It had to end eventually. Zombies, the pop-culture obsession poised to eclipse vampires, are themselves being eclipsed — not by some third kind of ghoul but by reality.
It turns out it’s not that funny to compare disturbed cannibalistic homeless people and porn-actor psychopaths to those wacky, lovable undead. It turns out that it’s not so easy to make a big-budget, proper zombie film about the planetary apocalypse known as World War Z.
The value of zombies has always been to focus our energies on what we can’t handle. It turns out that zombies can no longer handle us.
It’s not for lack of trying. Since their debut in the public consciousness decades ago, zombies have gamely transformed right along with America.
In the 1930s, they were creepily quasi-sexual beings, characters in a transgressive world that would never belong on a list of stuff white people like. The very concept of a White Zombie carried a titillating sort of dread. “With these zombie eyes,” reads a poster for that film, “he rendered her powerless. With this zombie grip” — No! Yes! — “he made her perform his every desire!”
Leave it to the Cold War to ruin the fun. 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, with its rare black hero, lugged its own racial baggage. But it wasn’t until the 1990 remake that director George Romero felt comfortable writing jokes like “They’re horny, Barbara. They’ve been dead a long time.”
Late ’60s zombies had nothing thrilling about them. Alien and inexorable, they threatened to pull the living into lifeless anonymity. Our pop terror over totalitarianism — 1968 also gave us “I’m not a number! I am a free man” — never had it so good as the zombies who put the cherry on top of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers era.
By ’68, of course, an undercurrent of social decay and civil unrest had also wormed its way into the zombie corpus. 1970s zombies were social critics — or the victims of bottom-feeding genres like (yes) Blaxploitation. In one ’74 picture, one human flips over mid-massage to discover he’s at the mercy of flesh-eating revenants. Sometimes the social commentary and the bottom-feeding went together: there were child zombies and Nazi zombies. Ten years after Night of the Living Dead, Romero put his zombies in a mega mall, where survivors holed up with everything an American consumer could desire but sanity and better odds. The dwindling cast winds up plagued more by a marauding biker gang than the bored, aimless undead; meanwhile, the government bickers while the U.S. falls.
The ’80s, so comfortable with the ridiculous, gave us ridiculous zombies in spades. America was treated to the catchphrase “BRAIIINNNSSS.” The Evil Dead films were released. Instead of an inexplicable event, the rise of the dead came courtesy of readily-lampooned evil scientists and military brass. Return of the Living Dead 2 culminates in the line: “No more brains … for now.” Lots of characters are teens.
Slowly but steadily, zombies lost their alien quality, becoming people just like you and me. Return of the Living Dead 3 told the merely unintentionally funny tale of a boy and his slowly zombifying girlfriend, whose dad was — shock, horror — the chief power-monger at the local military base. For the last word about the role of zombies in pop culture during the 1990s, there’s nothing more final than Death Becomes Her.
Our renaissance of seriousness during the past ten years has given us 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, and a whole lot besides. But then there’s the Resident Evil series, which shines a brighter light on where we’ve taken our zombies. Under the withering gunfire of Milla Jovovich and company, zombies are little more than socially, morally acceptable murder objects — non-person humans we can be okay with slaughtering.
The trouble here isn’t that some mentally bent viewers are apt to run out and treat their fellow man like the made-up gorebuckets they see on their 60-inch plasma screens at home. Rather than what our zombie fantasies do to us, we should be more concerned about what we’re doing to our zombie fantasies: coarsening them, in an especially vapid and jaded way. Try as some aficionados might to put a cool or surprising spin on the fact, zombies today are mostly a self-consciously cultivated reminder that, as Glen puts it in that deathy Mad Men episode, “everything turns out crappy.” Or, as Freud put it, “I can hardly tell you how many things I (a new Midas) turn into —”
Well, the German word is Dreck, which you could translate as “filth,” if you were trying hard not to be scatological. Confronted with a world turning to crap, zombies now give us the opportunity to mockingly revel in that fact. That’s why the recent, media-framed rash of cannibalistic killings has been met with a wave of deadpan, post-shame zombie humor.
And that’s why our time with zombies has to come to an end. After making them stagger, stumble, gnaw, and explode for lo these many years, there’s nothing left for us to do to these poor creatures but give them a decent burial.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.