Daydream of the Dead
Daydream of the Dead
Zombies are everywhere. Can you picture them? What do you see? Do you see a rotting, slow-moving corpse feasting on the flesh of the living? Or do you see a feral human, mad with bloodlust, ripping into any living thing in its path? Still yet you might envision an automaton, its soul held in ransom by a voodoo witch doctor, or a sort of flesh golem: a soulless abomination. Still further, maybe it’s a person, just like you or I in every surface way, but lacking consciousness. Which of these is correct? Why does it matter?
I believe that the things that scare us, the monsters of our folklore and culture tell us something deep about ourselves. They tell us not only what we fear on a surface level, but by proxy, the can also tell us those fears we are reluctant to admit to ourselves. Therefore, to properly know one’s cultural and personal narrative, those things we fear must be studied and defined. I don’t, however, believe these definitions must remain static. On the contrary, much can be inferred by the way the definitions change, as well as when a definition no longer fits the thing, because it has become something new. In order to see these changes and make these distinctions, we must first decide what is and isn’t, in this case, a zombie.
First things first, and what is more first than the history of the name of the thing in debate? The word “zombie” is of West African origins. In the Kikongo language, it translates as “fetish,” zumbi; the Kimbundu word is nzambi, “god.” Nzambi is also a proper name for the supreme deity of the Bacongo people of Angola. It is believed that this deity is the forerunner of Zombi-Damballah, the rainbow-serpent god of Voodoo. However, the deity with power of resurrection is the Life/Death god Ghede. It is possible that the god’s name became interwoven with zumbi and the Spanish sombra: shade or ghost, to produce the idea of a soulless animated body, or the spirit that facilitates the possession of the body. The word in this context was first recorded in 1871 ; it is unknown how long it had been in usage before then.
The usage of zombie purely in the Voodoo context continued into the Hollywood film era, with movies like White Zombie (1932) and The Voodoo Man (1944). Some films portrayed zombies as reanimated corpses, while others portrayed zombies as living, but hypnotized. The film that is generally said to have started the whole zombie-as-cannibal type is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. However, the creatures in Romero’s movie are never referred to as zombies, but as “ghouls” which is itself a misnomer. After Night of the Living Dead’s success, most zombie movies forsook the “voodoo” zombie type for the “Romero” zombie type. A notable exception to this is Wes Craven’s Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), which explored anthropologist Wade Davis’ research into a so-called “zombie drug” in Haiti.
Beyond the switch from a slave-like zombie to a cannibalistic one, there is a more subtle switch in the vehicle by which the zombies are made. Voodoo magic gives way to vaguely scientific sources of “zombism.” As well, there is switch from the zombies, however ferocious or mild, being held in control by one or more intelligent entities to a master-less horde, driven only by its own urges. A large part of this thematic switch is due to the work of Richard Mattheson in his 1954 horror novel I Am Legend, which directly inspired Romero. However well one may be able to track down the change, the reason for this change taking hold in the American consciousness remains more elusive. Why, in 1968, did the zombie become a new thing?
If we look at what was going on historically, it becomes clear. Voodoo zombies represent slavery and a loss of self (as well as loss of labor, as many Marxists read them). The loss is personal, and rendered at the hands of a person with preternatural methods of control. In this villain, we see exploitation, but we also see order. The 19th and first half of the 20th centuries were marked by unprecedented Western expansion, industrialization and colonization. The zombie represented aspects of this, both what we could not admit was going on, and what we feared would visited upon our guilty souls. The movies played into the idea of an exotic, savage land, beyond the boundaries of white magic and Christendom. The yield of this land was the native zombie, not made so by industrialization, but by the machinations of his own inferior culture. This not only absolves the Western onlooker of cultural guilt (however futile it might be), but attempts to sooth his own fears of industrialization and mechanization. In this way the Voodoo zombie type can be seen to have certain ties with the “robot apocalypse” and “body snatcher” themed films. I believe, though the originator of the term, this use of the word zombie is nearly archaic.
Romero’s film entered our cultural radar near the height of the Vietnam War Era. Not only were chaotic and graphic images breaking into the mainstream via news reports, but culturally many of the institutions of previous eras were breaking down with seemingly nothing to fill the vacuum created. In Romero’s film, the cause of the zombies is vague and somewhat Cold-War in nature (a radioactive satellite). Their purpose seems entirely self-directed, and it is gruesome: to consume the living. Much has been written about the subversive and political overtones in this film, but my intent is to look at the broad themes, so I will not go into them in depth. At their base, Romero’s zombie horde is numerous, self-proliferating, hungry and dead. I believe this plays on the classic theme of the “barbarians at the gate.” The sheer numbers of zombies are an integral part of this type. This is why I don’t believe you can classify “flesh golems,” such as Frankenstein, as “zombies.” Although they share a quality of being risen from the dead, there is no hive mentality. If anything at all, this is closer to the Voodoo zombie type. However, the myth of the Golem is older, and in many ways, more static than that of the Voodoo zombie.
Another frightful base aspect of Romero zombies is that not only do they consume the living, but through this contact they replicate themselves. Here we see a fate worse than death, a living death, but unlike vampires, there remains little left of what makes us “human,” that is, consciousness. This appears not only to be a commentary of the search for eternal life gone terribly wrong, but also a strong commentary on the fear of contagion. In many ways this is prescient, pre-dating both the AIDS panic of the 1980s and 1990s, and our current fear of biological terrorism. This is one of the strongest aspects of the modern zombie film, and can be seen even when the “zombies” don’t technically die, such as in 28 Days Later (2002). This is why I believe technical death is not as important to what makes something a zombie as is a living state of “death” and contamination.
The final base aspect of zombie cinema I will discuss is the hunger. The ravenous feeding represents the worst instincts of a consumer-based capitalist culture. The demand is so great that it literally eats anything in its path, thus bringing about the apocalypse. This is why I believe classifying The Borg (Star Trek) as zombies is not appropriate at this time. Although they represent an insatiable, de-individualizing force, the force is one based on order, not chaos. That which is consumed is used. Zombies consume not because they need the sustenance, but out of base instinct. This is one of the most persuasive arguments against the “infected” of 28 Days Later being classified as zombies, such as the infected appear to need flesh to survive, and ultimately die of hunger. However, I believe their other zombie-like qualities tend to outweigh this. The message is the zombie message, even if not fully presented so. Still, I think it is too soon to classify these “infected” as zombies. The meaning of the word could evolve to include them, but still the idea may evolve into a category of its own.
I believe it is the message, the meaning of the thing, which is the ultimate arbiter of what we call zombie, or golem, or vampire, rather than a fixed set of physical statistics. In many ways, perhaps, the word “zombie” should have faded in the wake of decolonization and the sexual revolution. However, it was given new life in the same wake, one that epitomizes an extreme and apocalyptic near future. This seeming misnomer has grown to outshine its origins; perhaps with further study on this and other development in the horror genre, one can find a link between the chaotic future and the oppression of the past that is summed up in one word: zombies.