A fantastic Halloween mask? For sure! More than that, a cultural icon. Zombies are rooted deep in our collective imaginations.
It is significant that since George HW Bush declared the beginning of the New World Order in the 1980’s, Americans have increasingly sought to exteriorize and examine their social unease in the symbolic form of imaginary beings such as elves, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Each of these creature cults has its own specific associations within the social realm, but I will limit myself here to the cult of zombies, as typified in the popularity of the television series “The Walking Dead.”
First of all, it is important to specify that we are speaking here of neo-zombies, rather than the traditional zombies associated with voodoo. The latter were always under the control of a designated spell cast by a designated priest or priestess possessing the knowledge of how to create the living dead from either live or deceased subjects to do their personal bidding. It is interesting to note that, while anchored in certain mainly African practices, the voodoo zombie has always been associated with the New World, that is, the Americas, and in particularly Haiti, Brazil, or other Latin American locations.
The neo-zombie is also principally associated with the New World, though there have been some instances of British and other cultural manifestations. New World and New World Order are in many ways closely associated, so it is not unnatural that the neo-zombie should make a resurgence during the post-Bush era. The cultural popularity of neo-zombies traces from the horror film “Night of the Living Dead” of 1968 and we shall return to discuss how many features of that film were precocious in prefiguring the central elements of the zombie cult. However, for the moment, it would be more appropriate to continue at this point with a further structural hypothesis about the significance of the neo-zombie in the third millennium.
Unlike the classical voodoo zombie, the neo-zombie has no distinct causality. It is not under the control of any perceptible conscious force. The neo-zombie always originates from the grave, or at least from the state of death, rather than being a live human under the spell of sorcery. The origins of the zombie phenomenon are deliberately occulted in zombie culture. Commonly, some plausible pseudo-scientific explanation is at least suggested: arrival of spores from outer space, mutated viruses, research gone wrong, etc. Yet there is little importance or time devoted to the discussion of such matters for several major reasons, all associated with the cult of survivalism that is the human counterpane of the zombie cult. Humans in contact with zombies are typically “average” people rather than scientists or doctors, and their encounters with learned human survivors are generally disappointing if not fruitless. The wave of zombie destruction has almost invariably reduced human civilization to a point of near Stone Age conditions, entailing the disappearance of laboratories or other higher institutions capable of providing an analysis of zombies. The survivors lack the time or motivation for pursuing such questions themselves, since zombies always pop up from nowhere to interrupt even the simplest of life’s routines. The zombies themselves, in the perpetual search for flesh or brains, do not possess the intellect to ask the simplest questions of why they exist or how their condition can be bettered.
The lack of a sense of causality in the zombie cult coincides with the cultural notions of postmodernism, which eschews such explanations as being pointless or false. In postmodernism, logic springs only from relatively primitive sources such as the quest for dominance or the need for physical gratification; all notions of a universal logic based on impartial premises is dismissed through distrust that any such valid premises could exist. Logic becomes much like magic in that it is a powerful projection of desire. Thus zombies offer the public mind the advantages of magic without being fettered by concerns for verisimilitude or explanation that would otherwise apply in a universe postulating the existence of some form of universal logic. Zombies are both generalized and particularized in a uniquely convenient way to articulate a pseudo-philosophical base for the social concerns of humans, and especially Americans as New Order humans, in the third millennium.
Zombies are thus phenomenologically self-evident: they are there and one has to do something about them. Yet, the only thing survivors can really do about them is kill as many as possible and try to survive, despite the fact that zombies apparently cannot be wiped out. All the ramifications of human existence become compressed within the parameters of the survival imperative, which seems to depend on the abililty to inflict death individually on zombies by destroying their heads. Whether the zombie cult public identifies with the desperate survivors or, more likely, with the unidimensional zombies,1 they can expect the necessity of contemplating a lot of blood and gore.
Both the zombie and the survivor are complementary representations of a sense of radical disconnectedness. Anomie affects the zombies themselves because there is no differentiation in zombie existence: they all act the same and their motivating hunger, though rooted in each zombie, is exactly the same among all zombies. For this reason, zombies never compete with each other. In one sense, the depiction of zombies offers a worst case scenario for the outcome of the Dilbert vision of New World society, where individuals are reduced to meaningless roles that threaten both to absorb their entire existence and to efface any particularity of a positive type.2 The processes of Dilbert’s corporation are as vague as the zombie genesis and seem to go on without any concern for logic. Workers are arbitrarily classed as engineers or marketing or IT, despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that their functionality seems to be warped or completely futile. Take away the cubicles and the coffee cups, substitute a hunger for gore, and the Dilbert characters easily become zombies in endless supply. Zombies can be likened to a kind of Lumpenproletariat. The radical connectedness of zombyism.
As for humans, their pre-holocaust existence is mostly destroyed, persisting only as a king of ghostly projection that allows for some semblance of plot movement in a landscape where everything else has been leveled. Survivors can compete, but only within the imperative of killing zombies and continuing to survive. They are radically disconnected even from what ostensibly meaningful personal relationships they enjoyed in the pre-holocaust universe. Loved ones have disappeared (sometimes to return as killable zombies) or complicated things by developing interim relationships with other survivors. They have no work, other than survival.
1 Zombies have become popular Halloween characters. A 2012 survey by the National Retail Foundation found that zombies ranked as the fifth most popular costume for adults and the ninth most popular for children, a rather revealing difference in the parameters of this study. Also, television casting calls for zombie extras are swamped with would-be zombies. For several reasons, the same is not true with survivors.
2 Interestingly, the character of Wally, with his rejection of institutional useless, represents a kind of revolt against this universe, but it is much like the alternative offered by the Artilleryman in H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, where the revolt is limited to a meaningless retreat beneath the surface of society.