The undead are everywhere these days. The popular summer movie 28 Weeks Later pits them against the U.S. military. The comic series Marvel Zombies has them eating the Silver Surfer. The video game Dead Rising lets players attack them with weapons ranging from hockey pucks to shower heads. A recent CBS pilot, Babylon Fields, imagines what would happen if the undead tried to integrate back into their former lives.
No other horror creatures invite quite the same breadth of paranoid speculation as zombies, perhaps because they embody such a pure, reflective sense of terror: animated corpses dependent on living flesh for survival. No wolf mythology, no castles, no capes, no fangs; just dead people eating flesh. In short, except for the “being dead” part, they’re just like us. I’d venture this accounts for their popularity over decades of cinema, as well as their more recent migration to other popular media. Zombie movies force us to figure out what, if anything, differentiates us from the monsters on the screen.
The zombie legend originated in the spiritual practices of Afro-Caribbean sects that believed a person could be robbed of his soul by supernatural or shamanic means and forced to work as an uncomplaining slave. Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis studied Haitian voodoo rituals in the 1980s and determined that a kind of “zombie” state can be induced with powerful naturally derived drugs. In horror films, people become zombies by whatever process is deemed scariest by the filmmaker of the era—magic, possession, viral infection—but the result is the same. The victim becomes a walking corpse, a human without a soul.
In this sense, all movies are zombie movies. Lifeless frames of celluloid passed in front of a bright bulb 24 times a second yield moving images convincing enough to make us believe there are living people up there on a screen, moving about with purpose. If the craft is done right, we care about those phantoms as much as we do for real people—alas, sometimes more than those we see suffering on the evening news.
Indeed, zombies are the perfect horror creations for a media-saturated age overloaded with reports of terrorism, famine, disease, and warfare. Zombies tap into our primal fear of being consumed and force us to come up with something—anything—to distinguish ourselves from the ever-hungry, animated corpses traipsing about the countryside and eating flesh. Deep down, these schlocky horror flicks are asking some of the most profound questions: What is life? Why does it depend on killing and consuming other life? Does this cruel reality of survival have any intrinsic meaning?
The way in which zombie movies pose these questions has changed significantly over time, telling us more about ourselves, and about what we most fear, in the process. Zombies have been a staple of American filmmaking since the indie flick White Zombie (1932), best remembered for its eerie shots of undead slaves staring into the night. In that movie, Bela Lugosi plays an evil sorcerer who promises to turn a woman into a zombie so that her spurned lover can control her forever, presumably as a mindless sex servant. Perfect fare for a nation finally reckoning with its own population of former slaves, as well as one of preliberated females just beginning to find their own voices. Back then, though, the big questions seemed to have more to do with whether a walking dead servant or wife could fully satisfy a man’s needs. (Given the outcome, apparently not.)
By 1968, George Romero’s classic, low-budget Night of the Living Dead had reversed this dynamic. Now it was up to the film’s human protagonists to distinguish themselves from the marauding bands of flesh eaters—and to keep from being eaten. Racial conflicts among the film’s living characters end up costing them valuable time and resources; against the backdrop of attacking zombies, the racial tension of the late 1960s seems positively ludicrous. The film’s African American hero survives the night but is mistaken for a zombie and shot dead the next morning.
The film’s sequels had survivors holing up in places like shopping malls, through which zombies would wander aimlessly all day, as if retracing the steps of their former lives as consumers. Of course, the real consumption begins when the zombies find humans on whom to feast—an irony not lost on one tough guy who, as his intestines are being eaten, has enough wit to shout, “Choke on ’em!” What makes the humans for whom we’re rooting any different from the zombies by whom we’re repulsed? Not much, except maybe cannibalism, and the technical distinction that our humans are living while the zombies are “living dead.”
State-of-the-art zombie films—most notably 28 Days Later from 2002 and its sequel 28 Weeks Later—now use the undead to explore today’s hazier ethical climate. Instead of fearing magic or consumerism, we are scared of the unintended consequences of science and technology. Perhaps that’s why rather than reaching zombification through magic or rampant consumerism, the undead in this film series have been infected by a man-made virus called “rage.”
Playing to current apocalyptic fears, the zombies in 28 Days Later wipe out the entirety of England, which has been quarantined by the rest of the world in a rather heartless but necessary act of self-preservation. Like the hilarious but unironically fashioned book The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), here’s a zombie tale for the 9/11 era, when fantasies of urban chaos and duct-tape-sealed apartment windows are no longer relegated to horror films; these paranoid scenarios became regular fare on CNN.
In 28 Weeks, well-meaning American troops attempt to rebuild England by putting survivors in a protected green zone and even firebombing the innocent in a desperate attempt to quash a zombie insurgency. (Warning: Spoiler ahead.) The movie’s undead ruthlessly attack anyone for flesh, and its weaker characters choose to save their own skins instead of protecting their wives and children. The film’s heroes distinguish themselves and redeem our view of humanity through acts of self-sacrifice. It turns out, however, that they’ve sacrificed themselves on behalf of a child who carries the virus and goes on to infect the rest of the world. Humanity, like civil liberty, is no longer a strength but a liability. It’s not a totally cynical or unpatriotic outlook: At least this Iraq war satire assumes America has the best of intentions.
Leave it to the truly soulless medium of television to bring the zombie archetype full circle with CBS’s Babylon Fields, an hour-long series the network describes as a “sardonic, apocalyptic American comedy-drama where the dead are rising and as a result, lives are regained, families restored, and old wounds reopened.” Sounds positively heartwarming. According to early reports, the undead are now trying to reconnect with old friends, jobs, and romances. If they succeed, television will also have succeeded in broadcasting its ultimate message: “Melt into that couch: You’re dead already.” Consider it the new voodoo potion. They don’t call the stuff on television “programming” for nothing.