Building a Better Predator: Zombies
In today’s installment of Zen and the Art of Screaming, we explore the evolution of the zombie from mindless automaton to George Romero’s symbolic and revolutionary horror movie staple.
The history of zombies in movies doesn’t spawn from a noble past. Early films such as King of Zombies, White Zombie, and others from that era, were often deeply racist. By “deeply”, I mean Marianas Trench-deep. But they did feature some wonderful performances by some very skilled actors of their day. As historical artifacts, they have their place. The zombies of those films were mindless automatons serving much the same purpose as a robot; a sort of mechanical lackey in service to some sort of witch, warlock, or priestess of a weird religion and or villain, in a bizarre interpretation of the Caribbean religion that gave birth to the trope: Voudoun.
Voudoun has been villainized by people who don’t understand it, don’t appreciate it, and don’t treat it as a religion. They treat it as some sort of weird hokum where people put bones through their noses, chant and wave their arms around. These early examples of the zombie are more representative of the fear of creation and superstition. They are the fear of the other and the fear of foreign religions. Fear of people who perhaps aren’t as translucent as you are, who have a religion that you forced on them which you don’t understand anymore because they adapted and blended it with yours.
So instead, it became villainized and misrepresented as this terrifying force that this underclass will use against you and wreak havoc with. In that case, they stayed relatively close to basically what the culture itself had to say about them. There was a rather well-done piece of modern anthropological work done on this subject in the form of a movie known as The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was an examination of the zombie myth to find out the truth behind it, which was mostly chemistry [ 1 ].
The Voudoun church understood a lot about psychology and organic chemistry; the zombie process was the result of administering a powdered drug which contained a thing called “zombie cucumber” which partially is an incredibly toxic brown puffer fish mixed with other things. This drug, when administered to a person, caused them to fall into a comatose state [ 2 ].
They were then ritually buried, which did cause some brain damage due to lack of oxygen. This could have caused the shuffling gait and the mindless behavior. So, it was a combination of cultural conditioning and truly devastating chemicals that produced actual zombies. These were not dead people, but they were functionally no longer connected to themselves because of severe trauma and exposure to these chemicals.
Romero Changes Everything
It all changed when George Romero looked at the zombie and saw something else. It changed the face of horror and the face of that creature forever. The zombie itself was no longer effective as a tool of terror when it was just some mindless dude. The mindlessness of the zombie was the first thing that inspired Romero for his timeless work Night of the Living Dead [ 3 ]. It’s an exposé on the racism and sexism of the time, and an exposure of the zombie as a hungry entity risen from the dead to try and eat you. The work is nuanced, subtle, and brilliant. It’s quite effective because it is in black and white, which adds to its feeling of genuineness. It has a feel almost like found footage—documentary style, if you will—from the angles, the very realistic dialogue, and behaviors of these various peoples all in this isolated farmhouse surrounded by the walking dead.
The resourceful hero who rallies them together, who marshals their forces, who helps them survive this horrific experience, is a Black man. That was revolutionary in its time. It was subversive, it was genius, and that fellow, after all his heroic effort, was gunned down blindly by the forces trying to keep these zombies in line. It added the poignant twist that made it a true masterpiece of horror, a timeless epic that I advise you go check it out if you haven’t seen it. It is well worth the time you will spend on it. However, a piece on zombies would not be complete if we were don’t look at the further zombie works of Romero that followed.
In Romero’s second film, Dawn of the Dead, we find the zombies are interacting in a shopping mall. Once again, the classic zombie story is a small handful of stalwart survivors—who represent Joe and Jane Everywoman—standing up and surviving against the odds of this endless tide of the dead. From that point on, the zombie evolved into a thing that represented the elephant in the room for everyone at the time: mindless consumerism [ 4 ].
The truth is, of course, that even if you spend all this money and feel just as worthless and shitty as you felt before. You are no better a person; your life is no better. Nothing has improved, but you have been sold this bill of goods that if you just buy enough shit, you’ll be happy. You’ll have a fulfilled life and everything will be great, which is, of course, bullshit. Romero called us out on it by having zombies overrun a shopping mall where the mindless hunger of these literally unthinking beings, putting them in the palace of mindless consumption.
I have seen a lot of zombie movies and Romero’s still stand out. He took a symbol that had one meaning: a symbol of oppression, a symbol of the downtrodden underclass, the zombies of the ’30s and ’40s, and he made it a symbol of a different underclass: the mindless consumer. Instead of being kept down by a witch or warlock who used them as a servant, they were kept down by a system that dehumanized them and robbed them of their self, making them mindless horrors. This theme is revisited in several other films where there are attempts to modernize the tale and they all work.
This is present in Romero’s fourth movie, Land of the Dead, where the zombies were basically milling about repeating the things they had done in life, only poorly and badly coordinated [ 5 ]. The humans had settled into a city state and they raided out from this city state. The zombies had gained a leader in this gas-station-attendant-turned-shambler that led the hordes of the dead to the settlement and destroyed it. It was a work of brilliance, a fantastic film because it showed once again the ivory tower that the elite had literally elevated themselves in crumbled and the masses represented by the zombies were the ones striking that down—another priceless tale.
Evolution of the Zombie
The zombie, like all monsters, evolves along with society. Eventually we reach the point where media has changed what the zombie is. For example: the wildly popular comic book, The Walking Dead, which spawned an insanely popular TV show, treats zombies like a weather condition; they’re not even people anymore [ 6 ]. They are just a thing that happens like the tide that comes in. They are like a wildfire.
What the story is about is not the zombie, they are just an excuse for the breakdown of civilization. What the zombie in that world represents is the chaos which they all fear. We all understand at some level that civilization is built on an illusion, and what we see in The Walking Dead and other works set in a post-apocalyptic world is what happens to humans afterwards. The most dangerous and terrifying thing in The Walking Dead is not the zombies; they are just hungry and mindless and numerous. It’s the humans and the things that they do, and the horrors they get up to, that make them bigger monsters than the zombies.
Yet if we are going to get into the modern works of zombies, we also must consider Warm Bodies [ 7 ]. It is a comedy and a zombie love story, where we have turned the zombie from antagonist to protagonist, like the journey we have seen the vampire take, as well as Frankenstein’s Monster and the werewolf. This is where they stop being an outside thing and become one of us, and in this case, we see they become our disillusions. They become our insecurity. They represent our fear that we just aren’t good enough, our fear that we will never achieve our goals. That all we will ever be is the equivalent of a mindless automaton. We shuffle through the day as if we will never find love, happiness, contentment, or success, all on our mindless march to the grave. That’s what makes it a pathetic character, that’s what makes it one of us.
A Word on Realism
While on the subject of the zombie as an evolving monster, we cannot go without examining how realistic (and unrealistic) the world of World War Z approaches the zombie apocalypse. We are once again seeing the zombie as a weather condition [ 8 ]. First, Max Brooks wrote World War Z, a brilliant work, but there are some things that get right up my nose about it. The way the novel describes how a tank works vs. a human body is backwards, for example.
I don’t care how many mindless non-tool users you have at your disposal—you can throw as many human-strength, human-sized, human-shaped, human-density bodies at an M1 Abrams tank you like and the vehicle will grind them to paste. They will not be able to stop a tank with their bodies. No amount of human bodies will slow it down; it will ride through them like they are not there, because as far as the M1 Abrams tank is concerned, they aren’t. This film, indeed the entire franchise, does not take into account the sheer power and magnitude of modern weaponry.
Sure, your average zombie is immune to hydrostatic shock, that’s why bullets don’t work on them. They are thick inside like jelly, and that’s why they can take a bullet. Since people are mostly made of water, the amount of disruption that a bullet causes in the body is mostly due to shock waves passing through the liquids in your body, ripping you apart on the inside. That’s why bullets kill you. It’s not the tiny hole that it makes, it’s the shock wave it generates as it hits your body, and that little piece of metal rolling around in there adds to that effect. So if you want to throw some science into your zombie, simply stating that their internal organs and their blood aren’t as liquefied as human blood and that their organs are tougher would be a good place to start.
The difficulty, of course, with the zombie is that dead people aren’t really just lying around. This isn’t the Dark Ages when plague was just killing people left and right. Dead people are kept pretty segregated and contained. In your average morgue, they are going into a freezer, which has a pretty solid door on it. If you are actually dealing with a buried human you have roughly 6 feet or so of dirt, sometimes with a brick or steel casement. Also, there is the potential for a plastic container and, depending on your time frame of burial, you also have anywhere from the good old-fashioned pine box to a steel coffin with a potential marble housing outside all of that. If your average zombie is only as strong as a human being, they will beat themselves to paste trying to get out of the little box we put them in, literally 6 feet under.
It Happens to Every Monster
In some of Romero’s later work, the thing that makes the zombie an active entity is a chemical process, started by a military experiment to find a way to regenerate limbs. It’s a perfectly logical thing for a military organization to engage in medical experimentation of this type, and then going, “Hey wait! It raises dead people that we can launch at our enemies!”
Zombies aren’t good troops; they don’t follow orders very well, so that probably wouldn’t work. Drugs are much cheaper, and the “users” are more mindless. They obey you and they have more destructive power. To reiterate a point made earlier, zombies are not immune to the cycle that all monsters go through. Starting as a scary outside being, a symbol of something we are afraid of but don’t want to talk about, to becoming one of us and a protagonist, to becoming a comedic foil (often meeting Scooby-Doo).
This has happened with every creature-feature, whether they’re scaring the crap out of Abbott and Costello with the various Universal monsters, or something like Monster Squad making the comedic line, “the wolf man has nards!” [ 9 ]. The zombie has inevitably become a source of comedy. I am speaking, of course, of Shaun of the Dead as the primary example of just how funny zombies can be [ 10 ]. Now keeping in mind that this is set in England where your average Joe can’t get his hands on a gun, as they have very strict gun control laws over there, this now makes it a useable zombie story without having to deal the uniquely American question of, “Why didn’t they go down to the local gun store and start blasting everything in sight?”
As they’re English, the characters in Shaun have cricket bats, shovels and whatever they can get their hands on. They spend their time at the pub instead of a sports bar. If they have a rifle, nobody knows how to use the damn thing. However, once the military becomes active, the story became very, very short. They go through all this build up that the zombies are coming, then here they are, and our protagonists are fighting the undead. Then the SAS rolls in, gets out of the back of the trucks, and vaporizes the zombies with their automatic weapons, which is pretty much how you would expect that to go.
For the last bit of zombie lore, we are going to go back to the beginning to the role of the zombie as servant. However, this story the zombie goes from servant to family. I am speaking of course of the movie Fido [ 11 ]. Fido is a tale of a post-apocalyptic world where the zombie apocalypse has hit. It is the tale of a little, walled-in community of people stuck in a 1950s aesthetic trying to carve out a life when the outside world is a blasted hellhole full of zombies that will eat you. They keep their elderly in prisons because it is a safer place to keep them if they die. They also have control collars they put on the zombies to use them as labor. These zombies clean their homes and perform other menial tasks. Everyone is armed in case one of these zombies breaks control.
In this film they focus on one zombie that is taken in by a family that is kind of dysfunctional, and how that zombie, over time, becomes a part of their family. It is a story of how the family finds what little humanity that is still inside of the creature, drawing it forth. Yeah, he’s mindless, and yeah he wants to eat people, but that piece of humanity that is in him is reborn, and so the zombie comes full circle.
From the mindless slave he was in the beginning, to where he was in Haitian mythology [ 12 ]—as someone who was paying a debt to his community—to becoming part of the family, then part of the community, we arrive at a point where people come to accept that becoming a zombie is just part of their normal life cycle now. It is not something different or something they treat with horror. The only ones they treat with horror are the ones that become rampaging monsters, the ones that try to eat them, not the ones who are the neighbors. Not the ones who are their family. That is one reason the story arc of the zombie so fascinating—that it has come that full circle.
There are, however, some disturbing elements worth noting in Fido. One of the neighbors has a female-zombie servant who is his personal concubine. As she died from an aneurysm while shopping, and because he had a thing for her when she was alive, he put a collar on her and took her home after she literally dropped dead. After that she lived with him, and she was his zombie. Now there may be people who would find a zombie sexy (even a fresh one) but it is a kind of weird, cater-corner necrophilia.
Practicing necromancy may be a time-honored profession for people who want to go dig up some friends and maybe have some parties, but they’re dead, Jim; necrophilia, sex with the dead, is inadvisable. I consider that to be yet another of the evolution of things. They were preceded of course by things like vampires, werewolves, and “Frankensteins” (or Prometheans, if you will). All these monsters have gone through that cycle and have eventually ended up as porn somewhere. Everyone gets to be porn eventually. Whether it’s the cowboy, the spaceman, the vampire, the sailor, or the construction worker, though I’m pretty sure The Village People were devoid of supernatural members.
More recently we have seen the zombie got a much-needed dose of, modern problems need modern solutions. Much in the same way that the vampire got a remake in 30 Days of Night where somebody said, “Hey you know vampires burn in sunlight, why don’t they just take over for Alaska where it’s dark six months out of the year?” zombies got 28 Days Later [ 13 ]. The zombie is not a symbol of community but is representative of our fear of contagion and plague.
This movie also has “fast” zombies, not the zombie that shuffles around going and groaning about brains. This zombie comes rushing at you like a lunatic on bath salts and tries to eat your face off like the Cookie Monster chowing down on some chocolate chip macadamia nut snacks: “Nom, nom, nom, nom, nom.” The plague zombie is not undead; this is where we have injected a lot more science into the story. This creature is a product of biology, usually a virus, but often a created threat.
Films like The Crazies, 28 Days Later, and several other films portray the zombie not as a dead person reanimated, but as a person in the throes of disease or chemical which causes them to become violent, insane, and immune to pain. This is a very similar prospect to something I encountered in my military service after the invention of the neutron bomb, a brilliant invention that, to preserve the infrastructure of a region but effectively wipes out opposition, increases the amount of deadly radiation given off. Wastes great, more killing.
As a result of this, some of the strategists that I worked with at the time were like, “OK, so here’s the scenario, we pick a military target, detonate a neutron bomb on it. What happens with their elites? What happens with their equivalent of the Green Berets, of their Rangers, of their Navy Seals?” These are people who have dedicated their lives to perfecting their bodies and minds to protect their people. Now they don’t have any pain receptors anymore and they know they are dying. How do you cope with that when they come after you, with all the ingenuity of a dying man who is a lethal fighting machine? With all the drive of someone who knows that their last breath will be spent defending their people, and they know they are already dead and that you can’t hurt them? That’s the Neutron zombie, the first “fast zombie” I ever encountered. It was a theoretical idea discussed around a strategic meeting of, “How the fuck do we cope with that if we ever drop the neutron bomb?”
Having to go claim territory that has had those guys running around for a couple of weeks, dying of radiation poisoning, would be a nightmare. What kind of traps are they going to leave? What kind of ambushes are they going to plan? Fortunately, history gave us something to work with on that, from the stories of Picts and some stories from the Philippine campaigns. The Picts warred with the Scots centuries ago, and they routinely drank a very powerful concoction full of chemicals before engaging in battle. They would paint themselves with woad, a chemical that was more than just blue war paint: it drove them into a chaotic frenzy and made them immune to pain. Instead of armor, they would wind their limbs with tight bands of leather or copper to slow down their bleeding. Altogether, their culture resonated strongly with Viking concepts like the berserker, which is, of course, seen in today’s fast zombie such as represented by 28 Days Later.
Someone who doesn’t feel pain and has accepted their own death is one of the most dangerous beings alive, especially when they want to kill you. A Pict warrior with his woad and a 28 Days Later zombie; the only difference between the Pict and the zombie is that the Picts knew what they were doing to themselves. This is a deliberate act of sacrifice that they made for the greater good. The 28 Days Later style zombie is something that happens to the person, not something they do to themselves on purpose; that is the main thing that separates them from being a tragic folk hero. Many of these stories have the government representing a shadowy conspiratorial group which is trying to weaponize the dead for nefarious reasons of their own.
The Bigger Picture
There are other zombie-friendly realms that exist in video game worlds such as Resident Evil and Parasite Eve, which represent the augmented zombie brought forth by an Evil Corporation creating some form of contagion for purposes honestly no corporation on Earth would follow. Such stories represent our distrust of the larger organizations that control our lives, be they governments, corporations, or Walmart. We know that many of these groups are evil, and by that I don’t mean wearing a monocle and twirling a handlebar mustache. Instead, they engage in late-stage capitalist slavery. They don’t pay their workers living wages, and they treat them like chattel. They survive, even thrive on human suffering, making their profits on the backs of literally working folks to death. All monsters are something we fear but are afraid to talk about. That is how this comes back to square one again: the zombie as servitor, the zombie as the mindless consumer, the zombie as a slave, the zombie as a victim to some bigger malevolent force.
The zombie is used as a pawn to strike fear in those opposing bigger forces. Everything is cyclic and the monster story is no different. The zombie changes into the chemical zombie, then the plague zombie into the fast zombie is a tool of a thing bigger than himself, who strikes fear and destruction in the hearts of what should be his fellow man. It goes once again back to the beginning where the zombie first entered story and film as a tool of a witch or a warlock or some powerful outsider, who created these things to go do its evil bidding. In the same way we see with things like the Umbrella Corporation [ 14 ], that they are tinkering in the realm of God if you want to get into Frankenstein mode of thought. They are creating through science, typically because people fear science and technology. There’s observable evidence of this fear everywhere. The idea that these evil corporations want to make these giant evil monsters so that they can force us into an apocalyptic state in which they are our lords and masters.
Monsters are symbols of something we are afraid of, but don’t want to talk about. What would happen if we sat down and seriously started to discuss the corporate feudal state, about how people are enslaved by our late capitalist society? People recoil at that because they don’t want to knock down the house of cards that they live in. So, we have our zombies, our monsters, and they shuffle out of the dark forest, so we can look at these things from a safe distance and convince ourselves that they are not happening, despite knowing better. There are fungi out there making ants into zombies [ 15 ]. Sometimes on a large scale, sometimes on the small, we can see zombies in real life. We even had a bath salt zombie outbreak [ 16 ]. Granted, it was only the one guy and the cops caught him and shot him dead—story over, as drug-induced real-world zombies don’t have tool use.
Who is the Hero?
The point of the zombie as an antagonist is that the hero doesn’t have to be special. The hero doesn’t have to be some highly trained expert; he doesn’t have to be a Van Helsing. He can be some baseball-cap wearing, beer-drinking dude in a tank top with an aluminum baseball bat and a shotgun, so long as he (or she) can be ready at a minute’s notice and defeat the monster, as we see in Zombieland [ 17 ]. This film, and those of its kind, fill many niches in the zombie lexicon: post-apocalyptic, comedic, heartwarming, and so on. But Woody Harrelson is a genius and the whole cast is amazing, making the movie a fun watch. It shows the zombie as the everyman villain because zombies are only dangerous when you have a bazillion of them. A singular zombie is no match for anybody, as they have no tool use, they shuffle around slowly, and they are dumber than a box of hammers, even if they may be strong in inexorable, Terminator-style predation they use.
But once again, people underestimate the value of destroying something’s legs or blowing their hips off. You don’t have to kill it; you just must either stop its mobility or keep it from biting you, both career-ending injuries for a zombie. Here’s a little thought experiment for you. Any of you that are friends with or members of the people in the SCA understand the organization is chock-a-block full of people who can make all kinds of armor and weapons. We’re talking armor that is meant to stand up against being pummeled on by a 200-pound guy with a decent amount of upper body strength swinging a piece of hardened wood at you.
Zombies don’t get any stronger than us, and they don’t get superhuman bite-strength either. That’s important, as a guy in a suit of chainmail is safe from a zombie. A bunch of guys in chainmail in phalanx formation will get impaled, making it easy for the frontline guys to move in with hand weapons and chop the zombies into components. Worst case scenario: if one breaks the line and tries to bite them, their armor is likely an effective deterrent. You are in more danger of being crushed under their weight than being bitten by something with human teeth trying to penetrate interlinked steel rings.
Yet in most movies they somehow overwhelm enough of humanity that the infrastructure collapses. This just lets the everyman rise up and be the hero, because he is resourceful, he’s clever, he’s tough and he’s brave, or, in the case of Zombieland, because he’s paranoid and neurotic [ 17 ]. The hero of the movie Zombieland is the overwhelmed nerd, which is brilliant. From the everyman monster to the everyman hero, it’s a popular tale and is often told. Zombies have the great equalizer: you don’t need any special training or any special tools. It kind of makes the hero of the zombie film like a cowboy. They wins by their guts, gumption, and firepower, whatever the problem is. If you look at the classic cowboy, look at the classic zombie fighter. There is functionally no difference—one is a more modernized version of the other. Happy Trails.
- “As gruesome as this trope is, the deeper horror in Zombie Survival narratives is in the downfall of society, as they rarely are presented as anything less than annihilation of social order, at the every least in a municipal area.”
- “Pun notwithstanding, this subgenre constantly revives and reinvents itself, from the ‘White Walkers’ of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, to the shambling ‘walkers’ of The Walking Dead.”
Ed Jones revels in unpacking the sociopolitical motivations behind popular culture and placing them in their historical context. An avid gamer since the early 1980s, a veteran, and the one-time God-Emperor of Newark, Delaware, Ed serves as a contributor to The Unconventional, as well as regular staff for Damocles Thread Development. His series “Zen and the Art of Screaming” is a thorough exploration into the horror genre’s tropes, its origins and evolution.
- The Serpent and the Rainbow. Directed by Wes Craven, Universal Pictures, 5 Feb. 1988.
- Ginalis, Elizabeth. “Zombification Process | Nathan S. Kline’s Zombi in Haiti.”, 2014, sites.duke.edu/ginalisgh323/zombification-process/.
- Night of the Living Dead. Directed by George A. Romero, Image Ten, 4 Oct. 1968.
- Zacharek, Stephanie. “George A. Romero Was a Keen Student of the Human Condition.” Time, Time USA, LLC, 17 July 2017, time.com/4861329/george-a-romero/.
- Land of the Dead. Directed by George A. Romero, Universal Pictures, 24 June 2005.
- Kirkman, Robert. The Walking Dead Compendium. Vol. 1. Berkeley, Calif., Image Comics, 2009.
- Warm Bodies. Directed by Jonathan Levine, Summit Entertainment, 1 Feb. 2013.
- Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. New York, Crown, 2006.
- The Monster Squad. Directed by Fred Dekkar, TriStar Pictures, 14 Aug. 1987.
- Shaun of the Dead. Directed by Edgar Wright, Universal Pictures, 24 Sept. 2004.
- Fido. Directed by Andrew Currie, Lionsgate, 16 Mar. 2007.
- Mariani, Mike. “From Haitian Slavery to ‘the Walking Dead’: The Forgotten History of the Zombie.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic, 28 Oct. 2015, theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/how-america-erased-the-tragic-history-of-the-zombie/412264/.
- 28 Days Later. Directed by Danny Boyle, Twentieth Century Fox, 27 June 2003.
- “Umbrella Corporation (Concept).” Giant Bomb, A Red Ventures Company, giantbomb.com/umbrella-corporation/3015-204/. Accessed 20 June 2021.
- Lu, Jennifer. “How a Parasitic Fungus Turns Ants into ‘Zombies’.” Cordyceps Zombie Fungus Takes over Ants’ Bodies, 18 Apr. 2019, nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/04/cordyceps-zombie-fungus-takes-over-ants/.
- Lendon, Brandon. “Reports: Miami ‘Zombie’ Attacker May Have Been Using ‘Bath Salts.’” News Blogs CNN, CNN, 29 May 2012, news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/29/reports-miami-zombie-attacker-may-have-been-using-bath-salts/.
- Zombieland. Directed by Ruben Fleischer, Columbia Pictures, 2 Oct. 2009.