Chuck Klosterman’s recent piece over at the New York Times isn’t really talking about zombies. Klosterman probably realizes as much.  He’s an erudite kind of guy, and is, if anything, better qualified than I am to point out the differences between Jessica Holland, the tranced-out title character of Jacques Tourneur’s classic I Walked with a Zombie, and the shambling horrors of George Romero’s Dead franchise.  The latter are perhaps better thought of as either “the Living Dead” or simply “the Dead,” depending on which side of the Romero/Russo divide you happen to fall.

Of course, to most people, the differences are largely invisible, and I’d happily keep the nitpick to myself except that I think the distinction adds another dimension to Klosterman’s observations in “My Zombie, Myself.”

Start with the classical zombie.  The figure has its roots in Haitian folk culture – if not earlier, in Dahomey, now Benin, from where most early Haitian slaves were shipped.  Vodun zombies were victims of a poison that emulated death.  After burial, they newly zombified Haitian would be “resurrected” in a trance-like stupor to serve bokor, the malevolent or morally ambivalent sorcerers who administered the poison in the first place.  But Vodun zombies were not literally dead.  According to some accounts, some were even known to recover from their condition, as Zora Neale Hurston recounts in her travelogue Tell My Horse.

For our purpose here, it doesn’t particularly matter whether any of that is true, only that it represents a particular genre of folk creature against which to contrast the more modern perception.  What most people mean when they say zombie is patterned after George Romero and John Russo’s unintentional revamp of the lore: shambling, animated corpses that feed on the living and can be dispatched by destroying the brain.  There have been some variations since Night of the Living Dead – some eat specifically brains, some run, some can talk – but the important point, at least in the context of “My Zombie, Myself,” is the association between mindless consumption and death.

For Klosterman, though, the point is a bit more specific than that.  Above all, the Dead are easy to kill.  That’s important because the archetypal response to the Dead is to kill them.  Klosterman hones in on the point by asking,

What if contemporary people are less interested in seeing depictions of their unconscious fears and more attracted to allegories of how their day-to-day existence feels? That would explain why so many people watched that first episode of “The Walking Dead”: They knew they would be able to relate to it.

A lot of modern life is exactly like slaughtering zombies.

Later on he falls back on fear-based explanation, commenting that,

This is our collective fear projection: that we will be consumed. Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have.

That may be overt in the representations most directly influenced by Romero’s “banquet” school of thought, but more recent “zombie” fare – most notably Zombieland – has hinged more on the catharsis of zombie-killing, and is thus more in line with the central point of Klosterman’s article.  Personally, I’m not convinced that modern audiences really do project a fear of consumption onto their zombies, nor do filmmakers seem particularly eager to exploit that fear.

In a way, the genre has evolved into a fantasy of mastery.  Zombies aren’t the new vampires.  They’re the new evil henchmen – ultimately indistinguishable cannon fodder for the exalted hero to dispatch.  As Klosterman points out, we all know what to do in case of a zombie apocalypse.  Part of the kitschy fun of something like Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide books is their complete superfluity.  When the inevitable zombie apocalypse comes, we will be ready for it, armed with our shovels, shotguns and a firm grasp on our own humanity.  And as the genre has progressed in recent years, that readiness has increasingly become the dominant theme.

It’s true, as Klosterman insists, that

Every zombie war is a war of attrition. It’s always a numbers game. And it’s more repetitive than complex.

But in the early Dead and Living Dead movies (not to mention the amped-up Italian branch of the family tree) all of the victories were Pyrrhic.  In the pessimistic zeitgeist of late 1960s and 1970s cinema, the zombie apocalypse was final.  If the living actually manage to wear down the dead in the more modern variants, like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, it’s likely because current audiences approach the Dead with a different sensibility.  On the whole, we want to identify with the survivors.  They survive because they stand out against a background of undifferentiated, vaguely human non-entities, and we see in them the distinctness that we want to see in ourselves.

Somewhere between I Walked with a Zombie and The Walking Dead, our relationship to the word zombie has turned inside out.  The zombies of Haitian folklore are horrific because they represent the loss of autonomy.  We fear that loss, in a way that we don’t really seem to fear the Dead in modern zombie movies.  The banquet that Romero says is a prerequisite for all such movies is grotesque, but audiences seem to take it with a mixture Darwinian stoicism – the victim didn’t have what it takes to survive – and good humor at our own squeamishness.  It’s appeal is schlock, not the pathos of the folk zombie.  Maybe more to the point, the banquet confirms for us the undiscerning inhumanity of the Dead, and affirms our own superiority, since we, after all, are the survivors.

More than their ubiquity in popular culture, it’s that choice between zombies that I find fascinating.  We could, after all, be making movies and writing books about the pre-Romero zombies of Haitian Vodun.  That zombie, in itself, was marginally frightening for what it can be made to do, but it resonates with us because the idea of becoming a zombie is both pathetic and repulsive.  The real fear arises from the way in which the zombie transmutes the experience of slavery into a vision of living death.  We are left to imagine that somewhere deep in the recesses of its numbed mind, the classical zombie wants to return home, wants to do good, wants to defy the bokor, but cannot.  Those of us who are still moved by the effigy of that breed of zombie are moved with empathy for its pathos and fear lest we fall prey to the same machinations.

Rather than make us dwell on the loss of autonomy, what we’ve grown accustomed to calling “zombies” are figures that allow us to promote ourselves above the mass of humanity that we see around us.  They allow us to imagine that we inhabit a world overrun by sub-human creatures that only superficially resemble us.  Unlike the zombies of Haitian lore, our zombies retain their autonomy.  Our complaint against them isn’t that they’re incapable of pursuing their own goals, but rather that their goals are limited to base consumption.  It’s fitting that several recent zombie stories have followed characters waking from comas to a world infested with the Dead.  The contrast is telling, since the Dead are existentially comatose.  With its everyman protagonists fighting off a swarm of suburbanite, middle management types, Shaun of the Dead brought those allegorical depths close to the surface, but any implicit criticism of the genre has long since been subsumed by the more straight-faced zombie movies that have since played the same game.

And, keeping that symbolic substratum in mind, how do the living deal with the Dead?  They kill them.  Which is, as Klosterman would have it, very much to the point.  But Klosterman and company stop short of applying those observations to our interpersonal relations.  As he would have it, zombies are emblematic of the fear we feel at the thought of being overwhelmed by, say, Twitter, or work.  They can be made more elastic, as he proves when he writes

Battling zombies is like battling anything … or everything.

But it must be said that the thing battling zombies is most like is, well, battling other people.  After all, zombies are other people.  Or, at least, they were other people, as zombie movies are fond of telling us.  They’re just visually dissimilar enough that we don’t automatically reject the vision of our protagonists shooting an old man or a young girl in the head.

The major difference is that there is no internal experience to the Dead, not one worth considering, at any rate.  Nor is there any possibility of recovery.  The most we can feel for them is contempt.  When a character in a modern zombie movie gets bitten, as one inevitably will, whatever momentary spasm of compassion we may feel for them is quickly replaced by our zombie survival instinct.  “Kill them,” we grumble.  “They’re already dead.  Better them than you.”

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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