The Zombie on the Mantelpiece

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.

Zombie stories, to my mind, are all about radical individualism.  Not the zombies themselves, of course.  Zombies themselves are the opposite of individuals, a shambling, or occasionally sprinting, homogeneous mass of mindless creatures animated by the most basic drives whose dual purpose of consumption and assimilation are a stand-in for society at large and its demands on the vast majority of people (it’s here I think Wilentz is on to something).  Zombies want to consume the survivors of the zombie apocalypse (at least, traditionally, their brains), but what they really want is to turn the survivors into zombies, too.
This is why zombies are almost never the protagonists of stories.

Zombies are, in short, the problem.  The thing against which the real heroes of zombie stories struggle, the crushing outside forces, historical, cultural, and psychological, that try to mold human beings into shapes and life-patterns that go against their natural inclinations.  The zombie apocalypse is, in this sense, both horrifying and liberating, because the survivors, even though they are in constant danger of infection and assimilation, are also free in a way that almost no one is in real life.

It’s like living in a video game.

Think about it.  The survivors of a zombie apocalypse live in constant fear, but the danger of their circumstances (and their relative low numbers in comparison to the zombie hordes) gives them license to steal cars, kill zombies, take whatever they need from their environment (the zombie apocalypse is almost always a recent phenomenon, so the fruits of large-scale civilization, while somewhat attenuated, are also freely available for scavenging, which begs the question of long-term survival).  They are empowered to be themselves, free in whatever ways they desire to be to do whatever they desire to do.  They are radical individuals cut loose from the strictures that go with society while still having access to the fruits of large-scale civilization.

And that, to me, is the secret of the appeal.  The zombies are a stand-in for the conformist, the company man, the Stepford Wife.  They represent all the homogenizing forces at play in modern society, against which the radical individual rebels.  The zombie apocalypse represents the breakdown of that society, the deus-ex-machina freeing of those worthy enough to survive and blossom into their true selves.

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