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What We Mean When We Talk About Zombies

They just won't die: a look at the social significance of the greatest monsters of all time.

10/27/10: From the 2010 AMC television series, Video muted: click volume for sound

At a time when the average person doesn't know what to fear most—terrorism, global warming, pandemics like cholera, economic collapse, random gun violence, rogue nuclear weapons—zombies are the monster du jour, encompassing all those things. Forget about vampires; they're for porn addicts and tweens. And werewolves? Well, finding those hairy beasts sexy just smacks of bestiality. Only zombies allow us to dream of saving the world a la Mad Max, and remind us that most of the time, we're just shabby, mindless drones.

And now news of "robosigners" and political "robocalls" is adding relevance to the current zombie revival, epitomized by AMC zombie drama series The Walking Dead, debuting on Halloween, just after IFC's marathon of the British zombie miniseries The Dead Set. Both are hot off the successful resurgence of zombies on the big screen that began with 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil series and continued with Shaun of the Dead, a remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and new movies from the master, Romero, himself.

You think this is a game? In 2007, Matt Mogk founded the Zombie Research Association with  world-renowned neuroscientists and academics from Harvard. These brainiacs are "dedicated to raising the level of zombie scholarship in the Arts and Sciences." The group's mission statement starts with affirming zombies as real. It continues with: "The zombie pandemic is coming. It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when. Enthusiastic debate about zombies is essential to the survival of the human race."

But even if you aren't a believer, the modern zombie is a metaphor for so many fears that it's just easier to call them real. Forget the fashionable critical disdain reserved for genre movies and literature—zombies represent the atrocities played out on our front pages. The wars, the deaths, the destruction, the secrets tragedies people take to their grave.

These monsters have escaped our nightmares and stalk us every waking moment. "You have to believe that this could happen," say Max Brooks, author of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks. "Zombies are the perfect tool for exploring apocalyptic fears. There are things that are really scary out there in this world that are lot scarier than zombies, but we don't talk about them. A discussion about the AIDS pandemic could clear a P. Diddy party, but if you talk about zombies, you've got the room." Brooks knows what he's talking about: he literally wrote the book on how to kill zombies. In last month's Foreign Policy Magazine, Tufts professor Daniel W. Drezner wrote an article titled Night of the Living Wonk: Toward an International Relations Theory of Zombies: "If it is true that 'popular culture makes world politics what it currently is,' as a recent article in Politics argued, then the international relations community needs to think about armies of the undead in a more urgent matter ... There are many varieties of realism, but all realists start with a common assumption: that anarchy is the overarching constraint of world politics."

In the early 20th century, when anthropologists still took voodoo seriously, it was thought that one could make a zombie with tetrodotoxin, the poison found in pufferfish. Just slip it and some other mind-altering drugs into a person's coffee and then boom, they woke up from "the dead" crazy and mean, but also under your control, willing to perform any depraved act, including murder, on your behalf. Writers like Zora Neale Hurston searched for the science behind the "zombie," presenting it as a lost opportunity to learn from the magic that colonialism was replacing with civilization--zombies were a stand-in for a fear of the other. This can be seen in 1932 Bela Lugosi film White Zombie, in which zombies represented the fear of the loss of white control over a wild world. By Halloween 1968, when George Romero showed The Night of the Living Dead to a rapt crowd in New York's West Village, zombies were caused by an errant space probe's radiation and were under nobody's control--just mobs of reanimated dead folks looking for the flesh of the living to chew on.

That was at the height of the Vietnam War, of course, when zombies reflected a fear of the military-industrial complex and survivors had as much to be afraid of from the government as from the zombies trying to eat them. The Bay of Pigs and the Cold War's looming nuclear threat also added to Americans' fear of annihilation and enhanced the zombie's metaphorical meaning. Romero's Living Dead zombie movie series, six films long, codified most of the zombie rules just as Bram Stoker did for the vampire in Dracula. Zombies are slow, stupid, relentless, and always hungry for brains, and though they can be destroyed with a bullet to the head, there are just too many to shoot since zombies turn all their victims into aggressors. And without the intelligence of their undead colleague the vampire, they don't have the self-control to limit their growth.

Against the mindless lethality of zombies, think of the end of the world, imagine extinction. "Zombie fiction and movies, when they're good, aren't about zombies. They are stories about people and how they respond," says Jonathan Maberry, author of many excellent and award-winning zombie books, including Patient Zero, Rot and Ruin, and Zombies CSU. "A zombie is a stand-in for anything we fear: pandemic, racism, societal change, depersonalization of humanity, pervasive threat and how this threat affects people. It's the core of drama and a never-ending blank canvas." Which is why when the pandemic happens, we shouldn't be counting on civilization to save us from the legions of undead milling around outside. Pass the crossbow.

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