By Myles Ludwig
Never met a zombie. Not likely to, either.
So far, I’ve managed to ease over those gruesome speed bumps of immortality for most of my life, but now I’m surrounded by them. They’re everywhere. They’re after us, stalking our channels, our movies, even our TV commercial with their awkward stomps, leprous peeling flesh, grasping outstretched hands and an insatiable hunger for a dinner of fresh living brains, preferably brains from someone as tasty as Brad Pitt. Yum-yum.
They have replaced the aristocratic, all-powerful, sexually voracious vampire as the latest pop creature of horror.
Every culture has some kind of supernatural creature. To serve and protect, or to fear and blame. We know about the tradition of the zombie in Haitian voodoo, and we can trace their contemporary awakening to George Romero’s 1968 handmade movie, Night of the Living Dead. I didn’t see those films, or their predecessor, the 1932 White Zombie with Bela Lugosi, the movie that first brought the word into the mainstream, and I don’t have any desire to see them. My first introduction to the living dead was in the 1948 Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I was 6 years old and that was enough for me.
So what does the “rebirth” of this kind of monster say about our popular culture? Especially in view of our current movie monsters being something like metalized cockroaches. I think it goes beyond our propensity to scare ourselves, to feel alive. Assure us that we are alive. I think the zombie craze is something else.
In her thesis A Tale of Two Monsters: or, The Dialectic of Horror (you can always count on an academic to bring up dialectics) Lauren Spears explores the idea of the “prehistoric mythical genesis of the walking dead, through the Romantic literary elevation of the revenant into the Byronic vampire and Shelley’s Creature.” Spears finds that both types of undead (vampires and zombies) “tell facets of the same larger cultural narrative about class and consumption: while sharing the same humble origins in folklore, over time the vampire comes to represent the aristocratic elite while the zombie mirrors the struggles of the poor, making each monster a representative of a soldier in class warfare.”
Spears argues that zombies and vampires come from the same place, “fear and misunderstanding of our selves. As Michael Jackson might have put it, I’m starting with the zombie in the mirror, because, according to Spears, “Monsters represent the fears we see within ourselves. Because of the immense popularity of these revenants, especially in contemporary American culture, to ignore the political commentary behind their representations is to ignore the fears within ourselves of ourselves.”
That interpretation is interesting, but a little too Marxist for me.
Annalee Newitz, the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, ponders the possible connection between zombie movies, war, social unrest and historical trauma. She suggests that’s the case and provides a chart to back up her argument.
I think the appearance and popularity of zombies and vampires represents something else: the control of life and the fear of death. The zombie concept suggests that even dead, we don’t have to stay dead. The hope is for reanimation, even the dumb and ugly kind.
The religious concept of salvation suggests that even dead, we can rise again. There’s some kind of gory parallel here and we seem to be living in a time in which we’re yearning for some kind of supernatural salvation. We wonder if we’ll be good enough to get it, or bad enough to be denied.
As for me, I do not want to return as a zombie. If one comes trick-or-treating at your door, it’s not me.
The possibility of some creepy undead version of me running around Costco, motor idling in the McDonald’s drive-through lane, or stopping into Starbucks for a quick skim latte is really too weird to contemplate.
Myles Ludwig is a media savant living in Lake Worth.