Zombies: A (Very Long, Possibly Incoherent) Cultural History

The zombie originated in old-school Haitian voodoo culture, although the trope of the shambling undead stretches so far back into the roots of human history that it probably can’t be traced to a source. I think as soon as we realized that everybody dies, we created shambling undead things to be terrified of. The earliest vampire myths, from Dark Ages Eastern Europe (I don’t know if you knew this but we’re not supposed to say “Dark Ages” anymore, because it’s rude (to those ages), but I think in the context of zombie talk it adds a little frisson, a medieval shiver. Also, I mean, to be fair they literally were very dark times. Have you ever tried to read by the light of a tallow candle? Yeah I didn’t think so) bear a striking resemblance to the modern zombie, for example. Vampire used to just be a risen rotting corpse who tried to eat its relatives. Culturally I think it was a monster born of the fear of being buried alive, as indeed many people were back then (buried alive). It would be centuries before the vampire became the urbane aristocrat preying on people’s fears of burgeoning capitalism and international Jewry (see John Polidori’s 1819 The Vampyre for the foundational depiction of the modern vampire–based on Lord Byron! Scandalous!).

There is early twentieth- (and probably nineteenth-) century fiction that half-assedly digs into the Haitian voodo-style zombie. There is also the 1964 film version of Richard Mattheson’s 1958 novel I Am Legend, which was of course recently made into a Will Smith blockbuster that was exactly one half awesome and one half the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. The 1964 version is called The Last Man on Earth and of course stars Vincent Price. I bring this up because although technically the monsters in Legend/Earth are vampires (they’re called vampires, they’re killed with stakes through the heart, they’re scared of garlic), they behave way more like zombies. They shamble mindlessly around and aren’t very good at anything. The titular Last Man On Earth / Legend (it is him who is the legend! It’s a long story) has been living in his house for four years after vampire apocalypse, and all the vampires know he’s in there, but they just kind of ineffectually wander around in his yard while he sits inside getting drunk and listening to Beethoven records. Modern vampire would get in there in about two seconds, probably using some sort of Jedi Mind Trick to make you open the door for it and offer it a brandy before shit went down. So I think of that franchise as zombie-based. Regardless, none of it is very good so lets move on.

The first serious zombie-ref in cinema that I’m aware of (unless you count poor Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is the 1943 Jacques Tourneur film I Walked With a Zombie, in which some rich sugar plantation owner’s wife is turned into a zombie by a voodoo curse and there’s lots of running around through the sugarcane following terrifying wordless black people who may or may not themselves be zombies and who loom out of the dark sugarcane and stare with insanely wide eyes and beckon inscrutably and bang on drums, etc. And at the end somebody walks into the ocean and dies.

(Jacques Tourneur also directed the supremely bizarre Cat People, which you should really put in your Netflix queue, as its weirdness can’t totally be described. It involves a jealous young Eastern European lady who turns into a panther and murders people. The sound design is sort of incredible, and there is a real 1940’s top shelf Brassy Dame in it who figures the whole thing out and is also an architect?? You will find that many monsters come from Eastern Europe. The werewolf, e.g., which is similar to a murderous panther lady except has more regret once it changes back into a human. I’m actually not sure the werewolf originates in Eastern Europe. My scholarly research has been into the vampire history and I don’t actually know much about the werewolf, except that it is very ancient and there are mentions of it in Old Norse in some text?? Where did I learn that? Regardless, werewolf is all about sex and animal natures, losing control of your civilized self, growing hair in socially awkward places, running gibbering in spite of yourself through the midnight woods. Also of course killing and eating your neighbors. Each monster speaks to very different, albeit often related, social anxieties, which is why zombie is having such a recurrence right now, while vampire got turned into sexy ice-cold boner story and is completely unrecognizable from its 1819 roots (to say nothing of its proto-zombie shambling corpse roots). Because our fears of capitalism and foreignness can no longer be represented by the figure of a vaguely Jewish aristocrat from Hungary with burning red eyes who steals our daughters. Our capitalism fears have been transmuted into the zombie, leaving only the sexy immortality and icy-cold penis skin of the vampire behind. Also issues of infection, which tie all these monsters together, but I think I have digressed far enough)

Wikipedia says that Stylus magazine called this film “the fifth best zombie film of all time.” Which brings me to (one of) my point(s), which is that though the zombie is my all-time favorite movie monster, and though as a human and a scholar I find the zombie incredibly interesting, the fact remains that there are actually very few good zombie movies, and two of them are parodies.

How can something so interesting have been so palely and tepidly depicted upon the silver screen? All too often our friend the zombie is relegated to, like, those Italian B horror movies that are more of an excuse for booby-shots than anything else. Like “Zombie,” in which a topless scuba-diving woman is underwater-humped by a zombie who is somehow living in a cave down there. Then he (the zombie) does battle with a poor, depressed, obviously drugged shark that has had all its teeth removed. Oh god lets never speak of this again.

Here are the actual top five zombie movies of all time, in no particular order, because, as I will get to in a minute, there are important cultural distinctions to be made betwixt them and it’s hard for me to say which is the most interesting. Although Night of the Living Dead is obviously going to be first on any list of this nature. And Shaun of the Dead is not on this list, because while great, it is not interesting to me along the lines of the essay I am trying really hard to start writing any minute now once I get werewolves and vampires off my chest. This essay was supposed to be about fast vs. slow zombies but I haven’t even gotten to the introductory paragraph for that topic yet. I guess that’s why they call it a “blog” and not a “publishable piece of writing”:

1. Night of the Living Dead
2. 28 Days Later
3. Dawn of the Dead
4. Remake of Dawn of the Dead (I will explain!)
5. Fido

So there they are–the only zombie movies you need ever watch. Obviously there are Romero nerds who will swear by the entire Romero franchise, but the only truly good film in the bunch is Night Of. The rest veer off into silliness and poor special effects, and, though they are very fun to watch, they don’t give you that zombie chill you get when you’re watching something that puts its cold, dead finger DIRECTLY upon a deep-seated cultural anxiety. Dawn Of’s social satire is too obvious and fun-loving to be really disturbing, and, I mean, in Day Of, when the zombie attains consciousness by listening to a walkman playing the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? I mean, that’s fine. That’s just fine.

Night of the Living Dead was made in 1968, by the aforementioned George Romero, and is just a tremendous film. I have found that people tend to be only dimly aware of this film, and think of it as a crappy B-movie that’s probably funny to watch if you’re stoned. This is not the case! It is a very well-made piece of craftsmanship. It was made for like ten bucks by a bunch of pals, is in succulent black and white, and is completely/complexly suffused with the bleak dread you most want out of a zombie movie. The acting is terrible and the dialogue worse and the gender dynamics worst of all (“We don’t stand a chance out there! We’ve got a sick kid and TWO WOMEN!”), but somehow it doesn’t matter. The establishing shots of the house, the zombie apocalypse, the dark lawn, the graveyard, are harrowing. How can just a shot of a house be harrowing? I don’t know, but it is. It’s an extraordinarily compelling film and I urge you to watch it if you haven’t already. Somehow everything is disgusting and upsetting. Even the empty farmhouse Barbara runs to seems to ooze terror and evil from its walls. Barbara’s brother seems like a serial killer even before he turns into a zombie. “They’re coming for you Barbara!” UGH!

But so here it begins. Here in Night Of the zombies are slow. They are slow because they are DEAD. They are not alive–their slowness and clumsiness is meant to be horrible, to dramatize the fact of their deadness. No longer human, no longer anything, they are barely-animated rotting corpses (animated, it should be pointed out, by “rays” from “outer space,” thus betraying the year 1968’s closeness to the 50’s, when UFOs and rays and “science,” generally, created most movie monsters).

The terror of the Romero zombie is twofold: On its own, its dead-ness is ungraspably horrifying. It shambles right out of, like, Julia Kristeva’s work on the abject. Things that show us that we carry death inside of us, that all of us will one day become no-longer-human. Shit and corpses, the things we recoil from with a deep instinct of total disgust. How disgusting rotting meat is, and yet one day we too will be rotting meat and nothing more. And a corpse is bad enough when it’s just lying there. But then the real horror of the abject is made evident by the fact that it is INFINITELY WORSE when the corpse stirs. Death is bad enough but Death in a grim parody of Life is basically a total bummer. Think of the 1902 short story “the Monkey’s Paw,” the plot of which has become the psychological foundation for so many tales, and can basically be boiled down to the warning “careful what you wish for.” Oh, how we all fear death! Oh, how we long for death to not be real, for death to not be the end. We make up elaborate fantasies of afterlives, heaven-worlds, where all will be reunited with departed loved ones, missing limbs reattached, no suffering, no war, enlightenment, peace, becoming one with the cosmos. We wish and wish, secretly, shame-facedly, hopelessly, to not die.

I think this terror of death is belied by our horror of things that have successfully avoided it. Beneath all our terror is the certainty that everything dies, that everything MUST die. If we truly wished for death to go away, we wouldn’t find ghosts frightening. It turns out the only thing worse than death is the hypothetical state of never being able to die. A trope of these films is that there’s always somebody begging to be killed so that they won’t become “one of them.”

This is the basis for the hilarious film Fido, which is reviewed on this very blog. There the zombie functions as a means of dramatizing our enslavement to capitalist corporatocracy. The Capitalist is vampire no longer–or, the thing the modern vampire was always a metaphor for has become literalized. We used to place our fears of capitalism into the figure of the ur-capitalist–the all-powerful, immortal, wealthy, hypnotic, well-dressed foreigner who infiltrates your social life and sucks the blood from your body until you are limp and helpless (think also of all the Marxist rhetoric about the wealthy classes as “parasites,” “preying” on the lower classes). Now we play out these fears but from the opposite point of view–instead of dramatizing The Capitalist as vampire, we dramatize Ourselves as zombie. Mindless, agency-less, we shamble horribly through a grim parody of life, completely under the control of forces far beyond the human, which no one understands. The people who are not zombies become outlaws, living on the fringes of society, scavenging the detritus of the capitalistic world, remaining constantly vigilant against becoming zombies themselves. The horror they feel for their onetime comrades is overwhelming–these movies almost always have at least one scene where somebody takes a high-powered rifle up to a window and just starts picking them off, either grimly (Night Of, the dreadfully terrible TV show The Walking Dead) or hysterically (remake of Dawn Of, 28 Days Later, a different scene in Walking Dead).

So, singularly, the zombie is obviously about death–fear of it, fear of never making it to it, fear of coming back from it–and the body, of course, as everything is about the body (who am I if I’m just my body and not my mind?), etc.

But, collectively, the zombie is about society, civilization, the masses, the hordes, overpopulation, all of us pressing down harder and harder upon each other, more and more of us feeding into systems that are increasingly ever-more beyond the scope or control of an individual. And here is where I think the differences between the Romero Era and the Modern Era, w/r/t cinematic zombies, become really really interesting.

The Romero zombie, as previously described, is a shambling, clumsy thing. The Romero zombie is a SLOW ZOMBIE. The horror of the Romero zombie lies almost completely at the feet of the group, the herd–countless slow, clumsy dead people sloooowly encroaching. Individually, a zombie is not super hard to out-maneuver. They’re always dying (again) in stupid ways. Walking into rotating helicopter blades. Letting you slowly drive a piece of wood into their eyeball. They become frightening and unbeatable only in a group. You only have so many bullets; you can only poke a stick in so many directions at once. Eventually, if there’s enough of them, you will be overpowered, and sloooooowly devoured. It’s their very slowness that makes the Romero zombies so horrifying, that dramatizes the difference between them and the survivors, who (except for the women of course) are all fleet of foot, quick of mind, savvy, always ready with a weapon of opportunity or a crazy plan that just might work. Seen next to each other, survivor and zombie paint a terrifying tableau of what Might Be, what must be fought valiantly against–passivity, docility, mindlessness, death-in-life, the rotting away of human attributes.

The modern fast zombie, by contrast, isn’t really about any of those things. First of all, the modern fast zombie is rarely a corpse. It is more often a plague of unnamed origins–an infection, a virus. 28 Days Later‘s zombie apocalypse begins in a lab (science!) with monkey torture, some crazy biological warfare thing gone horribly wrong (or right, depending on your point of view), a plague spreading across humanity like wildfire, leading to much rampaging and heavy-handed September Eleventh imagery (it was made in 2002, what are you gonna do, NOT allegorize 9/11 in every single thing you produce as a society? Right, I guess not). So these zombies are not zombies–they’re just sick people. They’re not dead; they’re not corpses. Accordingly, they do not shamble, and they do not make you horrified about “omg what’s gonna happen to my body when I die???”. The 28 Days Later zombie SPRINTS. This was a big deal, in the history of zombie cinema! Like most innovations, it now seems trite and obvious, but I literally could not believe what I was seeing when I sat down in the theater with my unwilling life partner and those zombies started chasing poor Cillian Murphy lickety-split through the streets of London. “THIS IS SO INTERESTING,” I whisper-shouted to my old man, who was cowering in his seat with his hands over his eyes, “ARE WE NOT AFRAID OF DEATH ANYMORE???”

What are we afraid of, now that our zombies are fast? Sure, part of it is just Hollywood being like “these ol’ slow zombies are boring, lets put a little pizazz up in this shit, modern audiences aren’t gonna wait around for some dead ol’ guy to stumble up and accidentally bite somebody,” and to this I say: EXACTLY!

FASTNESS. The world is sure moving pretty fucking fast these days–a lot faster than it was moving in 1968 (to say nothing of 1819). Chuck Klosterman recently wrote a very half-assed and stupid thing about zombies in the New York Times (oh NYT, how you continue to break my heart) in which he was just sort of like “oh yeah, zombies are because we get stressed out checking our email inbox or something, Twitter, I don’t know, I wrote this 10 minutes before the deadline, please give me my $100,000 check now thanks.” He also says vampires are about AIDS, which, I have to say again, I was not aware there was a big AIDS problem in 16th century Hungary. But Klosterman actually does hit on something real about zombie movies, albeit accidentally. Which is the terror of change, the oppressive feeling of being literally CHASED by society. The survivors of the fast zombie apocalypse are still outlaws on the fringes; they still scavenge the detritus of capitalist society (think of the grocery store scene in 28 Days, when they all race around, uncharacteristically whooping and laughing, filling up shopping carts with packaged food and then gleefully racing through the checkout lanes WITHOUT PAYING), they still have terror of becoming one of the undead masses. But now the oppressive slowness, the inexorability that was A HUGELY DEFINING FEATURE of the specific fear felt in Romero movies, is replaced by its opposite. Klosterman says there’s not really important differences between fast and slow zombies, but I think there are. Fast zombies are scary on their own, as individuals. They can run just as fast as you. They are not clumsy whatsoever; they are quite canny and physically adept. They leap, they jump, they claw. They are no longer corpses whose limp movements dramatize the very deadness that is their most horrifying feature. What are they now? They’re just people. People infected with a virus that raced through them like wildfire, and that has made them unrecognizable as humans. Yes, a zombie bite still turns you into a zombie, but the initial damage was done by a virus—a crazy four-bars-of-high-speed-wireless-internet-style virus that blew through humanity in about two seconds.

It’s like the coming of the railroad all over again! No we will NOT recognize standardized time! Noon is whenever we say it is GODDAMNIT everything’s changing. During the industrial revolution there cropped up a bunch of weird psychosomatic illnesses that doctors attributed to the sudden fast pace of modernity. Think about it–for thousands of years, the fastest anybody could go was however fast they could walk. Then for thousands more years, the fastest anybody could go was however fast a horse could run. Plato, Attila the Hun, the Emperor Nero, J.S. Bach, Lord Byron, all traveled at the same speed. Everything was always as far away as it always had been–Paris was as far from London as it had been for a thousand years. The globe, the countries of the earth, the distance between them, were explicable from age to age. Then suddenly in the space of, human-historically-speaking, like two seconds, we went from horses to TRAINS and from trains to CARS and from cars to FUCKING JET AIRPLANES. It is truly bound to be stressful. Indeed, cultural historians pretty much date all possible current forms of malaise or psychic suffering to the invention of the train. It had repercussions beyond just speed of travel, too. Suddenly time had to be standardized (because of train schedules). TIME BECAME REAL, instead of more like a vague thing that was different for everybody. Time became tangible. It’s awful!

So yeah, this is when society really starts pressing down on people. Urbanization, the vast over-crowding of city streets, the creation of “slums,” the insane hubub of the railway station, WHO ARE ALL THESE DREADFUL PEOPLE? Surely I am not one of them! Not I, unique and Romantically self-actualized, in my first-class train compartment, dipping daintily into my bejeweled snuff box from time to time!

And things have only gotten faster since 1968, as any old man will tell you.

So it’s interesting that the remake of Dawn of the Dead uses fast zombies, whereas the original was of course slow zombies. Further interesting is that the social satire of the original is 100% missing from the remake, and that this absence is, I think, largely BECAUSE OF the difference between fast and slow zombies.

In the original, zombie apocalypse has happened, and a ragtag bunch of misfits are holed up in a shopping mall together. Romero also began the classic zombie film trope of the exact makeup of this ragtag bunch of misfits–there’s usually a black guy and some kind of racist guy, and then all this awkward race stuff gets played out, its very awkwardness kind of making it riveting, like, AS IF during zombie apocalypse there would still be people being all “that guy’s black, I think maybe I’ll betray him to the zombies because I am an awful racist man.” Or the dreadful part in the original Dawn of when the pregnant lady’s like “do you mean your real brother? Or your street brother?” LOL

Anyway, so they’re in a shopping mall. GET IT???? And there’s zombies wandering around the shopping mall. GET IT?!??!!! NOW DO YOU GET IT?

This is also the true origin of the classic “themed zombie,” because, while Night Of did have some costumey zombie types (like, I think there is Hospital Gown zombie and of course Burial Suit zombie), Dawn Of takes it super deep. Skateboard Zombie. Bride and Groom Zombie. Little League Zombie. Hare Krishna Zombie, who of course goes on to play a fairly major role in the plot, still holding his little tambourine. But it’s as if when zombie apocalypse struck, everyone in America was wearing a costume. Nobody’s just “Jeans And T-Shirt Zombie.” So it’s like everyone was already play-acting at being an American, and now they’re doomed to forever roam the dim hallways of their beloved shopping center, going into certain stores simply because of muscle-memory, going up and down the escalators because their bodies remember how to do it.

Meanwhile, the survivors are initially like “this is great! we have everything we need!” They clear out all the zombies and board up the doors, and then they have the run of the place. There’s food and clothes and survival supplies–it’s a mall! It has literally everything a person needs to live a fulfilled life! But then something changes. The relief goes away, and everybody gets bummed out. What is the point of life, if all you’re doing is trying on clothes and covering yourself with diamonds from the jewelry store and using all the newfangled appliances at the Sears, etc? Is this really what surviving is about? Is this all we really care about doing in Life? There’s a great shot of the two main characters sitting in their fancy bed, staring dead-eyed straight in front of them, while the sounds of zombie apocalypse rage dimly from beyond the walls (moans and screams and banging). WHO IS REALLY THE ZOMBIE, ETC.

Then anti-establishment Hells Angels break into the mall, bringing with them total mayhem. They let all the zombies in; they ruin the fortress. They seem to do it just for fun–they don’t seem super disturbed by anything that’s going on, not even when one of them gets pulled from his bike and has his guts ripped out horribly. The survivors are like “well, that’s it,” and they go for the helicopter on the roof. Somehow a bunch of them die, I forget. Then the boyfriend turns into a zombie and the black guy puts him out of his misery. Then the black guy and the pregnant lady fly the helicopter away to freedom, except of course there is no freedom, not ever again. The rest of their lives will be spent in hyper-vigilance against the seething zombie hordes. YET! The lady seems weirdly stoked. She’s stoked to leave the shopping mall! She’s like “fuck all that consumerism–I want to LIVE.” She’d rather go live out in zombie apocalypse! Oh George Romero you have truly made your point, also racism is wrong.

But in the new Dawn of the Dead, everything is different. First of all, the racism is OVERT instead of just sort of ham-fistedly under the surface. I mean whereas Night Of has a metaphorical lynching at its climax, and Dawn Of has all the awkward interracial conversations and dynamics, in the new Dawn Of there is literally a character who is, like, yelling the n-word at Ving Rhames, while everybody’s trying to save the last vestiges of humanity from encroaching zombification. So here is a trope of the new zombie film, sort of, which is that before unity against zombies can be achieved, first the guy yelling the n-word has to be beat to within an inch of his life, handcuffed to something, and then later redeemed through heroic self-sacrifice. And I mean, I can only think of two films where this happens, but it still seems like a trope to me. And the fact that it’s in there at all is mind-boggling. Is this really what we are worried about? “What if there’s only seven people left on the entire earth and ONE OF THEM IS RACIST”

We are so scared of racism! The black people in these movies are always noble and good and wise and forgiving, even the guy in Dawn Of who forgets to tell everybody that his Russian wife is about to give birth to Zombie Baby, leading to much mayhem and wringing of hands. And then the racist is always like “you truly are my brother after all” and then flings himself screaming into the zombie hordes so that his newfound brother may live a few minutes more.

Sarah Polley is in the new Dawn Of.

Also the racist guy is always also a sexist, but his sexism is always his secondary offense–the racism is always the main thing that makes him a villain/secret future redeemed martyr/hero. It’s like sexism is just the cherry on top. “I’m gonna wave this gun around and yell the n-word, and also I would like to point out that you have boobs and are therefore stupid” and everyone goes “HOW DARE YOU SAY THE N-WORD”

And the zombies are fast. Gone is the commentary of dead people shuffling around a shopping mall. Now the zombies are fast, and quick-witted in an uncomfortable way. I mean that they have FOCUS. They know the dudes are inside and they want to get inside and eat them. The original Dawn Of’s zombies had no focus. They were dead people! If an alive person walked past them, sure, they’d take a bite, but they weren’t driven by hunger or specifically focused on getting at anybody. They mostly just wandered around–their very aimlessness was what was upsetting. The new Dawn Of with its sprinting hordes…consumerism is no longer the target here. Blind following of market trends. They didn’t even do the sequence where the survivors cheerily clean out the zombies filling the mall. Now it’s just the idea of humanity itself that is horrible, somehow. Each individual human capable of terror on a massive scale. Bloody, ripping terror, too, not just dim shuffling accidental terror.

Both are scary, but they are scary in such different ways, at least to me.

So but anyway, there is one more thing I want to say about the difference between 1968 zombie and modern zombie, and that is The Enemy Within.

The Enemy Within is a theme of all self-respecting zombie movies, whether fast or slow. Zombie movies are of course always about the human, fears of humanity, the masses, capitalism, etc., as previously gone on and on about in this very blog entry. But there is this additional thing where the zombie somehow becomes LESS TERRIFYING than the other non-zombie humans you find yourself with. And this is happening as early as Day Of, where the army guys end up being worse than the zombies, and they mistreat the zombies, and the aforementioned Beethoven’s-Ninth zombie (whose name is ‘Bob’) ends up saving humanity from the army, in a deeply confusing political message I can’t really understand all of. Or even Night Of, when the rescuing gun-toting police officers end up accidentally killing the main character who has just survived a truly harrowing night stuck in a basement with hundreds of dead people banging their foreheads against the door over and over again.

But this theme becomes more prominent as time passes. It’s like it’s always a secondary theme but after like 2001 (ahem) it becomes a MAIN theme. Fido is totally all about it, to a hilarious degree (god, you should really all go see that movie).

In 28 Days Later it’s done much more skillfully than ever before. Oh god, the zombies in 28 Days are so fucking scary!!!!! How could anything be as scary as the first half of that film? Yet somehow the army guys are indeed more scary. At first it seems like they are rescuers, even though they shot Brendan Gleeson like a million times after the zombie blood fell out of the crow’s beak and into his eyeball–so, I mean, fair enough, but still. They take the survivors back to their compound. The survivors are sort of conveying that they don’t feel as relieved as they ought to feel; something’s not right. The compound is indeed safe from zombies. There are all these army guys there, the place is surrounded with guns, and the army guys have strict rules and patrols during which the also-aforementioned gleeful mowing-down of zombies occurs. But pretty soon we realize that these guys are psychotic, and it becomes this dreadful rape terror where they’re going to kill Cillian Murphy–leaving him for dead on a huge pile of corpses that it’s sort of ambiguously implied were army victims, not zombie victims, I mean, my god, it’s zombie apocalypse and the army is still taking hundreds of living humans out into fields and shooting them?? WHAT A WORLD–and rape the two ladies millions of times, and it’s just horrible, and suddenly you realize life was way better when they were out in the countryside just fighting off the odd blood-crazed zombie horde, a.k.a. life was better when they were FREE.

Now they live under the law again, under the protection (“protection”) of the military/government, which fights terror with terror, and actually shit is way worse than it was when they were fending for themselves. The fantasy of just “finding an authority figure” and then everything will be okay is here DESTROYED. Just as it is destroyed in real life if you stop to think for two seconds. I mean, I’m really gonna let the TSA feel up my crotch and racially profile random college professors and prohibit scholars of Byzantine erotica from re-entering the country because 0.00000000000000001% of humanity might one day once again hijack a plane in some hard-to-predict way? ARE YOU SERIOUS.

Living your life in fear is no way to live. There’s zombies out there but you have to deal with it and try to see their humanity even as you are fighting them off, because NO AMOUNT of “safety measures” are going to actually keep you safe. In fact, they will eventually make life not worth living. And whenever anything scary like zombie apocalypse happens, the people who desperately cleave to authority figures, and run to Home Depot and buy duct tape and plastic sheeting because somebody on TV told them that’s all they need to do….are those people truly living, accepting the world with all its risks? Or are they no better than the zombies? ALAS

Thus in order to regain their freedom, Cillian Murphy must become more like a zombie. He is no longer afraid of the zombies. He runs through the woods with them; he lets them into the house; he is amongst them without fear; they are his brothers and sisters, and they unknowingly aid him in his quest for freedom. Suddenly human and zombie are unified in their desire to overthrow the government, basically.

With the house overrun, discipline erodes, and the army guys sort of go rampaging wildly around, and Cillian Murphy and the two ladies are like “PEACE WE’RE OUTTA HERE.” They even manage to get revenge for a zombie army guy that the army has been keeping chained up outside so they can do experiments on him and see how long it takes him to starve to death and stuff. It’s crazy because when they show us this chained-up zombie, what we feel is horror and shame way beyond anything we felt when we were just watching zombie apocalypse. How can the army take advantage of this poor zombie? Sure he is a bloodthirsty maniac with no consciousness, but does that make it okay to torture him? Are we no better than they? etc. So during their escape the little girl drives the truck with Christopher Eccleston in it right into the zombie’s cage and the zombie reaches in and, ignoring the others, makes a grab for Eccleston, his tormentor, and pulls him out of the car and presumably eats him, and justice is served. HOLY SHIT, what is this movie about? It’s so good!

So, themes of society, civilization, dehumanizing capitalist systems, overpopulation, individuality, tyranny, freedom vs. safety, and how scary the army is if you stop and think about it for one second. The zombie film is all about this, and I think it is cool to see how these themes remain but manifest differently across the decades, from slow to fast.

Then there’s The Walking Dead. It’s so bad that I want to punch somebody’s mouth out. And its zombies are sort of in between slow and fast, which I think serves as a great metaphor for how totally dim and unrealized any of its nascent cultural commentary is, as well as for how it is only half-scary. It’s an in-between piece of crap that doesn’t know what it is. And this is because every single moment of it is blatantly and directly ripped off from a previous film. There are tropes and themes, and then there is plagiarism. That’s why The Walking Dead doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t know how to be scary, doesn’t know what things its trying to be a metaphor for. Because it’s a mish-mash of old zombie and new zombie, slow zombie and fast zombie, not quite about capitalism, not quite about the masses, not quite about death and corruption either, not quite about the Enemy Within. It has elements of the Enemy Within but IT DOESN’T REALIZE IT. It is so bad. Its plagiarism is so lazy and uninteresting. How can it LITERALLY begin with a guy waking up from a coma in the hospital only to find that zombie apocalypse has happened? HOW DARE THEY. Also that completely bizarre sequence where each of the white/black father figures has to accept his new reality by murdering a helpless woman? What the fuck is that about.

It’s too bad because obviously I was excited about TWD, due to my interests. But they can’t all be home runs, I guess. AMC should stick with seething yet urbane malaise, cigarettes, and eames chairs.

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2 Responses to Zombies: A (Very Long, Possibly Incoherent) Cultural History

  1. AR says:

    I hope this is an excerpt from your forthcoming book.

  2. Syd says:

    The Infected aren’t zombies (no (no they’re not (noooo, you can’t be UNdead if you were never dead in the first place))), but I guess it’s geek semantics (how do you UNdo a knot from a rope with no knots though (EL OH EL))…… love the blog though, great thoughts and writing, and really any discussion about zombies wouldn’t be complete without talking about 28 Days Later.

    Sara Quin is reading this somewhere and going “Yes too they are too zombies, grrrrr I can’t comment on this though because I’m famous and can’t call attention to myself, grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

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