Britain’s The Sun, which I hear is being read RIGHT NOW by Kate Middleton to relieve her labor pains, owns this article. They published a shorter version today and paid me amazingly handsomely for it, so if they want me to take this down, I of course will do so! But until then, please enjoy my essay below on why “Zombies are what society fears.”
The zombie is what society fears.
Brad Pitt’s World War Z, which opens this week as the most expensive zombie movie ever made, may feature a type of undead menace that’s brand-new to the genre — socially cooperative revenants, able to make bridges to scale over high walls or to herd humans together for easier hunting — but the new film is just the latest example of the zombie as a cinematic reflection of underlying fears in a society, as it has been during every era since its inception in 1932.
Take that first zombie movie, “White Zombie” starring Bela Lugosi as a sorcerous zombie master, in control of legions of the undead who work on his sugar plantation until they are crushed in machinery or dispatched by the taste of salt (yes, salt) or falls from great heights.
At the time of that American film, the early 1930s, the U.S. was embroiled in skirmishes and protection activity in Haiti, with many of the men then serving coming home with stories of (as William Seabrook put it in his 1928 book that inspired the movie) “dead men working in the cane fields.”
The fears expressed in that first zombie movie were threefold: First, the U.S. was fearful of the strange land in Haiti where Americans were risking themselves, so that fear made (undead) flesh was horrifying.
Second, the United States was still a hotly racist society in many places, and the story of a white woman (the “white zombie” of the title) being made into a creature that consorted with Haitian Black men struck a chord not just among bigots but also among people imagining themselves more enlightened but who feared the “Black menace” subconsciously.
And finally, Haiti became a home for the ancestors of Black residents now because they were brought their as slaves to harvest sugar cane, freedom from toil coming only at their deaths. Imagine, then, the horror of being made to work forever as an undead slave, creatures not sharing the island nation’s unshackling from France in 1804.
The zombie is what society fears, even when they don’t realize what it is exactly that they fear.
But the zombies of modern times aren’t voodoo zombies with a master controlling them — in fact, part of their skin-crawling appeal is that NOTHING controls them, other than their insatiable hunger. That is terrifying, and so is the idea that a person can be “infected” by a zombie and become one him- or herself!
The first contagious zombies were portrayed in 1957’s “The Zombies of Mora Tau,” in which people were made into zombies by radiation, and as everyone during that period knew from atomic bomb preparation, coming into contact with something radioactive makes YOU radioactive. And is it surprising that during the Red Scare of the late ’50s, the ultimate horror was being turned in an unthinking, dangerous “zombie”? The Communists were trying to infect individual-minded Americans in the exact same way!
In 1968, however, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” changed the popular conception of a zombie forever. No magic was involved here (possibly technology in the form of a space probe returning from Venus), no radiation. In this film, anyone who died during that last day came back to life, insatiably hungry for human flesh. This was the beginning of the zombie as cannibal that we know so well today … but it was much more than that.
Romero’s genius was in having the cannibalism on the living, possibly humanity’s most unbreakable taboo, be the agent that infected the victim and made him or her into a zombie — who then feasted upon living humans and continued the cycle. It was completely new, completely disgusting and horrifying on both a visceral and an existential level. He continued and refined this idea through five more “Dead” films.
That was Romero’s genius, but his luck was that the film was made at a time when racial tension was at its very highest in the U.S., and his film portrayed the White (living) fear of a rapidly procreating, violent, and society-destroying Black (undead) menace. The real stroke of luck, however, was when the filmmakers noticed that the best actor among them to play the lead was Duane Jones … who was as middle-class-looking as he was African-American. It turned everything in “Night” inside out and the racial undertones made into a fascinating Möbius strip of paranoia, irony, and disgust.
Romero continued with “Dawn of the Dead,” which, coming out in 1978, posited the zombie as “mindless consumer” trapping the living in a shopping mall — where the survivors turned into mindless consumers of a different kind. It was social comment of the highest order in the very lowest-brow form of entertainment, the monster movie.
Later “Dead” movies took on the militarism of the Reagan/Thatcher years, gated communities, and social media, always using the zombie as, on one level, an incisive commentary and on another as a gross-out monster perfect for the drive-in cinema.
By then, Romero’s way of doing things caught on with other filmmakers, who found they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time and could just use the concept of the “Romero zombie” of whom everyone knew the rules: slow, shambling, cannibalistic, dead.
But as modern life sped up, so did its undead; in fact, 2002’s “28 Days Later …” featured zombies who could run FAST and weren’t even actually dead, just suffering from a virus that made them bite and infect others. In 2004’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” the zombies were again dead but now ran with almost superhuman speed.
Is it any coincidence that the beginning of the century saw SARS outbreaks and other contagions that required many people packed together in large cities in order to spread? Or that more than ever in the 2000s, on many people’s minds is the end of days, brought on by disease or nuclear war or Judgment Day or even something as banal but deadly as the water running out? Again, the zombie is what society fears.
And that remains the case with the new and big-budget “World War Z.” The movie gets its title from Max Brooks’s brilliant “oral history of the zombie war,” but in the book the walking dead are 100 percent Romero zombies — while in the new movie, they are nothing the zombie movie has done before.
In “WWZ” the zombies are nice and undead, but now they not only run fast but they also swarm and cooperate like colonies of ants or bees, making structures with their body and herding prey in a way that benefits the superorganism. This is very much like social insects, where an individual seems purposeless and lost, but the more of them there are, the more emergent their behavior towards a goal.
But glamorous movie stars and $150 million dollar budget or no, a zombie movie portrays what society fears, and “WWZ” gives us zombies for an era of paranoia about terrorist cells and sleeper agents, when the enemy we fear works in concert with others, none of them capable of much damage by themselves but hugely dangerous the more of them there are.
It’s no accident in the new movie’s trailers that zombies take down airliners and destroy buses full of people — that’s what terrorists create terror by doing. And anyone with exposure to the right combination of people and situation can become a terrorist, just as anyone can become a zombie. You can’t tell by looking at them if it’s your friend or just someone who is now turned against you.
“World War Z” is far from the first and won’t be the last movie to show us what frightens us most by wrapping it in an exciting and traditionally scary cinematic experience. Whatever is perceived as the next big, scary threat to society, that’s where you’ll find the zombie, shambling into the nightmares of the time.