Mark Dery: What do zombies Mean?

201003181336 Mark Dery has another wonderful essay on True/Slant, called "Dead Man Walking: What Do Zombies Mean?"
The zombie is a polyvalent revenant, a bloating signifier that has given shape, alternately, to repressed memories of slavery's horrors; white alienation from the darker Other; Cold War nightmares of mushroom clouds and megadeaths; the post-traumatic fallout of the AIDS pandemic; and free-floating anxieties about viral plagues and bioengineered outbreaks (as in 28 Days Later and Left 4 Dead, troubled dreams for an age of Avian flu and H1N1, when viruses leap the species barrier and spread, via jet travel, into global pandemics seemingly overnight. Which may be why the Infected, as they're called in both the film and the game, move at terrifying, jump-cut speed, unlike their lumbering, stuporous predecessors.)
On his blog, Mark provides Attention-Conservation Highlights: "Karl Marx's goth-iness; cultural historian of horror David J. Skal's take on zombies as poster children for the econopocalypse; Haitian zombies and post-colonial trauma; white supremacists' Turner Diaries dreams of circling the wagons and holding off the "golden horde" of multiculti urbanites with "boomsticks"; Nazi zombies. Oh, and braaains."

Dead Man Walking: What Do Zombies Mean?




  1. Zombies are our fear of death made manifest. It’s our chance to fight back and kick some death ass. But, of course, death is relentless and inevitable. But, in a decaying world, we find pleasure and inspiration from being able to go kicking, screaming, head-shotting, chainsawing, decapitating and not-so-quietly into that good night.

    Zombies are death incarnate.

    Time to kick Death’s ass.

    Double tap.

  2. What zombies mean sounds like a step-by-step explanation of how a chicken becomes a McNugget.

  3. Zombies represent you neighbours that you don’t like, the family members you don’t trust, the other, the immigrant, the person you envy, the person you are jealous of, the people that remind you of you and because they remind you of yourself you hate them for it. Watch Hotel Rwanda and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. It’s obviously not a zombie movie, but I think that horrific reality is what is underlying our fear of the zombie. The fear of being overwhelmed by other people who live right near you.

    1. Yeah. I watched Children of Men and thought, “Did I just watch a zombie movie with no zombies?”

      1. I never thought of it before, but you are right. Now I’ll scan youtube for the inevitable CoM/28 Days Later mashup.

  4. zombies represent the horror of mindless consumption taken to an extreme. In that respect, they are the perfect “modern american” monster.

  5. The zombie apocalypse is a yearning to return to the age of colonialism. Even in the terror, the protagonists have the opportunity to strike out on their own and build something of their own. Modern western civilization was weened on the availability of terra nullus, and we miss it dearly.

    1. Perhaps zombies are an analogue to all those faceless colonials, those hungry, undifferentiated masses destroyed by colonizing, “civilized” Euros? The Sepoy Rebellion, the Madhi’s jihad, all were zombie attacks?

      1. Night of the Living Dead, although certainly not the first zombie attack in Western culture, is the one that put zombies on the map as a widespread cultural reference. It came out in 1968. Traditional values were seen as falling victim to hippies, queers, women’s liberation and worst of all, integration. It seems to be a metaphor for the kind of social change that has freaked out conservatives since classical antiquity.

        1. I’d always read the movie as a Vietnam–American Frontier allegory, with the hero and his unlikely, fractious crew analogues for the American family, pioneer values, etc., beset by a horde of flesh-eating evil Communists-Vietnamese–What Have You. I’d never considered the zombies as hippies, countercultureniks, etc., thanks, Antinous!

          Above I was just riffing on M. Dery’s slavery-colonialism ideas. A lot of the literature of colonialism has images of howling mobs, undifferentiated hordes, etc. The way Chinese Gordon died (the bastard) was rather death-by-zombie-like, especially in its retellings in popular legend: besieged by months, hacked to death by a mob, etc. And here’s Winston Churchill in The River War on the Madhi’s great army at Omdurman, the last great British cavalry engagement:

          Suddenly the whole black line which seemed to be zeriba began to move. It was made of men, not bushes. Behind it other immense masses and lines of men appeared over the crest; and while we watched, amazed by the wonder of the sight, the whole face of the slope became black with swarming savages. Four miles from end to end, and, as it seemed, in five great divisions, this mighty army advanced—swiftly. The whole side of the hill seemed to move. Between the masses horsemen galloped continually; before them many patrols dotted the plain; above them waved hundreds of banners, and the sun, glinting on many thousand hostile spear-points, spread a sparkling cloud.

          Zombies don’t carry banners, sure, or ride horses, but you get the idea.

          I like your idea of Children of Men as a zombie film: the attack in the woods on the car, the part where Michael Caine’s house is besieged (that image again), etc. And handsome Clive Owen doing his own dead-eyed zombie bit!

      2. Exactly. It’s not acceptable to modern folks to just roll over the living natives and take over their land. So make them undead and engage in a little wish fulfilment.

  6. Zombies mean that true horror fans have a nasty, visceral alternative to the other revenants (vampires), which have been temporarily co-opted by tweenies and weenies as symbols of their pre-teen agnst.

    I can’t wait until the inevitable media/creative reflex kicks vampires back into the adult side of the pool.

    Until then, I will continue to enjoy our rotting friends.

    – Spookyland

  7. Zombies mean at least two things:

    1) The Plague of the 14th Century

    2) The fear that the condemned have nothing to lose

  8. Zombies are Gen X’s love of choas and internet toughguy individualism. Without the threat of Soviet Union nukes. The generation created their own head game fantasy and publishes books on how to survive a mythical zombie attack.

    Gen Xers are not community oriented…they see the world, even their families, as ‘sink or swim’. (GenXers are the generation least likely to participate in community services) They get played by the Glen Beck “fear bunker” mentality and the Zombie love is just an outgrowth of that mind-set.

    1. I’m not so sure about the Gen X, post-Soviet nature of the the zombie genre. After all, the standard zombie movies, which all modern zombie movies basically copy, are George Romero’s three (Night, Dawn, Day) “Dead” movies, and they were all made when Gen Xers were in grade school and the Soviet Union was still around.

      1. Very true. The original Zombie movies where ‘faceless hords’ cold war fear type things.

        Modern Zombies have evolved, they’re faster.

        In the 60’s 70’s zombie movies where were just a another horror show thing.

        Now, it’s a culture..books on how to ‘survive’ a zombie attack, mass zombie walks. It’s an icon that Gen X has picked up on for a fantasy threat which they imagine to happen. GenXers are individualists. Their greatest fear is a ‘mob’.

    2. To be fair, Gen-Xers grew up with the threat of mutually-assured destruction hanging over their heads, only to have it evaporate by the time they reached adulthood. As kids, we knew Reagan’s rhetoric about the Soviet threat only too well.

      The rest of your comment just sounds like the rant of someone who didn’t like the music in the 90s.

  9. I kinda miss the days when zombies were just dead people who wanted to eat you and vampires actually bit people once in awhile instead of moping around in bouts of teen angst.

  10. Wow, I’m really impressed by the range of different opinions that have come out. Obviously a lot of us have devoted some thought to this. ;)

    Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to put a much finer point on it than to say that zombies embody our fears. I think that whatever else it represents, the zombie-infested world is perversely attractive and almost soothing in a way because the danger there is immediate and tangible. Zombie-apocalypse survivors don’t have to worry about economic collapse or peak oil or getting splattered by a driver with a cell phone. They mostly just need to live through another night.

  11. A vexing question, given their typically decrepit state of dictional competence. Please indulge my somewhat humble attempt at translation:

    Excuse me there, good fellow! I am most rapaciously hungry, and should very much like to dine on the tender morsels enclosed in your cranial cavity, and the sweet scarlet tidbits in your belly.

    Would you be so kind as to oblige me by arresting your highly spririted attempt at escape?

  12. Zombies represent our fear of mobs. I think one of the worst things an individual could face would be another group of people, completely blind to reason, who mean to tear them apart for not belonging. And that actually has happened to people before, it’s a primal fear, which is likely why zombies are such an effective narrative device despite being so unreal. Plus, how the zombie dies but the body lives on to ruin others represents how in joining the mob your reasoning dies making you an instrument against others who still live like you used to. The entire concept is supernatural and yet parallels real threats to humanity through coercion and violence.

  13. The 1940s brought us the classic Frankenstein, Werewolf, Dracula and Cat People movies. They were World War II classics in which war time themes and anxieties were expressed artistically for some value of artistically. The two Cat People movies were particularly telling.

    The 1950s brought us the movies for an atomic age. The Blob, The Thing From Another World, Teenagers From Outer Space and The Day the Earth Stood Still were good examples.

    The 1960s focused the paranoia with Fail Safe, Doctor Strangelove, The Day the Earth Caught Fire and all those wonderful Japanese monster flicks.

    It’s kind of fun watching each eras anxieties play out on film.

  14. Lots of interesting ideas here. Don’t forget the universal fear of being eaten alive, probably the worst way to die imaginable.

  15. Personally, I think people project way to much in it.

    * People are afraid of death.

    * People are revolted by people who divert from the physical norm.

    * People acknowledge fighting against impossible odds is honorable and winning against impossible odds is awesome.

    No need for metaphors.

  16. After Romero (if loosely): zombies are us, in one form or another. In any work featuring zombies, how the characters treat the zombies always speaks volumes — about the characters, about the situation, about the creators of the work in question and about the audience of that work. In and of themselves, zombies are simple critters, but they can reveal many things to us about ourselves.

  17. Zombies are awesome because they mindlessly pursue you while you blow them the fuck away.

    I don’t see them as being symbolic.

  18. Funny, I have been pondering this very subject. I will read the original article later but here is my take.
    Zombies represent cult-like group-think that is repugnant to free thinkers or rational people that believe logic should drive political decisions, not empty emotionally charged rhetoric.

  19. Great post, and great article. I’ve often pondered the meaning of our monsters, and the article makes some excellent points.

    More importantly, thanks to Mark for pointing me in the direction of the fantastic True/Slant webzine– I’ve literally spent the last day and a half reading nothing else; just now checked back in on BB to to say thanks!

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