The National Catholic Review
Jack McLain
What zombies tell us about our culture

Zombies are all the rage. They can be found in reworkings of classic books and games in Apple’s App Store. They have even spawned a new kind of protest movement that involves large crowds dressing up as zombies and besieging the targets of their discontent. And of course zombies still appear in the medium responsible for their popularization, film.

Zombies are the Everyman of the monster world. In contrast to the ennui-filled vampires of “Twilight,” or the erotic vampires of Anne Rice, zombies are anonymous, indistinguishable from one another. Other than the tatters of clothing that they wear, there is nothing to set one zombie apart from another. Unlike the werewolf, whose curse provides an in-built dramatic conflict (“Am I responsible for what I do in that state?”), zombies are remorseless and insensate. And unlike Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Creature, zombies do not serve as a metaphor for human ambition or hubris. The origin of zombie plagues is rarely explained in the genre; they simply begin. Somewhere the virus is born and it spreads until the whole world must confront it.

Zombies are the faceless, unsexy, plodders of the horror genre. There is even a debate among zombie-followers about the pace at which zombies should move. Should they move at an undead shamble or with leopard like agility in consuming their unfortunates? I prefer a slow-moving zombie to the fast-moving variety; they’re scarier when they’re slow because even though you can out-maneuver them in the short term, they just keep coming for you. Eventually, it isn’t their speed that overwhelms, it is their mass. One zombie is little threat, one thousand are.

Zombies are hungry, possessing a ravening, insatiable need to feed. And what they seek to consume is us, you and I. This irrational desire to devour has been used as metaphor for human consumption writ large. George A. Romero, the godfather of the genre who first popularized zombies in his classic “Night of the Living Dead,” used zombies as a metaphor for consumerism in his follow up to that film, “Dawn of the Dead.” Survivors of zombie plague seek refuge in a shopping mall and turn it into a Fort Apache-style sanctuary.

As a fan of the horror genre, I’ve seen most of the movies and read a fair number of books and comics based on these undead uprisings. Generally, they are simply diversions. A zombie movie is the film equivalent of cotton candy, not much mental nutritional value, but when done well, oh so sweet. But the zombie movement has more to say about Western culture than you might expect. 

In his book World War Z, Max Brooks writes from the point of view of a UN researcher documenting how the living world survived a zombie plague. In mock-documentary style, Brooks travels around the world, interviewing people who managed to stay alive. Brook’s use of the zombie metaphor is a rich one for our culture. I began the book in the months that followed the global economic meltdown. Reading Brooks’ account of soulless hordes devouring their prey in light of the financial disasters caused by faceless organizations spurred by an insatiable hunger for profit was sobering. Zombie banks, anyone?

The global dimension of the catastrophe also raised many of the same questions as a zombie flick: How did it start? Who will survive and how? Will they come for me? Here were zombies taking a walk down Wall Street; the book turned from being a “just-for-fun” read into a challenging examination of a world driven nearly to collapse by the sheer weight of want.

The metaphor of pure consumption is a warning for the 21st century. The very survival of our species may hinge on our ability to control our desire to do whatever we like to our environment. Advertising encourages us to consume without thought as to whether or not we need the products we consume. Media offers easy modes of deadening ourselves to those around us such that the only thing that links us together is the need for more. And not a good “more,” as in St. Ignatius Loyola’s magis, but a “more” that leaves us even emptier than we before we started. 

The destructive nature of unthinking fundamentalism lends itself frighteningly well to the imagery and scope of zombies. Either you will be hunted down and consumed, or you will be infected and join them; there is no in-between space for rationalizing and compromise. And consider the real-world biological themes latent in the zombie genre: the spread of diseases that have the potential to devastate large portions of the world’s population; how the healthy respond to the infected; and how the military responds to the spread of such infections. The genre offers little reason to hope for humanity’s long-term survival.

But even in this apocalyptic imagery, there is a glimmer of promise that should be immediately recognizable to a Christian. If the world is to survive the terror of unthinking, unfettered consumption, it must turn toward community. Fear of another person, in zombie lore, must be overcome in order to survive a more dangerous threat. Consider Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” The film focused on a small band of survivors thrown together in an abandoned farmhouse who must overcome fear of each other in order to deal with the greater threat of zombies. 

The film is a fable of race relations; filmed in 1967, the most capable survivor is an African-American man who must battle some of his fellow survivors almost as much as the zombies. Some of those trapped in the house would rather court danger by isolating themselves rather than by accepting and dealing with a person of a different race.

In “Shaun of the Dead” (a 2004 film billed as “A Romantic Comedy. With Zombies”) a twenty-something slacker must mature in his relationships before he can form his community of friends into a band capable of surviving the onslaught. This is the ultimate message of the zombie movie: survivors must re-examine and re-order their world, then come together in community that allows them to not just survive the apocalypse, but to cautiously triumph over it.

Survival, in the zombie genre, depends on the ability to confront the horrible reality that confronts the world and a willingness to overcome the fear it represents in order to come together to work for survival. Even capable pragmatists rarely survive long in a land where the most rugged of individuals will be quickly dragged down and devoured. Is that world very different from ours? Visit any news Web site and you will encounter horrors far greater than the ones that these artists and filmmakers have imagined. If we are not to merely survive as a race of creatures, but to build the Kingdom of God, we have to confront our fear of the other—often the other already in our midst—in order to do so.

Before zombies pass into the inevitable “has-been” status of pop culture we might examine some of these messages, ideas and critiques. Pop culture holds up a mirror for us to see what really frightens us, and it’s not zombies.

 

Jack McLain, S.J., is rector of St. Ignatius College in Adelaide, Australia.

Comments

C Walter Mattingly | 5/8/2010 - 6:39am

I really enjoyed this one. I will be waiting for a future release on the big screen (or does that date me: the dvd?), "The Attack of the Zombie Fundamentalists."

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