On the Metaphorical Significance of the Modern Zombie

[A talk given by ZAC member Gabriel Squailia as part of a panel discussion on zombies presented at BAMCon, the first annual Berkshire Anime & Manga Convention.]

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I have a knee-jerk reaction to contemporary zombie stories: “Well, this isn’t about zombies at all.” It’s what I said when I got to the second scene of The Walking Dead, and after I finished that first episode I started ranting to a coworker that the show wasn’t horror: it was a story set in a horror environment in roughly the same way that the show Angel is set in Los Angeles.

But it’s not about zombies.

That’s a formulation that begs the question, “What is a story that is about zombies really about, then?” And that, to me, is unclear.

If we were talking about vampires or werewolves I’d be on more solid ground. Those are ancient evils, evils with pedigrees, evils whose well-advertised weaknesses tell us as much about their secret meanings as do their cravings for particular parts of the human form. If zombies still had sorcerers pulling their strings — even if they still hungered for brains — they could be the third column of this unholy trinity. As it is, they’re too diffuse to pin down as a metaphor.

In some sense this is Romero’s fault. The zombie of today owes as much to George Romero as your average axe-wielding dwarf owes to Tolkien. Zombie stories don’t need to establish their terrain any more; we’re so accustomed to the notion of the mysterious and apocalyptic plague and the wholesale cranial destruction that is its only solution that the second we see a peripatetically-challenged corpse in a celluloid landscape, we already know the score. Don’t tell us how it started: we already know it’s vague and probably has to do with government scientists.

But a plague isn’t evil. A plague, however harmful it may be, means us no harm. A plague, like a government, is an unfortunate fact of life on Earth, and that’s one of the clues to the hidden meaning of the modern zombie.

As regards that hidden meaning, I’m tempted to say that zombies represent our discomfort with aging and death. I’m tempted to call them apolitical embodiments of the violence of war. I’m tempted to define them as products of the collective guilt of the American empire, shambling nightmares that the slow-moving hordes of the Third World will one day overtake us by way of sheer volume, but the truth is that zombies are more and less than all of these things.

Try to pin down a zombie and another zombie will catch up with you: this is true in an action sequence, and it’s true with the slippery myth-making of these second- and third-generation tales of the undead.

At this point in my tirade, you may be asking yourself, “Is this elected official of the Zombie Action Committee actually arguing against the validity of the fictional creature that has given him not only the coveted title of At-Large Cabal Member but the inspiration and psychic stuffing for his locally-buzzed-about but apparently-unpublishable novel DEAD BOYS?” To which I reply: almost.

Almost, but not quite, because whatever zombies are not, they are creatures that have appeared in my dreams, and no dream is irrelevant to its dreamer.

I, Gabriel Squailia, have mowed down hundreds if not thousands of these brown-ooze-puking, custard-eyeball-having, intestine-scarf-wearing motherfuckers, and I loved every second of it. I have slain zombies on beachheads, I have slain zombies in forests, I have slain zombies in office buildings, and tonight, who knows, I may slay zombies in the Crowne Royal.

What’s more, I know why I slay zombies in my dreams. It’s the same reason these thematically ambiguous zombie tales are popular, and it comes down to the one scene that is an unalterable constant in the genre: what would you do if your (insert loved one here) was trying to chew your face off?

This scene is the crux, or at the least a grace note, in every modern zombie story because it forces us to look hard at ourselves and answer the question of whether or not we’d have the courage to survive a direct attack by our undead parents, our undead spouses, our undead children, our undead best friends.

And that question is exactly why today’s zombies are relevant. They, in and of themselves, may lack the metaphoric oomph of vampires or lycanthropes, but while vampire stories may deal with swooning heroines we could care less about, zombie stories are always about us.

If it happened tomorrow, who would you be? Would you be the first one eaten, or the one who flies the chopper to freedom?

Do you have the ingenuity, the grit, the flexibility, the brass-plated cojones to finish the movie alive?

Zombies aren’t important for their own qualities, they’re important because of ours. They’re important because we might not be able to imagine ourselves going to war for our country, we might not be able to imagine ourselves going to war against the newly-independent states of the Bible Belt, but we can all imagine ourselves going to war against a festering mob of erstwhile neighbors and friends whose very stench forgives us for what we’re about to do to them.

Zombies give us the promise of violence without guilt, because eww; because what were you going to do, let them go bite someone else?

More importantly, they give us a way to imagine ourselves as heroes just the way we are, without the benefit of gym bodies, martial arts skills, or tactical training. They allow us to imagine ourselves kicking ass, wreaking havoc, and winning, largely because they are slow and incredibly stupid, so the bar’s kind of conveniently low.

The encounter with zombies is telling because the qualities it prizes are the very qualities we need to succeed in the most difficult times of our lives.

The only reasonable conclusion is that the metaphorical definition of zombie qua zombie is beside the point.

What counts is what the zombie can teach us about ourselves.

On behalf of the Zombie Action Committee: Joe and Jane Zombie, we salute you. By trying to make us a meal, you’ve made us realize who we are.

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