This post will be quick.
I was inspired by a student’s response to my lecture on the transition from early zombie cinema to Night of the Living Dead.
It’s an EXCELLENT New York Times article about the history of the zombie. I can’t say enough about this, so I’ll try not to say too much.
The ubiquity of zombies is something that fascinates, excites, and disturbs me. As the author of that NYT article explains, they are inextricably bound up in a really problematic, vicious, and brutal history of racism, colonialism, and imperialism. No matter what kind of zombie you are evoking, it is citing this history.
Furthermore, films that set out with no intention at all of reproducing or replaying moments of this problematic, cited history, are constantly doing so: it is not an unfortunate coincidence that the starving, test-subject zombie near the end of 28 Days Later is a collared and chained African American man; just as it is no unfortunate coincidence that the character of Selena wields a machete.
I screened Night of the Living Dead for my class today (ENGL 165 CI). About 5 students showed up and I felt pretty good about that — 7PM the night before the biggest day of celebration in UCSB, screening a film in the public domain… not bad.
What I tried to emphasize to these students is that no matter how much we alter, and westernize, and ‘update’ the zombie — and even the very first zombie films (White Zombie, King of the Zombies, I Walked With a Zombie, etc) alter and westernize this figure — it will ALWAYS bear the traces of its dark history.
There are a number of reasons that the zombie has become such a cultural figure in the US today. It is a figure for a future that defies imagining — despite a few stories, books, and films on the contrary — no one knows what it would be LIKE to be a zombie. It is the telos of our nightmares and our utopian dreams, the figure we know that we will all become and the figure we recoil at the sight, smell, or sound of. The zombie is at once Hardt’s and Negri’s multitude, the uncontrollable mass or crowd, and the abused slave majority. The zombie is an allegory waiting to be made, an empty vessel waiting to be filled with representational meaning… but that vessel is never TRULY empty, it always bears inside it the materials and context of its creation.
Keep this in mind the next time you see the ADA’s new campaign about “Zombie Mouth” or the next ad for a zombie film.
I’m not saying don’t consume it, or don’t enjoy it, just enjoy it with caution and with care, lest you ingest something that you don’t want to… after all as Murder Legendre says in White Zombie, “Just a pinpoint is all that’s needed.”