zombie observer will notice every day is the hordes of digital zombies shuffling through our larger cities. These are the former people hunched over their smartphone screens, iPods in their ears, theirs face partially covered with dark glasses or a baseball cap or a hoodie as they ride a bus or shamble down the street. Or maybe they’re sitting in an office glued to a computer monitor, or at home on their couches transfixed by flitting images on a LED widescreen connected to their PS3 or Xbox. They’ve retreated from the world of physical things and physical people, their audio-visual field reduced to their screens and the noises they make. For them the “flesh” they hunger for is in the form of the digital image: a text, a web page, an Instagram glamour pic, Mario jumping over an obstacle, or a fantasy warrior cutting off an enemy’s head with a magic sword. But the message is still the same: “Feed me!”
The still-human observer sees hundreds of these digital zombies every week, their minds controlled by addictions to texts and videos and social media pages. Ironically, most of the digital flesh they consume doesn’t help them in any way any meaningful way to be better workers and thus be able to earn more money and be better zombie consumers. It doesn’t even make them happier. But being happy was never a high zombie priority.
Indeed, in Stephen King’s 2006 novel Cell, the zombie apocalypse starts with a phone call, leading to madness and social chaos. Paralleling The Day of the Triffids, the only ones who survive intact are those who are “switched off” or don’t own a cell phone at the moment the zombie signal was sent.
Of course, digital zombie-ism is tied to consumer zombie-ism, with the rise of online markets, purchasable apps, portable video games, and many other virtual consumer items. More deeply, our love/hate relationship with digital zombie-ism comes out of the Web 2.0 and social media on the one hand, and of cheap and widely available portable digital network links like smartphones on the other, both dating prophetically to around 2004, the year of Facebook and Zach Snyder’s remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
In short, we fear zombies because we’re becoming zombies. We have to work mindless jobs, buy stuff that doesn’t improve our lives, robotically check our phones for new texts or Facebook updates, and always stay connected to the digital zombie group mind called the Net. We hunger for the New Flesh. We can’t get enough of it. We’re also afraid it might run out.