When I talk zombies online, I inevitably talk zombies with my Twitter pal Nyssa Harkness, who is writing (and apparently finishing it before she dies) a Masters thesis on zombies in literature and film.
Oh hey! Today Nyssa joins me to talk about zombies in film and literature! I’ve marked my text in black and hers in indented, bloody red. I hope it’s enough!
Also I’d like to thank Gary Kemble for the banner picture – that’s from Brisbane Zombiewalk 2011, with me and my son there on the right! I think I zombie-kidnapped him.
I’m not really a zombie expert in terms of having watched every classic zombie movie, but it seems from our discussions that I have at least some contribution to make in this area, specifically by throwing a sabot into the finely tuned semantic engines used to frame a discussion on zombies.
‘What is a zombie?’ people ask, and then give simple definitions that are countered by other examples of things that might just be zombies but…? And what about the difference between a zombie and a zombie movie?
Does every zombie movie have zombies in it? (spoiler: no)
Is every movie with zombies in it a zombie movie? (also no).
It’s like things are shades of grey! Or at least shades of mottled gray-green.
But first, let me display my lack of credentials: I still haven’t seen Braindead aka Dead Alive, or even any of the Return of the Living Dead series. I haven’t seen White Zombie. I have seen all the Romero zombie movies. I haven’t seen Dead Girl (although it’s on my list). I still need to see Frankenstein’s Army and I’m not even sure if that’s a zombie movie (I suspect not).
I haven’t watched everything either. If you want a good source on “everything”, check out Peter Dendle’s Encyclopedias of zombie movies.
So how could my opinions possibly be relevant?
That was a rhetorical question. Also Nyssa, a bona fide Academic expert, is here to lend this article some credibility.
Totes legit, bruh!
I’m not going to go on about traditional Voodoo zombies much, because they really a different beast to what is now culturally embedded as a ‘zombie’. They’re so fundamentally different from the ‘new’ zombie that it would just derail this article.
What is a Zombie?
Universally zombies must have reduced intelligence and agency. From the Voodoo Zombi through to the infected human in films such as 28 Days Later, the zombie either has no needs, and thus defaults to instinctive behaviour (such as visiting the shopping mall), or has a mindless desire to complete whatever task it is assigned (defaults to ‘eat human flesh/attack humans and bite them’).
Sometimes animals too. Zombiedogs!
Actually, good point: there are some cool creepy zombie dogs in one of the Resident Evil movies. They’re not very good zombie movies, but they do have infection and stuff and blood and … stuff? They start becoming incoherent by movie 4 or so. I’m being generous.
I’m not too hung up on the ‘eat brain’ thing introduced in Return of the Living Dead and its sequels, as I haven’t seen that series yet and frankly it falls into the same sloppy bucket of cannibalism.
It’s important to note that the eating/biting habits tend to relate to instinct again, and serves no actual purpose in feeding the dead zombie, although I’d like to see some ‘living zombie’ films which properly address cannibalism (I’m sure there are some, so let me know in the comments).
In Return of the Living Dead, the zombies express the desire to eat brains to relieve the pain of being dead.
Fundamentally, a zombie wants to attack and kill humans, and will stop at nothing to do so. Zombies without a human to bite will likely default to very simple, dulled versions of their living desires. This is an established trope from Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and onwards, so any discussion of the modern zombie, which is so heavily influenced by those movies, can’t dismiss zombie agency using arguments to ‘tradition’.
I’ve tried to argue this with a proper Doctor of Zombies. He contends that it is not agency, but animal instinct, residual memory rather than conscious thought/emotion. I need to work on my argument.
Note that there are some excellent new ‘zombie’ series (Les Revenants for example), where I believe the newly returned dead are simply themselves, with their old hopes and dreams, fighting against a society that has moved on or is scared of them. I haven’t seen these shows yet, although I’m looking forward to them.
The Returned by Jason Mott also deals with these issues, and it is being adapted into a TV show in the US. There are also specifically undead/zombies who are returned to their memories, such as In The Flesh.
With that disclaimer, these zombies clearly don’t meet the un-agented criterion. I’d be more comfortably classifying them as generally ‘undead’, or ‘revenant’ or similar, but that could simply be because I’ve played too much Dungeons and Dragons and I have all these extra categories. The layperson will just call them ‘zombie’.
‘The Agent Zombie’
The zombie horde is generally a swarm, perhaps with a basic hive mentality, being driven by food – human flesh. This is perhaps the most common theme in zombie texts; something is missing; their essential selves has been altered by their zombification. For most zombies, what is missing is rationality – that which separates us from the animals.
Derkson and Hick refer to the agent-zombie as one who can reason. This is pretty clear in Return of the Living Dead, where not only do zombies express the desire for brains and rationalise it (eating brains reduces the pain of being dead), but also will create traps to lure in more humans. However, they distinguish the faux-living of the Land zombies as not what they remember doing, but rather a false memory of what someone used to do, previously in the same body. Something else will occupy the body, the zombie.
Check out ‘Your Zombie and You: Identity, Emotion, and the Undead by Craig Derkson & Darren Hudson Hick’ in Zombies are Us: Essays on the humanity of the walking dead.
I really need to watch the Return of the… movies soon, as it sounds like there’s a significant gap in my zombie-exposure.
Boon also agrees that if a zombie, the essential you doesn’t exist anymore. He developed the nine classifications of zombies, to show that while there can be zombies with agency, essentially a true zombie is one without will, self, soul or personality.
- Zombie Drone – more a classic voodoo zombie from early Hollywood
- Zombie Ghoul – the Romero creation
- The Tech Zombie – someone robbed of will by technology
- Bio Zombie – some substance causes the loss of self
- Zombie Channel – taken over by another consciousness
- Psychological Zombie – robbed of will through something like hypnotism or brainwashing
- Cultural Zombie – has basic qualities of zombies, but without fantasy, science fiction or supernatural
- Zombie Ghost – not a zombie proper, it is returning from the dead but that doesn’t mean a zombie (though often there are many stories which conflate ghosts and zombies)
- Zombie Ruse – uses the word zombie but story does not contain zombies
Other scholars have allowed for agent zombies to be “true zombies”, in that it is not so much the will or personality of the person that is gone, but their very “personhood”, much as living slaves or refugees have agency, but do not have control over their lives. They lack human rights, legal status – basically, they lack power.
For more on this, check:
- Stratton, J. “Zombie Trouble: Zombie Texts, Bare Life and Displaced People.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 14.3 (2011): 265–281. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.
- Deborah Christie And the Dead Shall Walk (Better off Dead)
- Tyson E Lewis Ztopia: Lessons in a Post-Vital Politics in George A Romero’s Zombie Films (Generation Zombie)
This is actually irrelevant. The infected humans from 28 Days Later are zombies charging in to kill uninfected humans as much as the walking dead from any of the ‘of the dead’ movies. The only difference here is that a living zombie is much more easily stopped than an undead zombie, since mortal wounds will actually kill them.
I’d also add that this is not particularly as important. You have zombies, but zombies are not resurrected corpses (never call Frankenstein’s monster a zombie). As Tom states, 28 Days Later never actually says zombie (and from memory, the author’s explicitly stated that they are not zombies, they are living infected), but for the most part, we recognise them as such. Part of this confusion could possibly be attributed to the mangled hybridity of the zombie. Peter Dendle (2001) states how hard it is to narrowly define the zombie because of the substantial overlap with other movie monsters. Even Romero’s ghoul (that we now call zombie) was the child of Haitian Voodoo (as interpreted by a white Hollywood in the 30s and onwards) and Richard Matheson’s vampires in I Am Legend. There is no (or very little) memory of the Haitian Zombie now – the zombie is an intertextual monster.
One might say it has eaten itself…
The problems with zombies are their numbers, and numbers swell through two possible means: infection and natural attrition.
Infection is a standard mechanism for spreading the zombie state. This provides a mechanism through which the spread of zombies can be contained or even cured (or as in 28 Weeks Later, carried by infected yet immune hosts), or one through which a bite or bodily fluid splash will infect another human. I’m not a huge fan of fast infection myself (or fast zombies in general); I prefer sepsis and death, followed by resurrection. The dread of inevitable turning in the bitten/infected is much more powerful as a horror element than the 10 second turning from films such as 28 Days Later (I’m ignoring the World War Z movie because it’s just such a fucking terrible movie by every possible zombie yardstick).
This times infinity.
Natural attrition (ie. the dead rise again!) is a more interesting process. The Walking Dead TV series combines this with infection, saying everyone is infected but the infection doesn’t turn you into a zombie until you die. The powerful impact of a zombie plague spread through the natural process of death is that it fundamentally affects the human relationship with death. Modern western society already has death taboos, and if any person who dies becomes a zombie, then our relationship to accidents, disease and old age change significantly. Fido addresses this humorously (but effectively) using Public Service Announcements warning citizens not to trust the elderly.
The elderly; they seem friendly enough but can you really trust them? No. So don’t get caught off guard. – Fido (2006)
I like the differences Tom has drawn about infection vs natural attrition. Contemporary zombies are a gray space not just of alive/dead, but healthy/sick. As Peter Dendle writes in his updated book, the images are less graveyards and tombstones, but hazmat suits and containment areas. Quarantine. We can’t function alone, but togetherness brings death. We fear each other. As Schlozman (Triumph of the Walking Dead) argues, the zombies are walking manifestations of disease, they exist only to propagate the contagion within – no rhyme or reason.
Sarah Juliet Lauro (Generation Zombie) states that the modern zombie developed from both the spiritual and scientific, becoming a critique of the powers science had bestowed on humanity. Science wields much power, and from Google Glasses to AI to Designer Babies, society fears the impact it will have upon humanity. Despite the promises of utopia, we have learned to fear our growing knowledge.
That’s a good point. The tech-zombie as a human repurposed by technology lies right below the surface of our modern life, where we are lost in our smartphones and computers and internet connections. Charles Stross even uses a tongue-in-cheek improv zombiewalk in his excellent book Halting State, where a group of normal game players are summoned to make a zombie flash mob with the purpose (unbeknownst to them) of keeping the protagonist trapped in a hotel. Ironic social commentary or deadly premonition? You decide!
The core feature of zombies is their strength in numbers. A zombie that is supernaturally fast and strong is a monster, not a zombie. It’s a xenomorph. A wolfman. A tiny, tiny kaiju. If this ‘zombie’ is strong and fast enough to defeat a single prepared human easily, then its horrific power as a zombie is gone; it’s just another monster, now, maybe a mindless vampire or mutated beast. Adding a swarm of them just becomes overkill: it’s Aliens, it’s … generic monster movie. A perfect example of this kind of shitty zombie is in the overrated French zombie film La Horde. There’s one great scene in that film, where the characters execute a hooded prisoner and he comes back to life as a raving zombie. But the fucking thing single-handedly kills most of the people in the room… It’s just a monster. A single zombie in La Horde is an unstoppable force, so having hundreds just gets boring. Oh, except when the director wants a more traditional scene, and suddenly all the zombies seem to change into slower, weaker, more ‘trad’ zombies. I disapprove of this.
I’m not against rare special zombies – perhaps patient zero? – but really with a supernaturally empowered zombie, humanity has no bloody chance at all. It doesn’t become a story about survival because survival is impossible – there’s no hope at all.
Yeah, rare special zombies are fine.
In most stories, the zombie really has no distinct advantages over humans. One on one zombie isn’t much to fear, but instead death comes from being overwhelmed by the horde.
Or, all too often, from sheer complacency. My love of the ‘non-threatening’ zombie is that they aren’t a threat until you let your guard down. The sheer viciousness with which the freshly bitten Roger in the original Dawn of the Dead lashes out at the zombie that bit him reveals a deep seated rage at being touched by something as weak and lowly as a zombie; I felt flashes of a rich white plantation owner beating a slave to death.
To go one step too far, this aspect becomes particularly important when talking about zombie-human romances (my specialty!). The Vampire is seductive, their powers beyond mortal understanding and they have the wisdom of centuries. To be with a vampire, one must become a vampire because they are above humanity and better in so many ways (also sex: think of Klingons). But for zombies, there’s really no benefits to weigh up. You’ll rot, you’ll need medicine (or to slip under society’s radar and eat human flesh), you are limited in so many ways. Zombies never want their lovers to turn zombie, it’s such a frustrating and terrible existence that they wouldn’t want to impose on anyone. That works for non-romancey zoms too – it’s never something to be envied. It’s not something people want to become.
Undead zombies, as compared to living zombies, have no real supernatural powers other than being animated dead things. Apart from the difficulty of stopping something that cannot die (excepting the destruction of the brain, for narrative and cultural reasons more so than logic), this grants them no other real supernatural powers.
Agreed! The Vampire, the Werewolf, etc have distinct advantages over human kind. The zombie has none, really.
Except for that pesky endurance.
It’s not so pesky when we’re talking about zombie romance … *wink wink, nudge nudge*
Say. No. More!
To paraphrase the Doug Anthony All Stars, “Eventually the relationship started falling apart in my hands.”
A modern zombie is a regular human who is transformed through some mechanism to seek out other humans and kill them, with no regard to their own well-being. Any agency they have is generally overwhelmed by their primary purpose of killing other humans. The mechanism that turns a human into a zombie is either universal (ie. every dead person becomes a zombie), passed from zombie to human like an infection, or both.
What is a Zombie Movie?
Regardless of the mechanism for creating zombies, a zombie movie has to have a threat of zombie numbers inflating and overwhelming the human survivors. As we’ve established that zombies aren’t super monsters who can kill all of humanity by themselves, it is important that numbers grow and are difficult to contain. This obviously doesn’t mean there has to be some sort of infectious plague, but certainly there need to be overwhelming numbers or a constant threat.
I rather think of these creatures as having “Zombie Conditions”. There’s the constant debate over 28 Days Later, since they aren’t ‘technically’ zombies, but have certain characteristics that make them zombie-esque.
Civilization and society have collapsed, are threatening to collapse (or more rarely, are recovering from collapse) in a bona fide zombie movie. ‘Society’ is a broad definition, but for the purposes of the movie it covers all regular functions of civilization as they relate to the characters in the movie. So although the world at large is still OK in 28 Days Later, civilization in the United Kingdom has collapsed.
Yup! This is considered an essential feature of the genre – check out Robin Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond. It’s not just the disruption of normal life, but that life as it was can never be restored.
Even in a world where society is once again (mostly) stable (eg. Fido), the existence of zombies has to have fundamentally altered humanity’s relationship with death for the movie to count as a zombie movie.
And changed our relationships to each other. The old social and cultural constructions do not work for this world.
A zombie movie is a movie where society has collapsed, is in the process of collapsing, or is being rebuilt, because of the existence of zombies. A zombie movie focuses on the impact on society and the surviving humans due to the existence of zombies.
Generally, I see more stories about the point of impact – when the zombies rise. That’s one reason why I like the Walking Dead, about how life adapts to zombies over a long period of time.
I agree with Nyssa here – the majority of zombie stories focus on the actual point of collapse, because that’s where we most easily see characters adapting (and also provides maximum opportunity for bloody murder).
Wrapping it Up
(That wasn’t a mummy joke, although mummies trend towards a sub-set of undead, not so much zombies.)
Using these guidelines we can say this is a zombie movie:
- The Signal
And this is not:
- Dead Snow (entertaining though)
Add your thoughts in the comments, folks!
- Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, Peter Dendle. McFarland 2001. (Covers 1932-1989)
- Zombie Movie Encyclopedia: 2000-2010, Peter Dendle. McFarland 2012.
- Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture, ed.s Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz. McFarland 2011.
- Zombies are us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead, eds Christopher M Moremand and Cory James Rushton. McFarland 2011.
- American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, Kyle William Bishop. McFarland 2010.
- Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy: New life for the Undead, eds Richard Greene and K Silem Mohammad. Open Court 2010.
- Better off dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human, eds Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro. Fordham University Press 2011.
- Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader, eds Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui. Bloomsbury 2013.
- Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan – And Beyond, Robin Wood. Columbia University Press 2003.
- Triumph of the Walking Dead, ed James Lowder. Smart Pop 2011.