Considering the title of this blog is ‘Playing God With Monsters’, it’s probably about time I got around to including something other than vampires. So, to consider the figure of the zombie.
The zombie has far surpassed the vampire in terms of popularity. It appeals to a much broader range of people, perhaps simply because it is a state far easier to mimic than that of the vampire, or werewolf. All of us have been there at some point: tired, drained, staring at nothing, moving without thought. These are all features of the figure. What is missing is the urge for human flesh. They can never be exploited in the same way as vampires, because they will never be aesthetically appealing. However, they have undoubtedly changed since their introduction into popular culture.
The myth arose from the Haitian tales of voodoo. A zombie is defined as “an animated corpse revived by witchcraft.” There are obvious links to the vampire with the corpse theme. A major difference however, is the use of the term “animated”. Whilst the corpses may be physically animated, they lack the mental capacity evident in vampiric creatures. Frankenstein is cited as prefiguring the zombie – another animated corpse, but by science, rather than witchcraft.
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, quickly became a cult film. Again, it has fallen prey to the clutches of the remake, but even this shows us that it is far from being a fad. Like vampires, zombies are an idea that has persisted throughout culture.
The figure now has appeared in comics (such as The Walking Dead), films, tv series, and videogames, much like other monstrous figures. Now, however, rather than just mindless corpses, these zombies now come with added gore. Whilst it caters to our morbid taste for visual effects, it is also a sign that it too has been exploited and aesthetically modified to garner the biggest appeal, much like the vampire which many eschew. Whilst they may not be attractive, which is a feature that the vampire clings to as part of its mystique (the idea of the beautiful stranger), they are still visually vivid, and evoke the same primitive urges of feeding that the vampire does, but in a more overt manner.
In some cases, the figure of the vampire and that of the zombie are conflated (I am Legend, Stake Land amongst others) and in these cases, the parasitic nature of the former combined with the brainlessness of the latter produce powerful messages about consumerism, authority structures and human consciousness.
But here’s the question: can zombies be classified as monsters?
On the one hand, they have some kind of folkloric background which many other monsters do, and which has been exploited for the use of popular culture. They are fearsome, powerful, and are (in some cases) hard to defeat.
On the other hand, they are never placed on their own: they form packs and attack en masse (which in itself is a interesting take on herd mentality). They were previously human, yes, but so were some vampires and werewolves. But most other monsters have some kind extraordinary strength, or power (shapeshifting or speed for one). Zombies are devoid- of brains (which they covet), super-strength, and super speed.
On the surface of it, I would venture ‘no’, but they are becoming so well entrenched in the monster cannon of Hollywood that it is increasingly harder to argue why they should not be included amongst others. Perhaps the popularity of these mute corpses should be telling us something. But what? The ideas of capitalism being critiqued by the figure seems too simple to me: the zombie is popular amongst such a diverse group that it would futile to assign only one contributing factor. The possibility that these figures are simultaneously scary, but appealing to our most primitive desires (survival of the fittest, life after death and feeding) seems far more plausible.