The Meaning of Zombies
They sway as they walk. Their feet turn inwards – perhaps they’re walking on their ankles. They’re wounded, each of them in a different way – a bandaged head, a torn shirt revealing a bloody stomach, perhaps a chunk bitten out of the neck. Their clothing is tattered. Each has a bloody mouth. They have ripped these globs of flesh out of each other. Their fingernails are split and bloody. Their mouths hang open. They moan – or perhaps it is more of a sigh, like the long vocalized exhalation that might come from a corpse when you move it, when air trapped in its lungs escapes. They are coming for you. Not quickly – probably not faster than you can move – but inexorably, an untiring horde.
Though we describe vampires as undead, they’re livelier and stronger than most of us. Ghosts are ethereal, often beautiful. But not these shuffling creatures, their arms outstretched, longing for something they can neither describe nor derive satisfaction from. These zombies are the real walking dead. They are corpses who will not lie down.
Where do they come from? Modern vampires date from the eighteenth century, werewolves from the Roman Empire, ghosts from at least 1,000 years before that. Zombies have been around in their current form only since the 1960s and yet they’re everywhere now.
On one level, zombies are simply the newest version of the oldest thing: a thought about what it might be like to live forever, or to return from the grave. We will all die. When we’re young, a voice inside says ‘but not me, surely not me’. But that voice fades in time, leaving us only with the longing for eternal life. And so these myths comfort us: vampires are lonely, ghosts are intangible, werewolves are bestial, this is the price of immortality. To become a zombie exacts an even sharper price: brainless, repulsive, no one would choose that fractional life over the peace of death. Perhaps the zombie represents our society’s increasing yearning for immortality, and the increasing necessity therefore to imagine it as horrifying.
While vampires tend to be more popular in times of economic prosperity – think of Interview with the Vampire’s lush heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s – zombies, the shuffling mass dressed in rags, tend to come to the fore in more austere times. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead comes to us from the depression of the 1970s and of course zombies are having a massive renaissance – as it were – now.
The zombie apocalypse is the death of civilization, the moment when all that becomes important is: do you have food? Do you have guns? We want to practise this in fantasy, to imagine it all the way through, especially in times of economic crisis. We live in cities now; far from sources of food, not knowing our neighbours. Zombies are the horrifying crowd of the urban poor, the grasping hands reaching out for something which, if you gave it to them, would destroy you. They’re the interchangeable anonymous people we encounter on our daily commute, those whose humanity we cannot acknowledge.
Or one could examine the undead through the lens of race or the ‘other’ and ‘passing’. On that level vampires are Jews in the medieval imagination – think of the fear of crosses, the old lie about drinking blood. Or maybe vampires are gay, or bisexual. They’ll bite anyone. Since John Donne wrote ‘The Flea’ – a poem to convince a lover that since a flea had bitten both of them their bloods were already mingled so they might as well go to bed together – we’ve known that sharing blood means sex.
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead.
All that sucking. All that tasting. All that desire. It’s the terrifying thing about gay people or Jews or vampires – you can’t always tell them from anyone else.
By contrast, zombies can’t ‘pass’. It’s probably significant that they originate in West African Vodou and thus carry a hint of racial fear with them. Their brains have been stolen away, in the way that good Englishmen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries feared that the influx of immigrants would drug or brainwash or seduce their women and contaminate their gene pool.
And they won’t just kill us, they’ll turn us into one of them. They confront us with how close we all are to the edge of acceptability. A moment’s loss of concentration could mean that we become the outsiders. Kill them again and again and perhaps we’ll never have to acknowledge that they were inside us all along.
Our compulsion for mythological creatures, though, the reason they capture our imagination, is that it’s impossible to pin down their meaning completely. I’ve read the theory, but I find that zombies mean something quite different to me.
I have been boiling my head in zombies lately as research for a games project I’m working on. I’m writing the story for ‘Zombies, Run!’, a game to play while actually running in the real world, improving fitness by running away from the zombie horde, because zombies are a joke too of course, a comic parody of humanity, and so they take to a light-hearted setting as well as they do a dark one. I’ve been watching zombie movies and TV shows, reading zombie books, listening to zombie podcasts. My days have been full of glistening intestines sliding out of the belly, devoured by shambling corpses, full of the stinking bite wound that means you too will become a walker. And then, inevitably, I had a zombie dream.
In my dream, I was at my parents’ house – a potent symbol to start off with – and as I watched from their living room I saw the zombie horde begin to descend on the house. I knew what would happen. I’d seen it before, this exact moment before. ‘No,’ I said, ‘no I can’t bear it when they do it to me, no I can’t let it happen again, never again.’
Those were the words I woke up with: never again. Which made it all very clear. For me, at least, only for me.
In the 1950s the Holocaust was not something people spoke of, not really. It was repressed. Jewish people went off to settle the land of Israel and that was how the thing was: settled. All those corpses buried, all those piles of skeletal bodies, the walking skeletons taking slow painful steps out of the camps. No one spoke about it. The war was won. Germany was partitioned. We built a home fit for heroes. It was done.
But, of course, it wasn’t. It couldn’t be done, not something like that. Not only for the Jews but for the whole of Europe. Something terrible had happened and the world had changed. Aharon Appelfeld, one of the most celebrated Israeli novelists of his generation, who also makes an appearance, as himself, in Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, says of the Holocaust in Roth’s book of interviews Shop Talk: ‘We came into contact with archaic mythical forces, a kind of dark subconscious, the meaning of which we did not know, nor do we know it to this day.’ That is what is horrifying: not the death, not necessarily just that, but the absolute inexplicability of the whole thing. The horror is in the things we do that we do not understand.
Zombie movies always go roughly the same way. First there are isolated reports of strange occurrences. The protagonists laugh them off, cannot believe. Then there is proof, but by then it is too late to run. Hide, maybe. Fight them off if you can, but they can tell you are different, they will sniff you out in your hiding place, there are too many of them to keep fighting. At last there is a small family-like group sheltering, shivering together as the monsters outside – people who used to be their friends, neighbours, lovers. There is only one ending. Holocaust movies go exactly the same way: line by line by line.
The trial of Eichmann, when the silence was finally broken, was in 1961. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968. Is it too much to say that those walking corpses were a dawning realization of the whole monstrosity? Probably. I can only say that this is what they are for me.
Zombies are all the things that will not lie down and die, the truth we cannot repress, the thing that will rise up until it overwhelms us all. Whatever you want to forget is stumbling, dead-eyed and open-mouthed towards you.
Artwork © Robert Acevedo, Dawn of the Dead, 2007