For all the standard horror movie monsters Joss Whedon took up in Buffy and Angel — vampires, of course, but also ghosts, demons, werewolves, witches, Frankenstein’s monster, the Devil, mummies, haunted puppets, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the “bad boyfriend,” and so on — you’d think there would have been more zombies. In twelve years of television across both series zombies appear in only a handful of episodes. They attack almost as an afterthought at Buffy’s drama-laden homecoming party early in Buffy Season Three; they completely ruin Xander’s evening in “The Zeppo” later that same season; they patrol a Los Angeles neighborhood in “The Thin Dead Line” in Angel Season Two; they stalk the halls of Wolfram & Hart in “Habeas Corpses” (4.8) in Angel Season Four. A single zombie comes back from the dead to work things out with the girlfriend who poisoned him in a subplot in “Provider” in Angel Season Three; Adam uses science to reanimate dead bodies to make his lab assistants near the end of Buffy Season Four; zombies guard a fail-safe device in the basement of Wolfram & Hart in “You’re Welcome” in Angel Season Five.
That’s about it — and most of these don’t even really count as zombies at all. Many can talk, and most exhibit a capacity for complex reasoning and decision-making that is totally antithetical to the zombie myth. Not a one of these so-called zombies seems especially interested in devouring our heroes’ delicious flesh. Of the aforementioned episodes only “Dead Man’s Party” and “Habeas Corpses” really come close to evoking the wonderfully claustrophobic adrenaline rush of the shambling, groaning zombie horde that has become so popular in American horror since George Romero’s genre-establishing Night of the Living Dead series: a small group of people, desperately hiding within a confined, fortified space, with nowhere to run and no hope for survival when the zombies finally penetrate their defenses.
In interviews Whedon frequently cites Romero as a major influence on his work. In one he describes his early ambition to become a “a brilliant, independent filmmaker who then went on to make giant, major box office summer movies” as “Spielberg by way of George Romero”; in another he credits Romero with writing strong, complex female characters long before either James Cameron or Whedon himself came around. In a video interview with fear.net Whedon describes Romero as “a huge influence,” adding that Romero “is the only really ambitiously political filmmaker in that genre — and the Night of the Living Dead trilogy is just an incredible example of what can be done with gut-wrenching terror.”
Why then are there so few (and such poor) zombies in the early Whedon canon? We might speculate that filming a properly immense zombie horde would have risked busting the budget for the series, an ever-present concern for supernatural and science fiction series on television, especially on UPN and the WB. A properly ravenous horde, too, might have made Broadcast Standards and Practices rather nervous; American television’s very first zombie-themed series, AMC’s gory hit The Walking Dead, only made it to cable last year. When cost and potential censorship are not a factor, Mutant Enemy turns to zombies almost immediately; Whedon wrote a zombie horde attack on the Slayer castle in the first arc of the Buffy Season 8 comic, “The Long Way Home,” and zombies have been a common fixture in Buffy video games as well.
But let me suggest there’s something more at work. First, despite his admiration for Romero, Whedon seems to exhibit a strong preference for the original Haitian zombi — a nightmarish transfiguration of slavery into a curse that continues even after death — over George Romero’s mindless, ravenous consumer of flesh. The American horror zombie is a corpse without a mind, wandering aimlessly in search of food and governed by pure instinct; the zombi, in contrast, is only sometimes a revivified corpse, and is more commonly a traumatized but still living person whose will has been replaced with the will of the zombie master and whose body has been put to work. Whedon fairly frequently makes his characters pedants on this point; in “Some Assembly Required” Giles scolds Xander when he suggests that zombies might feed on the living, and Wesley does the same thing to Gunn in Angel’s “Provider” (3.12), dismissing flesh-eating as a myth (though Wesley’s zombies still “mangle, mutilate, and occasionally wear human flesh”)…