The Left and the Living Dead

The popularity of each resident in our cultural stable of monsters rises and falls as the years pass. Presently, vampires are at the top of the heap, with HBO's True Blood and Stephanie Meyer's unbelievably successful Twilight book series (22 million copies sold in 2008 alone) leading the way. The last few years saw a glut of ghost stories, many adapted from Japanese horror films. Werewolves are in a bit of a rut right now, but perhaps they'll make a comeback sometime soon. All of these menaces can be presented in the context of campy fun, genuinely frightening horror, or even highbrow (or at least upper-middlebrow) entertainment.

But then there's the zombie. There are no highbrow zombie movies or novels, and admitting you love them amounts to a declaration that your tastes are unrefined. In truth, zombies should be boring. There are only so many things you can do with them, narratively speaking. They can't charm you, like vampires, or make you pity them as they relate their torment while in human form, like werewolves. They clumsily lope after you, hoping to feast on your flesh, and they have almost no personality as individuals. Instead, zombie mobs are just an undifferentiated mass of malevolence. What's remarkable is that a villain with such little complexity has thrived for so long.

And "thrive" does not begin to describe the status of the contemporary zombie. They've come a long way from their roots in stories of Haitian voodoo masters using magical powder to enslave unfortunate souls. Consider some recent developments: One of the big publishing hits this year is Seth Grahame-Smith's refashioning of Jane Austen's classic novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Later this month, Chicago will host its first ever Zombie-Con. The New York Times' Paul Krugman is obviously a secret zombie-phile; his blog contains multiple references to zombies. There are too many zombie comic books to list. Increasingly, we're seeing "zombie" used as an adjective in a widening variety of contexts, from "zombie banks" to "zombie computers" to "zombie ideas."

At the center of this cultural juggernaut of the undead, are the films. Zombie movies have been around almost as long as there have been movies. While some scholars point to the 1919 silent German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as the first zombie film (the zombie in question was actually a hypnotized mental patient), the first mainstream zombie picture was probably White Zombie (1932), starring Bela Lugosi. For the aficionado, though, the truly seminal zombie film is George Romero's low-budget 1968 masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead. Before that film, zombies were usually employed as slave labor, guided by the master who had created them. Romero reimagined them as a mob whose purpose was to destroy and assimilate all living humans. And to eat brains.

Although previous efforts certainly referenced current events (for example, the first film in the Nazi zombie subgenre, Revenge of the Zombies, was released in 1943, while World War II was still going on), Romero's films set observers looking for political themes amid the brain-eating. When Night of the Living Dead was released, many saw it as a metaphor for the Vietnam War or domestic social upheaval. Perhaps most notably, its male lead, Duane Jones, was black, a rare casting decision at the time. In interviews, Romero insists he was not trying to make a point about race. "We cast an African American actor because he was the best actor from among our friends," Romero said in 2008. "And when we finished the film, literally as we were driving it to New York in the trunk of a car, that was the night Martin Luther King was assassinated." Jones' character is shot at the film's end by a group of vigilantes who mistake him for a zombie. Romero's sequels became much more explicit in their societal critique; in Dawn of the Dead, the zombies mindlessly wander around a shopping mall, as if repeating the essential activity of their former lives.

But most people who love a good zombie romp aren't too interested in political subtext -- they want to see arms being gnawed and large numbers of the undead blasted to kingdom come. And they've got more opportunities to feed their (OK, I'll admit it -- our) zombie jones than ever. Wikipedia contains a long list of zombie movies made since the 1930s, and if we turn that list into a graph, we see that the genre has exploded in the past decade. While there may be more films being produced overall, any way you slice it, if you're a zombie lover, this is the time to be alive.


Zombie Movies by Decade

So what's going on here? Why is our love of zombies only growing stronger?

In part, it's because the subject the zombie most directly addresses is so universal. For all the metaphoric possibilities zombies hold, at their most fundamental, they are death itself, pursuing us through the countryside. As Simon Pegg, the co-writer and star of the zombie homage/spoof Shaun of the Dead, recently wrote in the Guardian:

Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.

Their ineptitude actually makes them avoidable, at least for a while. If you're careful, if you keep your wits about you, you can stave them off, even outstrip them -- much as we strive to outstrip death. Drink less, cut out red meat, exercise, practice safe sex; these are our shotguns, our cricket bats, our farmhouses, our shopping malls. However, none of these things fully insulates us from the creeping dread that something so witless, so elemental may yet catch us unawares -- the drunk driver, the cancer sleeping in the double helix, the legless ghoul dragging itself through the darkness towards our ankles.

Metaphors aside, one can't examine the zombie phenomenon without addressing the genre's extreme violence. A vampire movie involves lots of skulking around and a few bites here and there. A zombie movie, on the other hand, will inevitably feature buckets of blood and dozens of zombies dispatched in almost comically violent ways -- limbs severed and bodies torn asunder. And that's not even mentioning the cannibalism.

The particular nature of the genre's violence may lie at the heart of the contemporary appeal of zombies in films and especially in video games. Imagine an action movie in which the hero repeatedly put a shotgun to the head of actual human beings and pulled the trigger. Even if they were very bad people, as an audience we'd come to feel that the hero was a sadistic freak, whatever the nobility of his larger cause. But not so with zombies, who are visibly human, despite their lack of consciousness and life force.

And in video games, you move from observer to participant. You can chop off their arms, blow off their heads, and generally engage in the most vicious kinds of violence one can imagine, and it's OK because, hey, they're zombies. Yet unlike the games in which you are fighting aliens or robots, your victims look basically human. When you play a zombie game, you get to act like a psychopath without saying to yourself, "I really shouldn't be enjoying acting like a psychopath." The zombie game allows us to indulge our inner barbarian without self-doubt.

There's so much more we could discuss -- an entire book could be written on the unending dispute over the relative merits of fast zombies and slow zombies, for instance. But since TAP is a magazine about politics, we must ask this question: Apart from the extreme violence, is the zombie genre fundamentally liberal or conservative? Does its increasing popularity serve anyone's political ends?

While one can certainly use zombies to express all kinds of ideas, I would argue that at heart, the genre is a progressive one. It's true that fighting off the zombie horde requires plentiful firearms, no doubt pleasing Second Amendment advocates. And in a zombie movie, government tends to be either ineffectual or completely absent. On the other hand, when the zombie apocalypse comes, capitalism breaks down, too -- people aren't going to be exchanging money for goods and services; they're just going to break into the hardware store and grab what they need (and if you think your private health insurer is going to be paying claims for treatment of zombie bites, you're living in a dream world). But most important, what ensures survival in a zombie story are the progressive ideals of common cause and collective action. A small group of people from varying backgrounds are thrust together and find that they can transcend their differences of age, race, and gender (the typical band of survivors is a veritable United Nations of cultural diversity). They come to understand that if they're going to get out of this with their brains kept securely housed in their skulls and not travelling down some zombie's gullet, they've got to act as though they're all in it together. Surviving the tide of zombies requires community and mutual responsibility. What could be more progressive than that?

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