Originally written: 3 April 2010
Dead, White, and Blue: Analyzing Zombies in American Popular Cinema
Some call them living dead. Others know them as undead. However, to the overwhelming majority of audiences, they’re zombies. They’ve had their nights and days; Dawns, lands, and even diaries, but ultimately they are after one thing and one thing only, consuming human flesh. Zombies are unique from classical Hollywood monsters because they are fairly recent to the big screen. While the idea of zombies were first seen in White Zombie (1932) as mindless undead slaves doing a masters bidding, George Romero reinvented the genre in 1968 with his independent low-budget film Night of the Living Dead (1968). Since that film’s release, the idea of undead after human brains has evolved greatly. At first, zombies were slow and thoughtless, but with films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Resident Evil (2002), zombies took a different approach and were portrayed as visceral, lightning-quick killing machines. Nevertheless, zombies have been an influential and important part of American cinema and popular culture for almost the past decade. There have been plenty of headshots over the years, but year after year, zombies just won’t seem to die. Zombies have continued to stay relevant for the better part of 80 years. After briefly analyzing the history and origins of the concepts of zombies, multiple reasons will be presented as to why zombies are relevant to the American culture and lifestyle for the following reasons: their ties to Christianity, their representation of consumerism, the parallels to terrorism in post-9/11 America, and how the survival of zombie apocalypse ultimately represents established community.
. While it may seem that the creation of zombies in horror is rooted in the creativity of American early cinema, zombies are actually deeply rooted in the rituals and customs of Haitian Voodoo. According to Elizabeth McAlister, ethnographer at Wesleyan University who observed the rituals of a Haitian voodoo practicer, “a ‘zonbi’ is part of the soul that is stolen and made to work.” Once raised from the dead by a sorcerer, or bokor, the zonbi has no will of its own. It lives to simply carry out the tasks set before it by the bokor. While the current manifestation of zombies is a physical being, zonbi are just trapped souls, housed in nkisi. The zonbi in voodoo culture are created from souls who experienced death prematurely, killed by magic source, or simply not by God’s will. It is ultimately believed that the zonbi will be enslaved by the owner until their work is done in the eyes of God (McAlister). The zombie most people think of, the undead physical being, is the zombi astral. In Haitian folklore, no fate is worse than becoming a zombie. The zombie is seen as a manifestation of emptiness, vacancy, and nothingness. Zombies are ultimately a sign of dispossession, having no control of one’s self (Dayan). We can see that the zombie is not only an important being in Haitian voodoo, it also serves as a metaphor for the long-running slavery that Haiti has experienced in the past.
. After explaining the roots of zombie in Haitian culture and history, it is vital to now look at how the concept of zombies has evolved into various metaphors and manifestations in American culture. While they might have been based in voodoo rituals, when analyzing them in American culture, zombies can be seen a manifestation of many elements from Christianity, which is heavily prevalent in the foundation of American society. In the story of Adam and Eve, Eve committed the first sin by biting the forbidden fruit. Mankind was cursed for all eternity because of that simple bite, cast from the Garden of Eden to live a life of pain and sin (Genesis 3:1–12). We see a similar concept in zombie culture. A human cannot become a zombie until they have been bitten by a zombie. By this observation, we see that zombies can be considered a metaphor for sin. They have become a physical manifestation of the pain and evil that humans are subjected to and humanity can only avoid falling into that life of sin by resisting, or fighting, the zombie bite, much in the same way humanity would have been saved from sin by resisting the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. This is culturally relevant because Christianity is the most prevalent and influential religion in America.
There are also many other parallels between zombie culture and Christianity. As previously stated, the root of the zombie is a soul who has been resurrected. We see this in Christianity through the story of the savior, Jesus Christ, who was killed, buried, and rose from the dead. When speaking of Jesus Christ, it is also important to note that Jesus advises his disciples to eat his bread and drink his wine, symbolizing the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood (Luke 22:7–23). Another story found in the bible, featuring Jesus is the story of Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus restored to life after four days of death. Here, Lazarus is paralleled to the Haitian zonbi, in the sense that he was a follower of Jesus and Jesus brought him back to life for Lazarus to work as his follower (John 11:1–44).
We’ve seen some similarities between zombie culture and Christianity, but ultimately it is vital to note why Americans find them frightening. While analyzing this through a Christian looking glass, the results are rather clear. Zombies represent the embodiment of sin and Hell, the one thing Christian followers fear the most. As stated in the tagline for the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, “when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” When viewing zombies in cinema, the zombie apocalypse represents a full disregard for the Christian lifestyle; so many individuals have sinned that Hell itself has become full and there is no where else for them to go but to invade the realm of the living. When taking the analysis to its Haitian roots, the zombies in films are souls brought back to life to work for Satan, to feed on the living. This is the absolute worst result for Christian believers, which adds to the popularity of zombie films in the Christian audience. The audience connects with the survivors, because they are fighting to survive against the onslaught of satanic forces.
Along with the parallels to Christianity, zombie films are relevant in the American lifestyle because the zombies’ lack of any personal will and seemingly insatiable desire for flesh and brains can be translated as a metaphor for consumerism and capitalism. It’s no surprise that consumption is prevalent in mainstream American culture, especially with the rise of suburban living and the advent of shopping malls following WWII. The ultimate satire of consumerism in zombie film is Dawn of the Dead and its 2004 remake. In the remake film, a woman wakes in her home to find the world around her destroyed; surrounded by flesh-hungry zombies. She manages to flee her home and meet up with fellow survivors. Running low on options, the survivors find refuge in an abandoned shopping mall. While they initially feel safe in the mall, the threat of infection arises when the undead hoards seemingly instinctually make their way and surround the shopping mall. Clearly, this is a commentary on the effects of consumerism having such an important role in American culture, in the sense that even after their mortal souls have been converted to the forces of the undead, they still somehow manage to find their way to the heart of consumption.
Another example of capitalism being found in zombie films can be found in the recent zombie film Zombieland (2009). In the movie, four survivors are attempting to make their way to a safe haven on the Pacific coast, free from zombie infection. While traveling across country, Tallahassee, a somewhat rebel-without-a-cause, is found driving a supped-up pickup truck, which eventually gets stolen. Instead of simply picking up the next closest vehicle, he goes out of his way to find a worthy vehicle, a flashy yellow Hummer. He could have had any other vehicle, of capitalism and over-consumption’s effect on American culture. Additionally in Zombieland is a sequence in which the characters are in need of a place to stay. With the obvious outbreak in zombie infestation, the four survivors could simply stay any place that they find safe. We find capitalism’s effect on their decision in the fact that instead of staying in a sturdy, seemingly impenetrable and uninfected building, the survivors seek out safety in the swanky, multimillion dollar, Beverly Hills home of actor Bill Murray. There is then a montage of the survivors indulging in all the top-dollar commodities that American celebrities live in. Drinking fine wine, hitting golf balls off a balcony, enjoying a private movie theater, using fine china for target practice; all things that are results of American consumption and consumerism.
Zombies as a metaphor for consumerism in American culture can be expanded from looking at looking at examples in film to looking at the actions of zombies themselves. Zombies are insatiable in their quest to consume the flesh of living humans. The hoards do not stop after a few brains, they have no will telling them that they are satisfied with what they have consumed. Zombies are consumers. They know only goal and that is to feast, to consume. Clearly, this can be seen as a direct parallel to the American consumer. Lauro and Embry, from the University of California-Davis Department of English, state the American-zombie connection almost perfectly by saying, “The zombie, we feel, is a more pessimistic but nonetheless more appropriate stand-in for our current moment, and specifically for America in a global economy, where we feed off the products of the rest of the planet, and, alienated from our own humanity, stumble forward, groping for immortality even as we decompose (Lauro).” Consumption in America is unlike anywhere else in the world. American consumers have endless wants, and while they might not be as simple as just brains, the satisfaction they are looking for is seemingly one more product out of reach. We find this evident in many examples of American culture. For example, there might not necessarily be a need for multiple vehicles, but there are many occasions that the American consumers are simply not satisfied with having just enough to get by. This analysis can be expanded to many fronts of American consumers. Is there a need for a television in every room? Is there a need to wait twelve hours in-line to be an early adopter of an iPhone or iPad? In nearly all cases, there is no need to consume this way, but consumption is almost to an instinctual level for most Americans. Perhaps this is another reason why zombie films are highly popular and relatable in America. The mindless consumption of the zombies is at such a grotesque level that consumers see that and find comfort in the fact that they have not yet reached such a level.
The religious connections and parallels to consumption might contribute to the overall popularity of zombies and zombie films in America, but in the past decade, there has been a great resurgence in the popularity of such films. As Kyle Bishop, lecturer in English at Southern Utah University and self- proclaimed expert on the “zombie renaissance”, puts it:
Because the after effects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters so closely resemble the scenarios of zombie cinema, such images of death and destruction have all the more power to shock and terrify a population that has become otherwise jaded by more traditional horror films. One such reason for this is because in post-9/11 American culture, there has been an overwhelming increase in the fear of terrorism (18).
The terrorist attacks of September 11th changed American’s perception of safety. All of a sudden, the lines became blurry as to who is in fact an enemy. Perceptions of who could cause harm to others soon expanded to include everyone in the general public. Airport security increased to the level where no one could be truly trusted. Some children across the country now found themselves unable to fly because their name appeared on the national no-fly list. Anyone could be searched because of a suspicious fluid in a carry-on bag. Terror hasn’t been limited to the skies, either. School and campus shootings have occurred across the country. Recently, a terrorist group was arrested in Michigan, with intent to overthrow the government. The Hutaree is a self-proclaimed Christian militia, who planned on faking a 911 call, killing the officer that would arrive on the scene, and then bombing the funeral to murder other officers attending. The Hutaree arrested were eight white males and a white female, ages spanning from 19 to 46 (Ashenfelter). These recent events only strengthen the evidence that now, more than ever, anyone can potentially create destruction and wreak havoc on the masses.
With the increased attention given to terrorism, we have seen a correlating increase in zombie films. This is for the reason that zombies themselves represent the underlying fact that a person is never truly sure of who might be one to harm them. Warren St. John, American author, writes “it does not take much of a stretch to see the parallel between zombies and anonymous terrorists who seek to convert others within society to their deadly cause. The fear that anyone could be a suicide bomber or a hijacker parallels a common trope of zombie films, in which healthy people are zombified by contact with other zombies and become killers (St. John).” In the remake to Dawn of the Dead, the film opens with Ana, the lead character, coming home from work. She stops her car to have a chat with a sweet little girl next door, who shows her that she has learned how to skate backwards. The two continue chatting for a little while, and it is clear that there is bond or connection between the two. Ana then goes inside and gets in bed with her boyfriend. Then the two are seen in the shower together and it’s clearly established that there is a deep emotional connection. The next morning, Ana awakes to the little girl standing in the doorway to her bedroom, with half of her jaw missing. The little girl that was once so sweet has become a blood-thirsty zombie overnight and after biting Ana’s boyfriend, he too turns his allegiance against her in a violent effort to consumer her flesh. There are additional examples of loved-ones becoming zombies later in the film which help further enforce the connection between zombies and terrorists. In analyzing why American culture has responded to such on-screen depictions, it is plausible to argue that the audiences in some ways feel that their own relationships are more secure by seeing the relationships of others fall apart, almost in the mentality that “it just happened to them, so it can’t happen to me.” In some ways, there is a sick, backwards comfort in seeing the comfort of others on-screen, since what is on-screen is not reality, there is reinforcement the reality audiences feel with their own lives.
Although the increase in attention paid to terrorism has increased popularity in zombie films, ultimately zombie films are relevant to American culture because of their representations of community, which is relatable to by all audiences. America was founded on communities, groups of individuals coming together to create something new, something better for them. Everyone has a connection to a community; they surround us. When looking at communities, it is important to realize that the term goes deeper than just community as a hometown or where someone lives. A community is a group that a person can personally relate to. A community for someone might be defined by their ethnicity or sexual orientation, by common interests or religion. Everyone knows how it feels to be included in a community. For the most part, they stand as a beacon of safety. This can be translated into the appeal of zombie films when looking at those surviving the zombie apocalypse.
As previously mentioned, the recent zombie film Zombieland is the tale of four people traveling across the zombie-infested nation to hopefully find solace in an amusement park on the Pacific coast. The character of Columbus is originally a loner, traveling alone, with his strict set of rules for surviving the zombie onslaught. Columbus is originally trying to make his way back to the same-named city in Ohio, to hopefully reconnect with his family, with his community. He meets up with Tallahassee, who seems to fight zombies for no reason, but it is revealed that his son was lost in the outbreak. Tallahassee lost the one thing that meant most to him and his community was broken apart. Two more characters, Wichita and Little Rock, are two girls that have come together in hopes to make it across the country. Initially, they dupe the two males out of their weapons and vehicles, but it is soon realized that the four of them stand the best chance working together. They find comfort and safety in the common ground that they have no real options left. In one way it is a forced community, but they make deep, heart-felt bonds in sharing experiences of their individual struggles.
Another example of community showing its importance in zombie films is in the 2004 romantic zombie comedy, or romzomcom, Shaun of the Dead. In the film, we see the rather mundane life of Shaun, an electronics salesman and overall slacker, and how his life is changed after an unexplained zombie outbreak. Shaun is living with his stoner-slacker best friend, Ed and uptight roommate Pete, whom they both can’t stand. After a day receiving little respect at work, Shaun gets dumped by his girlfriend Liz, for not making reservations for their anniversary. Obviously deeply emotionally distraught, Ed takes Shaun to the local pub for some drinks to cheer him up. This sequence does a great job of showing the importance of Shaun’s relationships, especially with his best friend. After the zombie outbreak, Shaun attempts to save his mother and stepfather, who he has a rough relationship with. Throughout the film, Shaun is forced to face the reality that stepfather admittedly loves him, but is bitten. His mother gets bitten and must be killed and in the end, even his best friend gets bitten in an ultimate sacrifice to save Shaun’s life. Here, it seems like every relationship around him is falling apart, but the struggles of survival only help rebuild the relationship and love between Shaun and Liz. Also, despite being turned into a zombie, the film ends with Shaun sitting down with Ed, who is locked up in a shed, for a round a video games.
Both examples highlight the necessity for community, especially in surviving the zombie takeover. When we extrapolate this analysis to normal human relationships, we see that it still holds true. Zombie films are popular in American culture because audiences can connect with those surviving because surviving implies a sense of community. Philip Horne, literary critic at the University College London, pinpoints the isolation found in zombie films by saying “the few surviving individuals are in danger of going the same bad way as almost the whole rest of society; it’s a world of zombies (Horne). In zombie films, it is very rare that the final survivor is just one lone soul, even if the survivors are only two people. Audiences find comfort in being able to relate to being apart of something and not being alone. Seeing individuals survive a situation that is clearly worse than anything the audience is experiencing is symbolic of hope for most audiences. In zombie films, seeing people survive gives the audiences a boost in the belief that they too can get over whatever might be ailing them. They can relate with the survivors going from being hopeless individuals to being strong, safe survivors who have found a place they can be safe with others like them.
The representations of on-screen zombies resonate throughout American culture in many ways. Zombies and their films resonate through the Christian audience through its representation of sin and Hell on Earth. American consumerism and consumption can be found metaphorically represented in most zombie films, especially Dawn of the Dead, a satire on American capitalism. Additionally, there has been a resurgence of zombie films since the terrorist events of September 11th. This is due largely in part for the representation of zombies as a parallel for the fact that with the increased awareness of terrorism, American audiences connect with on-screen survivors surviving increasingly terrifying events of the nonstop zombie onslaught. Finally, zombie films in American culture have remained popular for the better part of eighty years because of the depictions of community and individuals coming together to survive an attack or overcome insurmountable odds. It is clear that zombie films have a special place in American culture. First brought to screen in the 1930s, it is hard to believe that American audiences will rise up against the on-screen zombie onslaught. When it comes to the popularity of zombie films in American culture, audiences have clearly been bitten, with no intention of turning back.
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