There are real zombies, or “sleep walkers”, in this world…the voodoo victims of hoodoo drug-induced slavery, normally restricted to the tribal cultures of Western Africa and the West Indies (following the introduction of African slaves to the New World)…and, presumably, their numbers are diminishing due to the great social disapproval of the practice and its fading into globalism-induced superstitious obscurity.
But I am here referring to the resurgent popularity of the post-modern, literary and cinematic versions of Zombies; the relentless, flesh-eating, “undead”, once-human monsters that seem to be popping up nearly everywhere in recent years: in an assortment of “gore-fest” zombie flicks, Thriller tribute parades and flash mobs (“zombie walks”), a semi-satirical television series (Walking Dead), and even a hipster car insurance commercial.
While cinephiles will note that the modern notion of a zombie entered western culture via the landmark 1921 film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (directed by Robert Wiene), most current and recent depictions of zombies stem from George A. Romano’s 1968 film The Night of the Living Dead (itself inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend).
But what might explain this resurgent zombie (mob-like) popularity? Is there some deeper meaning or cultural significance to be found? Something so pervasive could hardly be coincidental, or accidental, or the result merely of imitation (although “good box office” is a motive for imitation). This article will explore some of the various intellectual interpretations and theories (socio-psychological, cultural, economic and political-organizational) of the zombie phenomenon in the hope of shedding light on its true role in modern society.
Zombies & Societal Anxiety – Its Always The Zombie Apocalypse in the Movies
As zombies films are a genre of horror, one expects there to be a general sense of fear surrounding their depiction. But there is something more to zombie films than simply offering audiences a fright fest; there is a pervasive anxiety — a “rising social tension” — a feeling that, at any moment, we might all succumb to The Zombie Apocalypse. This tension and anxiety surrounds the use and depiction of zombies in popular culture — even those depictions that approach the subject with humor.
This general view seems correct enough to be a fair starting point for an exploration of zombie imagery and cultural subject matter. And, of course, underlying this anxiety is also a pervasive (if projected) feeling of alienation. Indeed, both anxiety and alienation are mutually reinforced through “zombiism”, the emergence of a robotic, destructive, impersonal, and collective behavior that threatens to take over our individual lives and/or the world. There are, of course, many sources of anxiety and “social tension” and my research on this topic has uncovered a surprising variety of analyses of the Zombie monster motif in popular culture.
The Zombies Among Us – A Critique of Consumer Capitalism
In the economic analysis, at least some of this alienation derives directly from the status of the modern worker, critically dubbed homo economicus (Schor, 1992), and his/her economic role: that of a ceaseless, unquestioning consumer of goods and services, and whose most distinguishing trait is that he/she — like the zombie’s quest for fresh flesh — can never be satiated. There is an inexorable emptiness within this new species of human.In his 2012, neo-Marxist essay/critique (1) on human resource development, Robin Redmon Wright is quick to assert (quoting Brookfield, 2005): “Workers become the Zombies of global capitalism which is ‘best served by large populations that equate living with consuming.’ ” Wright elaborates on this as follows:
“Just as Zombie s are driven by the disgusting need to consume increasing amounts of human flesh — a need never satiated — workers are driven to consume the offspring of their own creativity and are mesmerized by our consumer society into craving more and more products of labor in order to support and sustain an inequitable system…”
In attempting to critique modern human resource development and also explain the upward spike in zombie films in recent years, Wright presents his thematic rationale:
“…workers are feeling the effects of a culture consumed by a mounting need to consume for survival. The undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the excesses of unregulated capitalism will surely be reflected in popular culture. And for people living in a consumer culture — where they must consume their own humanity (the products of their day-to -day existence) in order to survive — it’s a virtual no-brainer that we should consider the Zombies Among Us.”
Wright’s critique (the “no-brainer” pun aside), not to forget, is largely of the role that modern adult education and human resource development (HRD) plays in serving up individuals to the narrow needs of corporate capitalism. Rather than encouraging people towards “a lifelong practice of creative fulfillment , helping others and contributing to humanity”, said education and HRD “actually reduce learning to an act of survival and a means to more consumption.” [emphasis added]
In the face of an “unprecedented material change in much of the Western world and especially in the US”, Wright posits the resurgence of free market ideology* — something he sees as happening en force just in the past decade or so — as the “reason for the observed increase in adult horror fans.”
Zombies, as we all know, are likewise insatiable in their lust for brains, something their robot-like behavior demands — not to gain intelligence or awareness (the ti-bon anj that the bokor keeps in a special bottle) but to consume it, making the victims of said ingestion now equally mindless and hungry for more.
In George Romero’s at times perversely humorous Dawn of the Dead — the late-coming 1984 follow-up to Living Dead — the government has been taken over or destroyed by zombies, leaving isolated pockets of human society to fend for themselves against the onslaught. The main scene of the film occurs in a shopping mall which an ever-amassing horde of zombies invades in one orgiastic flesh-feast. There, Wright observes, “consumers are literally consumed by mindless former humans.”
Such horror flicks are not truly nihilistic; there is a social morality tale lurking beneath most zombie films. Wright sharply but succinctly summarizes the narrative arch of this and other zombie films (albeit through his Marxist filter):
“Those individuals [not yet infected by zombies] inevitably realize that they cannot survive unless they work together as communities of practice. Therefore, civilization and society is redefined and will now be determined by those survivors — the workers who fight will prevail and the flesh-eating automatons who stay the course will rot with their desire to consume.”
* It is interesting to note that the term zombie banks is being used more frequently in recent years (by economists), referring to banks that are “dead” in terms of liquidity/solvency, but are still functioning, to some degree, on the surface.
Zombies As An Embodiment of Our Fear of Displaced Persons and the Undocumented
As salient as the forgoing analysis may have been, it is not the only interpretation of the zombie phenomenon.
Many have noted an increase in zombie films during more conservative times and the often concomitant anti-immigrant sentiment. I should note that I include here the plethora of independent (low budget) zombie films that regularly appear at annual zombie film festivals — many of which are made by children of immigrants or foreign students from non-Western nations. The idea that there is a connection between zombies and a fear or distrust of immigrants and displaced persons entering “our” Western societies is worthwhile to contemplate.
In observing the increase in media representations of zombies in the first decade of the 21st Century, Jon Stratton (2), in a 2011 article for the journal Somatechnics, argues that there is a connection “between the new preoccupation with zombies and anxieties over the apparent threat posed by those without rights [or documentation?] attempting to enter Western countries.”
Stratton’s analysis goes a bit deeper, and gets decidedly darker; utilizing Giorgio Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’ (i.e., a life deprived of the legal protections of the State; the term in Latin: homo sacer*), he draws a link between this bare life and the Muselmann — the Jewish concentration camp prisoner reduced to a state of “walking dead.”
Stratton’s subsequent analysis is more round-about; he sees the bare life as essential to the operation of a modern State (a provocative idea, still) and then uses this theorem to connect the Muselmann with the Zombie, and from there, he connects zombies with displaced persons, whom Stratton also equates with “asylum seekers.”
To be sure, beginning in the 20th Century — and continuing into the 21st Century — Western nations have seen an unprecedented in-flux of displaced persons, foreign workers, refugees, etc. One may note that many governments (including the US) have clamped down on this in-flux, with the present administration deporting more undocumented workers than nearly any in history. The ‘displaced person’ is a person without legal rights, generally, and because of this limbo-like status, can be treated in ways that we would not tolerate in “civil” society. Do zombie films, on some level, reflect this (mostly irrational) fear, and bigotry, and thus also the moral indifference as to how they are dealt with?
The popularity of zombiism in films may likely continue and may represent the exaggerated (anxiety-generated) compulsion to continuously “do battle” with such hordes, before they take over Western society with their strange and foreign practices. And, with this slowing but unabated influx of displaced persons, Stratton asserts — just as Agamben claimed that the werewolf was the archetypal monster of the pre-modern age — that the “zombie is the characterizing monster of the modern age”.
* Homo sacer (“sacred” or “accursed” man) – Under the early Roman legal system, it was permissible for anyone to kill such a person (found guilty of committing certain crimes), but not ritualistically, under a state religious ceremony or rite. It seems that the standard anti-zombie protocol (kill them by any means), in Agamben’s view, stems from this Roman ‘bare life’ legal concept.
Zombies as a Uniquely North American Form for Our Post-Apocalyptic Anxiety
Film scholar Kyle Bishop, writing in the Journal of Popular Culture and others (3) notes that Romero’s depiction of zombies was actually a chimaera of three “monsters”: the vampire, the zombie of Haitian lore, and the cannibal. He also observes that classic zombie narratives share certain key features, chief of which is “a post-apocalyptic backdrop” that is characterized by “the collapse of societal infrastructures, the resurgence of survivalist fantasies, and the fear of other surviving humans.”
Bishop claims two reasons for the popularity of zombies or zombiism in modern (American) culture. The first reason that he offers is that the zombie is a “uniquely North American construction” unlike the Gothic monsters (vampires, werewolves, and Frankensteins) of European folklore. This claim for New World uniqueness no doubt derives from the common apprehension of zombiism as a product of Haitian vodon traditions, in the first place, and the appropriation of this “ex-human” monster in popular Western books and films, in the second place.
This first claim is not entirely justified, in that, as noted earlier, zombies originated in the “witchcraft” traditions of various Western African cultures (ranging from Ghana to Nigeria) where its practice was socially abhorred and punishable no less than murder. And, the word zombi is certainly African.
However, Bishop qualifies this claim through referring to the zombie as “the only canonical movie monster to originate in the New World” verses a monster existing in folk tradition alone. That said, it was not clear to me why or how this uniqueness factor would drive the current popularity of this cinematic fare.
Bishop’s second reason is more compelling and clarifying: the sudden horror of 9/11 and the unstoppable destruction and deprivation caused by Hurricane Katrina created the perfect, post-apocalyptic conditions to make the zombie “a logical ‘form’ for anxieties related to such moments.” This would seem a plausible, if highly generalized, line of reasoning.
However, Americans have experienced numerous disasters and have been fed a steady stream of disaster movies over the past five decades or so — with no comparable spike observed in zombie depictions. But perhaps Bishop is indicating a peculiar mass media effect or role at play in certain types of disasters – an effect that magnifies the mass exodus of people from the scene of a disaster – that naturally lends itself to a fear of traumatized masses fleeing (or “invading”?)…their normal means of survival stripped from them, no longer assured.
So, although I can not agree completely with Bishop’s zombie theory of post-apocalyptic utility, he does, importantly, emphasize the idea that zombies are a cultural “form” into which, or upon which, we may displace (or project) our anxieties or fears.
Zombies as Distributed Social Systems & A Threat to Traditional Social Structures
A 2011 essay entitled Protocol Z : The distributed social organization of zombies (4) by S. Jankowski offers an intriguing and truly contemporary analysis centering on the barely decade old emergence of various networked groups and internet-enabled collective “intelligences” which present themselves none-the-less as singular, mono-mental, entities.
In zombies, Jankowski sees both “a vessel for fears surrounding the distributed network crowd” and also (in terms of the film sub-genre itself) a tool: “zombies present us with a fictional space in which to experiment with unfamiliar organizational patterns for which we are only just becoming aware.”
Jankowski’s analysis draws upon many literary sources, chief of which is Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel (turned cable TV) series The Walking Dead (2003 –), in which Jankowski notes “a tension between the hierarchical structure of the family and the ‘flat’ organization of zombie crowds.” In his analysis of the zombie phenomenon, Jankowski utilizes Manuel Castells’ conception of “the network society” (and the “anxieties that surround it”), described in the 2004 book of the same name. He also draws upon classic modern non-fiction like Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960/1973).
Jankowski notes Bishop’s theories, and although he disagrees with them, he none-the-less concurs that historical eras have their collective fears/anxieties and their uniquely identifying monsters (e.g., the 19th Century fear of misguided science in Dr. Frankenstein, the nuclear fears of the 1950’s/’60’s that gave us Godzilla), and that this modern era seems to have a thing for zombies.
However, Jankowski takes a more phenomenological view of zombies and offers both functional (psychological) and instructional models of Zombie culture and social organization. Jankowski recognizes and describes the curiously regular behavioral traits of zombies: they are unidentifiable and anonymous, they can congregate spontaneously without any apparent guidance, they can spontaneously encircle and swarm their victims, and, they can quickly coordinate into a unit with a single purpose (i.e., eat living human flesh).
In short, film zombies exist in a network and/or exhibit networked behavior. This seemingly mindless yet socially disruptive behavior is none-the-less efficiently directed toward its goal (as defined by that network).
And while the depiction of Zombies in cinema may reflect our anxieties and some social “tension” (though I tend to think that “network anxiety” is over-played, or exaggerated, after all, people also flocked to see The Social Network), the experience of it — the genre itself — actually provides a social benefit. In Jankowski’s words:
“…zombies have provided a fictional landscape in which to theorize how social organization is controlled in a network society. Such spaces allow for a certain amount of leeway in the variability that one encounters. Thus, I advocate for the popularity of the zombie sub-genre. These grotesque playgrounds of the imagination are the field notes of a minor science of society. If one is to take the conceptual leap of applying these protocols to the notion of distributed networks that actually exist, be they memes, viral videos, or any other future cultural product, we may learn something vital about what it means to belong to the network society.”
Zombies as Instructional Tool For Public Health Messaging
And, finally, whether or not one buys into all this high-faloutin’ intellectualism on zombies, or even likes the zombie film genre, there is yet another societal function or role for zombies: public information and awareness. In a May 2013 article for Emerging Infectious Diseases (5), public health researchers from the CDC (Nasiruddin et al) made their case for Zombie-themed Pubic Health messaging. Citing various works including the acclaimed novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks, and its commentary on the efficacy of government, the team of public health experts assert:
“These popular and varied manifestations of zombies elucidate the potential for a comprehensive dissemination of knowledge, from identifying traits indicating infection to explaining the significance of public health infrastructure. Zombies are a unique medium that allow for the audience’s suspension of disbelief and for intellectual engagement.”
Cleverly, the researchers exploit the popularity of zombies to get the word out about infectious diseases like rabies. Rabies symptoms are remarkably similar to the overt behavior exhibited by classic cinematic zombies. Nasiruddin et al make an astute connection between the two ailments to present their public health case.
“…zombiism remains an existence in which the victim has been stripped of any higher consciousness or agency. The reimagining of zombiism as a virulent, incurable disease makes it an effective analogy for understanding of and interest in other infectious diseases.”
As depicted in the CDC cartoon diagram (above), similarities between Zombiism and Rabies are intriguing and the researchers cheekily offer their engaging comparison:
“Both ailments are primarily transmitted through biting”,
“Rabies causes difficulty swallowing because drinking causes spasms of the voice box; zombies largely lack the ability to produce any sound other than a deep groan, although they have been capable of speaking the word ‘brains’ in classic zombie cinema”.
This behavioral similarity may not be entirely coincidental, or merely fortuitous; our fear of zombies may reflect a generalized but very real and primal fear of disease contagion and the resulting social quarantining. The public health experts behind this campaign may have unconsciously recognized this ancient fear, but not wishing to ignite public panic, chose a more instructional route.
Indeed, in the final paragraph of the report, this “cover” slips a bit, and the authors make a direct connection between a “zombie apocalypse” and mass contagion – while also facetiously suggesting a zombie ethos:
“If a zombie apocalypse were to occur, surviving humans might not have the capacity for mass vaccination. The sole option may be to kill the undead for human survival; however, the ethics of destroying something that was once human might be called into question.”
Recognizing The Form
So then, in wrapping up this exploration of zombies in modern culture, I will note that each of the theories presented here seems to hold some degree of validity and each offers some real insight into the social phenomenon, though each seems also incomplete, or perhaps, inexact. It would seem that zombies are essentially fuzzy things — reflecting the emergent “fuzziness” of the modern mindset — and will defy any precise, logical assessment.
Zombies, in the end, may be a type of embodied Rorschach test for whatever mass social anxieties and tensions may be present, or operating, at the time…And also, no less significantly, zombies are a convenient and attention-grabbing tool for understanding novel social structures and teaching ourselves some of Life’s scarier health lessons…And, remember to always wash your hands afterwards.
(1) Wright, R. R. (2010), ‘Vampires and Zombies as Critical Public Pedagogy: Using Horror for Critical Adult Education and HRD Instruction‘, University of Texas at San Antonio
(2) Stratton, J. (2011) ‘The Trouble with Zombies: Bare Life, Muselmänner and Displaced People’‘ ; Somatechnics. Volume 1, Page 188-208 DOI 10.3366/soma.2011.0013, ISSN 2044-0138, Available Online March 2011 .
(3) Bishop, K. (2008). ‘The sub-subaltern monster: Imperialist hegemony and the cinematic voodoo zombie.’ The Journal of American Culture, 31 (2) :141 – 152; Bishop, K. (2010a). American Zombie Gothic, McFarland, Jefferson. Bishop, K. W. , (2010b). ‘The idle proletariat: Dawn of the dead, consumer ideology, and the loss of productive labor.’ The Journal of Popular Culture, 43(3) 234–248.
Note: All Kyle Bishop quotes are from the paper by S. Jankowski (cited below); the listed citations (above) were taken from the same paper.
(4) Jankowski, S. (2011). ‘Protocol Z: The distributed social organization of zombies‘; Critical Themes 2011. April 15–16. The New School.
(5) ‘Zombies—A Pop Culture Resource for Public Health Awareness’ (Melissa Nasiruddin, Monique Halabi, Alexander Dao, Kyle Chen, and Brandon Brown); Emerging Infectious Diseases (CDC), Volume 19, Number 5—May 2013 [Author affiliation: University of California, Irvine, California, USA]