It is impossible not to speculate on the escalating fascination with zombies in popular culture. The first zombie film of the current genre was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which critics saw all sorts of intertextual components: the war in Vietnam, with its grainy newsreels, racial conflict, fear of the Bomb.
Indeed, those essential elements, even if explicitly absent from the film, may imbue it. Here’s some fun theory to chew on:
Granted, there are no Vietnamese in Night of the Living Dead, but in effect they constitute an absent presence whose significance can be understood if narrative is construed, as Jameson asserts, “as the specific mechanism through which the collective consciousness represses historical contradictions.” What is collectively repressed or intolerable is the nightmare of class exploitation as experienced by the oppressed as well as the threat of proletarian revolution for the bourgeoisie, a revolution that fails to occur. Consequently, for Jameson, history is an absent cause in that political upheaval has not taken place, but “what is visible, there for interpretation, is the way the ideological structure registers the strain of having kept it repressed.”
So, in that playful spirit, I would first note that Romero opened the lych-gate for an unholy procession of zombie films, many of which, like his, never use the actual word “zombie.” (Romero uses “ghouls,” a far more accurate term, if reversed—ghouls were traditionally alive, with a liking for dead flesh. Haitian zombies stumbled around doing odd jobs, but had no particular interest in cannibalism.)
A quick glance through the linked list indicates that the vast preponderance of zombie films are 21st century productions. The Vietnam war is a distant memory, although other terrors obviously beset us. What I see in the films I’ve watched, however, and in the gripping TV series The Walking Dead as well, is more of an animated hopelessness, combined with a blind, unthinking, affectless appetite.
The walking dead (or, as in 28 Days Later, the very fast-running dead) have a ravenous desire to consume, to eat us alive. If we are bitten, we too can be “re-animated,” joining the mindless herd. Here’s post-modern theoretician Jean Baudrillard in 1978, describing present-day society: “[W]e form a mass, living most of the time in panic or haphazardly, above and beyond any meaning.” But none of us want to see ourselves that way.
How can one conceivably avoid here the recognition of an extended metaphor of late modern capitalism, globalized, impoverishing, a “virus” that transforms the body and turns agency into a nullity? Think of the Christmas crowds, and that last Cabbage Patch Doll or whatever the recent equivalent is. Are the zombies not a perfect representation of the completely alienated population, not necessarily in Marx’s sense, but as “perfected” Althusserian subjects for whom subjectivity is no longer even required?
This may help to explain the increasingly popular “zombie walks,” too. The calls for “brains”—the distracting meme that is to be found in only one film of the genre, Return of the Living Dead—are a stylized fear of inadequacy. Those who participate deliberately pretend to be something they “know” they are not, but may unconsciously fear that they are becoming.
The 21st century is, in fact, a century of fear. Fear is assiduously cultivated by governments, and by the media. We fear the Other, who can be pretty well anyone so designated by the overlords—and we fear ourselves, I would argue, even more. We are never “right”; we’re too thin, too young, too old, too fat. And everything, anything, is presented as a danger. Do bananas cause cancer? Does exercise injure the heart? Can vitamins kill you?
Nothing palliates. There seems to be no alternative to a kind of aimless, brute survival. We are afraid, all the time. Progress has no meaning—we can see that our kids are worse off than we were, and, if we haven’t reached the end of history, we have come to a place where it holds as little promise as the bleak and featureless future.
Why are zombies so salient these days? Because they are the inhabitants of a dystopia whose outlines are already apparent: the world we live in.
ADDENDUM: (March 5, 2013) Having just had this 2007 article by J. Andrew Potter drawn to my attention, honesty compels me to wonder if I hadn’t read it at the time, and unconsciously recapitulated it here. Certainly there are some fundamental points of agreement. Potter’s article is well worth the read in any case. And here’s another take: zombies as our projected fear of disease.