The New York Times has an interesting and erudite Op-Ed today by Amy Wilentz called A Zombie is a Slave Forever that explores the historical foundations of the zombie phenomenon along with some of the cultural resonance that adheres to their particular New World provenance and flavor. It’s fascinating stuff, and makes some interesting observations. But it fails, I think, to capture the essence of the current North American fascination with the walking dead. An example:
There are many reasons the zombie, sprung from the colonial slave economy, is returning now to haunt us. Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.
Given the circumstances of the zombie’s cultural and historical provenance, Wilentz’ article does a good job of unpacking the historical materialist aspects of the phenomenon, and her critique hints obliquely at what I think the roots of our current fascination with zombies are. But cosplay and zombie walks aside, I don’t think the connection is what she thinks it is. For one thing, I don’t think the American mainstream is culturally literate enough to draw the connection between the zombie and the ideal slave/factory-worker (hence the op-ed’s existence in the first place). You don’t really see zombies being put to work in the movies and literature (at the end of Shaun of the Dead, a little, but rarely elsewhere). They are, rather, a symptom of apocalypse, of total societal breakdown, and I think it’s there that we find the real seed-crystal of their current cultural resonance. Continue reading “The Zombie on the Mantelpiece”