Fatima Shakeel is a 27-year-old writer who delights in all things macabre and sometimes blogs at eelshake.wordpress,com. She also sings and plays music - some of her recordings are online at soundcloud.com/fatimashakeel - and is one-fourth of an Isloo-based band called The Pushovers. Other pursuits include ingesting large amounts of pop culture and struggling to tread the fine line between wavy-haired bombshell and Sideshow Bob.
The Burden of Metaphor on Rotting Shoulders: The Three Ages of the Zombie
“The fear we all felt then, we felt it again tonight,” says the Governor to the battle-scarred residents of Woodbury, who have gathered in the town center in the aftermath of violence and chaos. “I failed you. I promised to keep you safe. Hell, look at me – I’m afraid. I’m afraid of terrorists who want what we have. Want to destroy us.”
Much as this sounds like a real-life sampling of post-9/11 political rhetoric, it is actually a scene from AMC’s phenomenally popular television series, The Walking Dead, which is set in a world where human civilization has ceased to exist and rotting, flesh-eating corpses walk the earth. The show follows the post-apocalyptic survival struggle of a group of ordinary people from what used to be the American state of Georgia, led by the show’s badge-and-hat-wearing Southern sheriff protagonist, Rick Grimes.
Meanwhile, also in Georgia, the streets of Woodbury are zombie-free – the houses in neat little rows, lawns perfectly mowed, and food and merriment aplenty. It is a town that seems to somehow embody the American Dream (or a more bizarre version of it). The Governor of Woodbury, in stark contrast to the heroic Rick Grimes, is the archetype of the charming but ruthless dictator. He provides the town residents security and a semblance of the lives they used to know, and in return, they give up certain freedoms and don’t ask too many questions about how this security and abundance was ensured. In fact, the terrorists that the Governor refers to in his pronouncement are members of Grimes’ group, who have infiltrated the town in a mission to rescue one of their own from captivity and torture in Woodbury.
If this sounds like a heavy handed allegory for the post 9/11 era, it certainly is. Faced by what he considers the biggest threat to his authority since the zombie apocalypse began, the Governor needs to play on the people’s fears to keep them on his side. You would assume that the greatest existential threat he could use to rally round the town would be zombies – because, hello, it’s still a zombie apocalypse, remember? But The Walking Dead, like all great zombie fiction that has come before it, is not really about the zombies at all. Since it first aired in 2010, the show has been dissected and analyzed by critics as an allegory for everything from the War on Terror to the economic crisis to global warming to the Holocaust.
This is nothing new; in fact, it is a downright cliché – throughout the history of zombies in popular fiction, there have been theories about what the zombies mean. “The zombies are symbolic of the dangers of science; the zombies are Nazis; the zombies are the AIDS epidemic; the zombies are you!” What is new, however, is that The Walking Dead signifies an era of heightened zombie popularity unprecedented in past decades. Adapted from the ongoing comic book series of the same name created by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore in 2003, the series has garnered tremendous critical acclaim, making it undoubtedly the cornerstone of the modern “zombie movement”, pivotal in reintroducing the world to the post-apocalyptic zombie narrative as envisioned by genre pioneer George A. Romero. While the show has been burdened with the almost universal expectations of critics seeking metaphors in the inherent nature of the zombie apocalypse, there is one thing thatThe Walking Dead unequivocally does symbolize: zombies have undergone – in the words of film and television critic Scott Meslow at The Atlantic – “a pop cultural resurrection.”
The past decade has offered not only a plethora of zombie movies like 28 Days Later, the video-game-based Resident Evil series, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland, but also a comeback by writer-director Romero, who released three more films in his Night of the Living Dead series. The most recent zombie “first” occurred with the release of Warm Bodies, which is this particular monster’s contribution to the phenomenally successful supernatural teen romance genre. warm-bodies-postersBased on a 2011 novel by Isaac Marion, the zombie romance stars 23-year-old British heartthrob Nicholas Hoult as a sexy, young, undead thing who still possesses the ability to think and struggles against his zombie nature to win the affections of a living human girl (played by Teresa Palmer) whom he has fallen in love with. Clearly, vampires are no longer the only undead creatures defying their traditional nature and getting themselves some teenage lovin’ (and a piece of that lucrative “young-adult” market pie).
The zombie virus is spreading beyond the borders of the West as well. Pakistan’s first contemporary horror movie, Zibahkhana (dir. Omar Khan), prominently featured shalwar kamiz-clad zombies as its undead monsters as early as 2007. It was the zombie’s imminent “big break” in Bollywood, however, that became the real indicator of its global appeal. In early 2011, Indian producers Siddharta Jain and Ekta Kapoor announced they would be producing Bollywood’s first zombie movie, Shaadi of the Dead, followed by news that Bollywood superstar Saif Ali Khan would be producing and starring in a zombie venture of his own. Luke Kenny’s Rise of the Zombie, a “zombie-origin” tale, is also in the running to become India’s first entry into the zombie canon.
Simultaneously, we have seen an increasing amount of zombie-themed literature. Author Max Brooks followed up his 2003 parody book The Zombie Survival Guide with the 2007World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War, a future history of the world’s battle against a global zombie epidemic told through a series of first-person accounts by various characters around the world. Seth Grahame-Smith published his literary parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in 2009, turning the Bennett sisters into zombie slayers as they balanced romance and survival in the not-so-idyllic English countryside. (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”) Steven Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote The Zombie Autopsies (2011), styled as a handwritten journal – complete with clinical drawings – kept by a neuroscientist investigating the medical causes of zombiism by performing autopsies on captive zombies.
Add this to a burgeoning amount of zombie-themed humour books (Zombies for Zombies: Advice and Etiquette for the Living Dead, The Zombie Combat Manual: A Guide to Fighting the Living Dead, So Now You’re a Zombie: A Handbook for the Newly Undead,etc.) and you have a genre boom on your hands. “As with zombies themselves, what grinds you down in the end isn’t any individual, but the overwhelming number,” noted a Wall Street Journal review of Colson Whitehead’s 2011 zombie novel Zone One.
The zombie craze has also infiltrated academia. Just last year, University of Queensland professor John Quiggins published Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us, which used zombies as a metaphor for disproved or redundant ideas in economics that still hobbled around in journals and newspapers like the undead. The year before that came Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel H. Drezner, a Tufts professor of international politics, who imagined a world overrun with zombies and considered the likely responses of national governments, international organizations, and nongovernment organizations through the lens of theoretical approaches like realpolitik, liberalism, neo-conservatism, and bureaucratic politics.
Our brains are so drenched in pop culture zombie-gravy that we see them everywhere in real life too. Last summer, amid a bizarre rash of reports of vicious cannibalistic attacks in North America, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) actually had to issue a statement calming public fears of a zombie apocalypse. “CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms),” wrote CDC spokesman David Daigle in an email to the Huffington Post. Amusingly, the official CDC website features a complete “zombie apocalypse preparedness guide” in order to reach and engage a wide variety of audiences. CDC Director Dr. Ali Khan notes, “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack.”
“They’re popular enough that I half expect a zombie to show up on Sesame Street and hang out with The Count,” said Romero in a 2011 interview with the science fiction blog io9. “Vampires became The Count on Sesame Street, a zombie might be the next guy. I don’t know, it’s crazy.”
Wake up and smell the rotting hordes. Welcome to what I call the Third Age of the Zombie.
How did we come to be so obsessed with the walking dead? And if what we are seeing now is the Third Age of the Zombie, when exactly was the First?
The first significant appearance of zombies in mainstream American culture was in the explorer William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island, in which he wrote his observations of Haitian culture. Seabrook explained the Haitian voodoo practice in which “a soulless human corpse […] is taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life”. The purpose of this resurrection was to enslave these walking corpses for the performance of “dull heavy tasks” – namely, tilling the cane fields for an American sugar company. In all other respects, these zombies were harmless. You could not find a more apt metaphor for the colonial era: Seabrook described the zombie’s hands (“callused, solid, human”) and his eyes (“the eyes of a dead man”).
Seabrook’s book was a bestseller, and it also inspired an unsuccessful Broadway play, which in turn inspired the world’s first feature-length zombie movie in 1932. The origins of pop culture zombies in colonialism and racism are driven home by the fact that this movie was called White Zombie. The movie was about a young white woman who traveled to Haiti to marry her fiancé, only to fall into the clutches of the evil voodoo master and sugar-mill owner, Murder Legendre (played by horror cinema icon Bela Lugosi), who poisoned her and resurrected her as a zombie.
So many glaring differences can be seen between the zombies of White Zombie and those we are more used to today. The 1932 zombie was not a predator hungry for brains, but a brainless minion in the grip of a dark master. Unlike the independent zombies of the postcolonial era, White Zombie’s undead were telepathically controlled by another. In the movie’s hilarious climax, Murder Legendre was knocked down by one of the good guys and his telepathic control over the zombies was broken, causing the zombies to lose their sense of direction and walk off a cliff. There was no prosthetic makeup on these zombies, no gory faces with ragged flesh, no dripping blood, no gaping jaws – simply pale (but intact) people with blank-eyed stares and robotic movements. Also, unlike today’s zombies, these zombies could be restored to life if their master was killed, as was the case with the white heroine who fell prey to Murder’s voodoo.
As the world changed and globalization picked up momentum, horror stories too began to reflect world-views rather than localized urban legends. Visions of Victorian-era ghosts in flowing dresses making benign appearance on the moors were not doing it anymore for people. War had become a far more frightening specter in the 1930s and 1940s. It was after all in 1938, as the world teetered on the edge of World War II, that Orson Welles’ radio drama The War of the Worlds sent North American listeners into panic, fleeing their homes to save themselves from what they thought was an actual invasion by great machines. With the advent of the atomic age, the new boogeyman of the age was science – terrible, powerful science that had created all sorts of previously unimaginable ways to kill, maim, devastate and destroy. Many zombie narratives were a symbolic grasping of straws in the wake of two horrific World Wars, as humanity struggled for explanations of how such things could happen – the prevailing theory being mind-control. Modern critics seeking a Holocaust allegory in The Walking Dead point out that the show doesn’t address the nature of the human evil that drove the Holocaust – because the zombies are a mindless, random force with no apparent puppeteer. In contrast, the zombie narratives of the 1940s ascribed the actions of mindless zombies to an evil mastermind – much like the perceptions of Nazi ideology colonizing the minds of followers like an infectious disease. The villain in 1943’s Revenge of the Zombies, for example, was a Nazi scientist. Empires crumbled and the horrors of war surpassed human nightmares.
The First Age of the Zombie was thus all about the slow, shambling evolution of the walking dead from brain-dead slaves to bloodthirsty monsters. And it wouldn’t be until the 1960s – at the height of the Cold War, when the world had become too weary, too familiar with the brutality of war, to be frightened anymore by the hexes of exotic witch doctors or the brainwashing of evil scientists – that the zombie would truly come of age.
Mister Rogers, star of the PBS children’s educational series Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, was indirectly responsible for zombie cinema as we know it today. George A. Romero’s first job after graduating from university was filming segments for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Romero says Fred Rogers was the first person to trust the young aspiring filmmaker enough to hire him to actually shoot film. Legend has it that it was a segment that featured Mister Rogers getting a tonsillectomy that inspired Romero to start making horror movies. (Romero joked to Vanity Fair in a 2008 interview that the tonsillectomy segment was probably the scariest film he ever made.)
It is a random connection, this one between a children’s show hosted by a mild-mannered Presbyterian minister and the birth of gruesome horror cinema. But it is not the only one in the history of zombie pop culture.
Romero’s directorial debut, Night of the Living Dead, came out in October 1968, when America was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was this context that would give Night of the Living Dead its extraordinary impact at that time, given that it was one of the only films of the era to star an African-American man as its protagonist – something that was almost unthinkable, especially with an all-white supporting cast. The decision to cast the African-American actor Duane Jones as the lead was not, as Romero pointed out later, based on his race. “He simply gave the best audition,” he said. But audiences and critics alike were blown away by what they saw as a bold, revolutionary take on the racism of the time. At the end of Night of the Living Dead, Jones’s character fights off an army of zombies only to be gunned down by a posse of rednecks who mistake him for one of the undead.
That this was purely coincidental, that history and circumstance were so aligned at this particular moment in time, was nothing short of destiny. Night of the Living Dead was not meant to be a movie with a message; in fact, Romero had intended it as just a commercial “cheap-thrills” project to make him a quick buck so he could fund other projects he really cared about. But the timing of the movie’s release and the choice of its lead actor imbued it with groundbreaking relevance. A horror movie that made an overt, intelligent, social statement – who would have thought? Whether Romero had intended it or not, audiences took away from the movie whatever messages they interpreted through the lens of the times. Night of the Living Dead was hailed as a commentary not only on racism, but also on the atomic age, on the crumbling American family, on the widespread terror and panic of the Cold War era. It was also the movie that revolutionized horror with its graphic violence, delivering a more satisfying shock to Vietnam-era audiences who were not spooked by ghosts and witches anymore. Most importantly, Night of the Living Deadreinvented the zombie into the rotting, stumbling, flesh-eating monster we all know and love today – and this was yet another coincidence, for Romero was not taking his cue from the resurrected stars of the likes of White Zombie.
“When I grew up, zombies were just those wide eyed boys in the Caribbean who were basically slaves to some master,” Romero said in 2011. “When I made my first film, I didn’t call them zombies because I didn’t think I could, I thought those were what zombies were. I just wanted some sort of extreme event to be happening, and I called them ghouls. That was it. I didn’t presume to call them zombies. And now, they’ve become zombies. All I did was make them neighbors.”
It is unclear how the word “zombie” came to be applied to Romero’s flesh-eaters by fans and critics, or what made audiences decide that this – not the passive, victimized voodoo archetype – was what the zombie needed to be in an increasingly violent and confusing world. But in modern pop culture, the word evokes no other image. Night of the Living Dead was the movie that introduced all the rules of the zombie genre that still apply to this day: zombies are resurrected corpses that rot and decay but never die naturally; they eat the living; they can only be killed by destroying the brain; anyone who dies during the zombie apocalypse is reanimated as a zombie. Much the same way as Romero’s zombie apocalypse overthrew an existing world order to replace it with a new one, his groundbreaking film debut effectively revolutionized zombie pop culture and set into motion the Second Age of the Zombie.
“If you look at the poster of any Western zombie film, you will know that it’s not about some bhoot, but is in fact something else,” said Siddharta Jain, one of the co-producers ofShaadi of the Dead.
This “something else” was what the Second Age of the Zombie brought to the forefront. Gone were the days of the zombie playing the obligatory boogieman in a random penny-dreadful. Accidentally or not, Romero had stumbled onto a formula that elevated the zombie from a mere monster to a metaphor for the times. And he ran with it. His sequel toNight of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, took on a different subject for its satire, to the delight of critics. The film was set in a shopping mall where a small band of survivors took refuge from the flesh-eating hordes outside. The film was rife with obvious satirical jabs at modern consumer society, with the zombies shuffling and moaning their way through the mall as Muzak droned in the background.
It is worth noting that George A. Romero said he never intended for his zombies to be symbols of anything.
“To me, the zombies have always just been zombies,” said Romero in a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair. “When I first made Night of the Living Dead, it got analyzed and overanalyzed way out of proportion. The zombies were written about as if they represented Nixon’s Silent Majority or whatever. But I never thought about it that way. My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I’m pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible.”
Regardless of his intentions, Romero’s movies resonated with audiences for their apparent symbolism of the times. Zombies have borne the burden of metaphor ever since Night of the Living Dead first came out. In the third film in the series, Day of the Dead (1985), Romero did not try hard to imbue the storyline with political or social messages. It is telling that this was the first movie in the franchise to meet with little success. Audiences and critics did not want horror for the sake of horror. They wanted to attach meaning to horror. The failure of Day of the Dead at the box office shook production companies’ faith in the zombie genre in general and in Romero in particular. For his part, Romero decided to take time off from zombies, devoting his attention to other projects instead.
(Image source: www.i09.com)
The science website io9.com posted a line graph a few years ago, showing the number of movies about the living dead coming out in the West each year from 1910 to 2008, in order to illustrate the possible causal relationship between periods of sociopolitical unrest and the popularity of zombie movies. The graph shows spikes during the Great Depression, World War II, the height of the Cold War, the height of the Vietnam War, the rise of the AIDS epidemic, the global recession and the Iraq War. The post-9/11 increase in number of zombie and living-dead movies is enormous, signaling the onset of the Third Age of Zombies.
That the popularity of zombie fiction (and post-apocalyptic fiction in general) is correlated with social and political upheaval is very probable. The post-9/11 era brought with it a wave of paranoia surrounding the use of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the 1980s against Iranian and Kurdish civilians (and the alleged involvement of major Western corporations in supplying these weapons) caused widespread fear in the 1990s, the anthrax scare of the early 2000s and the buildup to the 2003 Iraq War not only reinvigorated these fears but magnified them exponentially. Add to this the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2009 swine flu pandemic, furthering the global population’s fears of some mysterious contagion or other sweeping through the world. The Resident Evil video game franchise, which is about a biomedical corporation’s illegal experiments leading to an outbreak of a mutagenic biological agent (that turns people into zombies), released its first game in 1996 and was hugely popular among gamers from the beginning. The movie adaptations only began in 2002.
In several ways, the zombie apocalypse encapsulates the sum of all the fears of the modern age. We live in an age when the collapse of civilization is always dangerously within reach. Whether it is the looming threat of terrorism and war, increasing evidence of climate change, or frequent and sustained economic meltdowns, modernization and globalization have brought with them a plethora of doomsday scenarios that never cease to be imminent. Remember the panic surrounding the Y2K bug – when planes were supposedly going to fall out of the skies and cities around the world would be blacked out as every computer in our computer-dependent world would stop working and society would be turned on its head?
The Third Age of the Zombie may have come on the heels of 9/11, but it has been shaped by global economics – the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s, the early 2000s recession in the West, and most importantly, the global financial crisis that began in 2007, whose effects linger to the present day. By their essence, zombie films represent the same upending of society that became the nightmare of the mid-to-late 2000s. The global financial crisis shattered the security of white-collar workers everywhere, especially those who worked in highly specialized fields. Just like a recession, the zombie apocalypse overthrows the white-collar professional from his comfortable swiveling chair and renders him useless. It is a world where survival is the most sought-after skill; where being an artistic director, civil rights attorney, journalist or accountant does not make you immune to falling behind and getting eaten. In this de-stratified and de specialized world, the blue-collar workers – the cops and the handymen – with their hands-on work experience and their familiarity with “roughing it”, will be the survivors.
Max Brooks writes about this in World War Z:
“You’re a high-powered corporate attorney. You’ve spent most of your life reviewing contracts, brokering deals, talking on the phone. That’s what you’re good at, that’s what made you rich and what allowed you to hire a plumber to fix your toilet, which allowed you to keep talking on the phone. The more work you do, the more money you make, the more peons you hire to free you up to make more money. That’s the way the world works. But one day it doesn’t. No one needs a contract reviewed or a deal brokered. What it does need is toilets fixed. And suddenly that peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss. For some, this was scarier than the living dead.”
If a zombie apocalypse doesn’t put class differences in perspective, nothing does. Romero knew this, and capitalized on it, when he made his comeback to the zombie genre in 2005, after a hiatus of twenty years. In Land of the Dead, which continued the series that he began in 1968, survivors had set up outposts across the United States, one of which, in Pittsburgh, contained a feudal-like government. Bordered on two sides by rivers and on the third by an electric fence, the city had become a sanctuary, with the rich and powerful living in luxury on the Fiddler’s Green while the rest of the population subsisted in squalor. The film could not be clearer in its depiction of the widening gap between rich and poor. This is similar to the situation in The Walking Dead, in which there is a walled survivor-outpost-meets-suburban-haven where life seemingly goes on in spite of the horrors outside. The nature of Woodbury mirrors something that has come to characterize America in the 21st century – the realization that Americans cannot remain sheltered within their picket-fenced lives of privilege forever; there is a chaotic world outside that is clamoring to be let in; the have-nots are hungry for what the haves… well, have; by the simple natural law of equilibrium, the 99% will try to become part of the 1%. It is not a far-fetched presumption to liken the dehumanization of the have-nots in much the same way as that of zombies, in the minds of the privileged – and this does not just apply to the West, but to privileged classes in all societies. This is something to think about the next time you are racing to beat a horde of beggars to your car.
At the most essential level, dehumanization has been one of the primary themes of The Walking Dead. First, most obviously, is the literal dehumanization of people who turn into zombies. Then there is also the survivors’ necessarily swift acceptance that their loved ones are no longer “in there” after their corpses have reanimated. And most importantly, there is the ‘Other’ing of fellow survivors, because the way of this new world is that no one can be trusted and anyone could be the enemy. Whether this dehumanization is used in fiction as a defense mechanism against the lurid violence of the world or as socioeconomic commentary, it is nevertheless one of the most prevalent and transcendent themes of real-life human interaction – one whose troublesome existence has become more pronounced in the collective human consciousness in recent times, as the world becomes more and more interconnected and interdependent.
Monsters do not simply make themselves.
Few fictional devices are as illustrative of human inventiveness and resilience as monsters. They are defense mechanisms socially constructed by the collective conscious of a culture. Nina Auerbach, author of Our Vampires, Ourselves, memorably wrote, “Each age embraces the vampire it needs.” It is not illogical to extend Auerbach’s observation to monsters in general. Where global pop culture embraced vampires for the past decade or so as its go-to monster, representative of a culture lusting for eternal youth and beauty, it is now embracing zombies as an allegorical device to make sense of the inherently finite nature and ugliness of the world.
But it is worth noting that in orthodox zombie fiction, the zombies serve as little more than scenery. Indeed, in The Walking Dead, the characters barely even bother to comment on their presence anymore. The real action is not in the head-shots and decapitations and general slicing and dicing; it is in the interactions and relationships between the human survivors of the zombie apocalypse. And this in turn means that the true monsters, in zombie fiction, are our selves. The zombie apocalypse takes away all the moral codes and social norms of civilization and sets the stage for an exploration of human nature in its barest essence. At its most pessimistic, this exploration will lead us to man’s capacity for extreme inhumanity; at its most generous, it will offer glimpses into the forces of compassion that drive us, and hope for the possible triumph of human will. True, questions about morality and human nature have been asked over and over in all forms of fiction forever, but the staying power of zombies owes much to their unique capacity for metaphor, especially for the times we live in. As the actor Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, recently commented, “When people want to make a metaphor out of a show, it means you’re doing something right.”
The significance of this characteristic cannot be understated. While both zombies and vampires will pervade modern consciousness for many years to come – temporary shifts of influence between the two notwithstanding – zombies, unlike vampires, offer the kind of versatility that will ensure that, even during periods of vampire dominance, zombies do not stop being relevant.The current glut in zombie fiction may seem to signal the approach of a saturation point but there is no such thing as a saturation point for zombies. You can pretend all you want that they are not out there. You can build your sanctuaries and try to forget all about them. You can shoot all the rounds in the world.
The horde will thin, the horde will surge – but the sound of those scuffling undead feet will not stop.
Note: (An unedited version of this article can be found at eelshake.wordpress.com)