Remember when people first started pouring fake blood all over themselves and filling city streets for zombie walks? Why hasn’t this phase died? Why do so many people love zombies as passionately as others love steampunk or going to Burning Man? What attracts people to the zombie image? In all those zombie movies I’m remembering, all those comic books, vacant, dead eyes stare back.
There are admirable characteristics of zombie stories and they have much to teach us. But it’s important to examine which attributes have lost their relevance — which elements of the trending genre might be lulling our forward-thinking brains into pockets of stagnation or regression.
George A. Romero took magic out of zombie imagery and transplanted it with science fiction in his film Night of the Living Dead. He founded the zombie culture we know today, one based (initially at least) on politics and mob culture. That’s fine. It’s good to promote political consciousness and antagonize the system. But he swept the tradition of zombie mythology under the table. In Southern Africa, the zombie’s story was a parable to account for the dehumanizing oppression of black labourers turned into zombie workers. Zombies were pitiable characters. Romero removed the victimhood of zombies by portraying them as emotionless, violent brutes. Depriving these creatures of their voodoo history has two unfortunate consequences: the diminution of character complexity, and a flood of writers utilizing this simplified archetype of the zombie character without consideration of its rich potential.
Modern zombie movies often stress our relationship to media, defining us as technologically over-dependent (i.e. social media is “zombifying” today’s youth). It’s preachy and cliché. The zombies in these stories are emotionless, cancelling out any inklings of sympathy we might feel for them. They are shown in much the same way that overly patriotic American films have portrayed Nazis, Communists and aliens of any kind. Villains show no emotion, and it means they feel nothing. If they feel nothing, we feel nothing for them and therefore have no problem cutting through their hordes with chainsaws, machine guns and armoured cars.
Interestingly, what I find most attractive about zombies is that blank-slate-ness. Their vacant faces allow us to project onto them whatever our imaginations can conjure. It is important that these creatures were once living. Like ghosts and spectres, they represent something that once had a life of its own and has been resurrected to haunt us. With these distinctions in mind, the zombie story can represent a key feature of contemporary life: the upload.
Like the camera before it, the Internet has become an extension of the body. It holds our thoughts and memories for us. We trust it to save and remember everything. John Berger wrote that “the camera relieves us of the burden of memory.” If this is true, then the Internet has surpassed our wildest fantasies of unburdening ourselves. We cycle through uploads and images at a faster rate each day. We take more and more photographs, upload more videos, publish more posts and Tweets. And the Internet preserves all of it, fossilizing our movements. Knowing this, we have only increased our online activity. We ritualistically enshrine everything.
But our uploads are dead things. They lose their context, their meaning, on the Internet. And with their meaning, they lose their lives. They become zombies, those familiar blank slates. Only now it is the entire online community that is free to project itself onto our virtual artifacts, to resurrect these images and words with their own meanings. Our uploads behaving like dead things, coming back to haunt us, is a fear that modern zombie stories confront us with like an ex-lover brandishing a drunken voicemail message, reminding us that sometimes we can’t relieve ourselves of our past. Zombies exhibit ex-personhood. They wear the rags of old personas. They are walking scrapbooks of our discarded Facebook profiles. Their attacks help us wake up and come alive. Zombies force us to live in the present, to recall our primitive survival skills. They test us.
The movie adaptation of Max Brooks’ World War Z comes out next June. The trailer emphasizes the sheer, mind-boggling volume of our walking dead friends. Countries of zombies. Zombies piling up to clear high, stone walls. More zombies than we have ever seen before. This is telling: today, everything we do is over-saturated. Why? Because we want the dead things to crawl out of the grave and into the world. We want to confront our fears; to sit in a theatre full of people who also want to explore the outer reaches of this confusing new world.
Zombies have been teaching us to embrace our fear of the upload and to be prepared for our past to be resurrected.