The Zombie Attraction
I’ve been thinking about zombies lately, maybe because it’s election season. After all, even though a zombie can’t carry a season series like a charming, athletic vampire, zombies en masse do resemble an endlessly reproducing horde of consumers staggering through life, oblivious to the state of our culture, government, and environment. Worst of all, their only true aim is to devour their healthy counterparts. For the living, it’s more than just a battle for survival—it’s a battle for the future of American civilization, and zombies are everything that’s wrong with the modern world.
Granted, some think of zombie movies and TV shows as a cheap thrill as mindless as the creatures who star in them. They’re gory, scary, and refreshingly weird. Yet some people remember them for more than just their shock value. In broader terms, zombies serve as a catalyst of change, largely because of their collective ignorance, which encourages us to think and act for ourselves. There’s nothing especially interesting about the zombie persona in and of itself, no deep emotion or tragic otherworldly vision, but the zombie legend continues to flourish because of the collective concerns the living dead trigger in the American public’s imagination. Zombie armies flourish when individuality is threatened, and they want to consume our brains more than anything else. They want to destroy our consciousness.
The zombie phenomenon speaks to human guilt, too. Circumstantial evidence in The Walking Dead indicates that the zombie virus was caused by humans, and everyone has it, zombie or not. This means that human inquisitiveness in a technological world is inherently dangerous since it leads to an inescapable infection. The very quality that allows us to transcend the difficult challenges of our physical environment is equally responsible for our undoing, and the situation has deteriorated so severely that in one sense, the living aren’t that different than the walking dead they fear so much.
Zombie stories also inspire people to think about how to cope with future challenges that require otherwise unlikely social interactions when the previous rules of law cease to exist. Nearly every Walking Dead episode includes a scene that leaves the viewer thinking, “What would I do if I were in that situation?” Embattled groups of the living need to learn how to collaborate in new ways. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which premiered in 1968, stars a black man (Duane Jones) playing the most heroic role in an integrated film for probably the first time in movie history. After being the only main character to survive an onslaught of zombies despite his valiant efforts to keep others alive, he’s shot by a posse of rednecks. In short, maybe zombie disasters serve as a premonition of things to come and a window into who we might really be, especially when our own times are uncertain.
Ultimately, zombies force us to study the life cycle many choose to ignore for obvious reasons. Zombies are anti-life forces in a world obsessed with youthful beauty. The dread of living death with no end in sight until the brain is destroyed should steel anyone for a worst-case scenario. To those who believe in an afterlife, the prospect of a world full of zombies might seem more troubling than atheism. This means that zombie narratives might even erode calcified belief systems. For what it’s worth, killing a zombie is a little like killing death, which amounts to at least a slim level of control.
Ironically, zombie encounters prove hopeful because they make their living victims stronger. They inspire the need to fight against decay, corruption, and despair by forging unexpected alliances that keep networks of brave collaborators alive to fight another day. Despite tensions among the living, instead of functioning in a state of hopeless disconnectedness, certain people manage to fight through their fears to construct meaning in the face of desperation. This inspiration proceeds from a need for invention induced from the living dead. For this, we should thank the zombie for its unbridled aggression, insatiable hunger, and enduring rictus.