I begin with a question: Izzit just me, or have zombies largely taken over popular movie and text culture in the United States? I do not think it is just me. Now, please understand at the outset: I do not ask this question rancorously, or with the least pejorative intent. Fact is, I like “zombie lit”! I am into the 13-volume-and-counting Kindle-book Arisen cycle of zombie lit, by Stephen Michael Fuchs and Glynn James, and D. J. Molles' The Remaining saga of I-don’t-know-how-many volumes. Ditto Max Brooks' World War Z, both movie and book. I have seen, and loved, Abraham Lincoln vs. the Zombies. Ditto Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I am an over-the-top fan of Fear the Walking Dead, The Walking Dead, and Z-Nation. When I take a sabbatical from reading about the history and interpretive methodologies of the US Constitution, I usually gravitate toward an imaginary world centered in the “Zulu Alpha” (ZA – “Zombie Apocalypse”, for the uninitiated -- though "ZA" has other technical, and less repeatable, meanings in American naval slang). Though altogether unintentionally, I even walked like a zombie – maybe a Walking Dead extra – back when my sciatica was much worse than now. So I have nothing to prove to anyone vis a vis “zombie-philic cred”: I am down with zombies, yo? Rather, I ask because zombies, the ZA, etc., have achieved such remarkable longevity as cultural memes. I am curious as to why. Disco did not last this long, nor did grunge. Nor did the Johnson campaign in ’16. And let's pass mercifully over Trump's nano-second homoerotic-adjacent bromance with Scaramucci. So anyway ... why zombies? And why now?
If I can serious up for a minute -- dammit! that hurts! -- the following is my take on the answers.
I believe that zombies have begun to shamble about the cultural landscape because Western culture is preoccupied now with a kind of subliminal collective awareness that the European Enlightenment, which, ever since the middle 1600s, formed the moral, political, and intellectual compass for that culture, is at the very least endangered -- and may well be coming to an end. Increasingly, the dominant replacement paradigm is some form of postmodernist moral and epistemological nihilism. This Zeitgeist has, up until recent years, been articulated self-consciously and on a strictly theoretical level only in university departments of philosophy and linguistic studies. Postmodernist skepticism has been a subject of ongoing debate in, e.g., English departments, since sometime in the 1960s and Jacques Derrida's inaugural series of lectures on language and meaning at Johns Hopkins. But this was still on a strictly theoretical / academic level.
The critical difference is that now, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the ideology of postmodernism has escaped from the biosafety-level-4 containment of academic departments to infect practical politics, economics, and commerce. Over the last couple of years, I have written on this subject of postmodernist ideology escaping into the cultural ecosystem from its previously sequestered environment in university departments, partly as an attempt to provide a kind of "thanks-I-needed-that" slap in the face and partly also to strategize about ways to preserve the Enlightenment project through what may prove to be a coming cultural, political, and even scientific dark age.
So what does this have to do with the zombie meme?
I would argue ... Everything. Really persistent cultural memes often enact, or re-enact, on a smaller scale, what the culture perceives to be happening for real on a larger scale, and doing so through a rather elaborate retinue of semiotic conventions. Two examples:
o Think of the elaborate, overly refined, hyper-rococo style of dress, speech, and deportment, coupled with over-the-top secularism (not just secularity) and cynical skepticism about religion, that characterized Restoration England. England had been wracked by wave after sanguinary wave of religious war and political conflict that devastated the nation economically and militarily, followed by the protracted disaster of Cromwell and the rape of Ireland, only to have the nation end up back where it started with Charles II's return in 1660 -- all in less than a dozen years, if we begin counting from Charles I's beheading in 1649. Hence the resurgent cynicism about religion, morals, and politics, manifesting itself in elaborate practices in dress and physical deportment. England acted out in popular culture the consequences of the Restoration.
o Or think of the analogously exhausted socio-political culture of Weimar Germany in the inter-war years that so haunts us in the bittersweet, merry nihilism of Liza Minelli singing “Cabaret”. Everything had fallen apart socially, politically, militarily, and economically in 1919. Also diplomatically, in the wake of the Versailles humiliation. So in the cabaret culture, Germany acted out on the “micro” level the kind of “aw-t’hell-with-it-all” attitude that came to prevail in the culture on the “macro” level. “Life is a cabaret, old chum!”
So how is this analogous to the peculiar durability of the zombie cultural meme in the US of the second decade of the 21st century? There are several similarities that run in parallel with analogous aspects of both the English Restoration and Weimar Germany -- all replicated in miniature in zombie lit -- that are all connected by the common motif of postmodern nihilism.
o The zombie meme incorporates extreme skepticism about Reason
As everyone knows who has had even superficial contact with any zombie meme, from George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead, the zombie brain consists of only the amygdala, which controls physiological urges and primitive instincts. A zombie's amygdala controls only hunger, in particular, hunger for the brains of the living. With zombies, the prefrontal cortex -- the locus of rationality, moral restraint, abstract thought, and aesthetic experience -- has shut down, having been completely annihilated by the zombie pathogen. Zombies are the ultimate, the ne plus ultra of climate-change deniers, young-earth-ers, etc., since being otherwise presupposes a capacity for the abstract thought requisite to science. At most, zombies can only deal with "alternative facts".
o Any piece of a zombie, however small, can go on living and hungering, provided only that the amygdala is intact.
A zombie's head, severed from the rest of the body but with the amygdala still intact, will go on living, and the mouth will go on biting. Most of the zombie is gone, but zombie behavior persists. This is vividly evocative of many of the columns Paul Krugman has written extending the zombie metaphor to conservative, specifically Trump-ian, economic theory. Trickle-down economics is zombie economics. Ditto the alleged lack of skills causing unemployment. Ditto, also, the idea that tax cuts for the elite result in job-creating economic growth. As Krugman argues, these assertions have all been exhaustively debunked, but they still shamble about the American landscape, zombie-like, attempting to bite the poor and the politically powerless.
o Even if the origin of the zombie virus is accounted for, that origin always redounds to the discredit of science and rationality
In Night of the Living Dead and World War Z, we are given only a very sketchy suggestion of an origin -- the zombie plague just ... happens to happen. Ditto The Walking Dead. In the Arisen novels, we do know that a renegade Soviet geneticist from one of the "-stans" of central Asia concocted a chimera pathogen from smallpox and some kind of myelin toxin that short-circuits nerve cells. Generally, in zombie lit, we are seldom given anything like a detailed, cause-effect account of the zombie virus's origin, and even when an origin is given, the zombie pathogen is always the result of science. So ... in the postmodern universe of Zombieland, there is ample reason to be skeptical about, even hostile toward, science and Reason.
In any case, and in parallel to similar memes in Restoration England and Weimar Germany, the real-world crisis of culture is replicated in miniature, this time in the form of a conflict between a shrinking minority of humans who continue to exemplify the rationality and intellectual / moral rigor of the European Enlightenment, on the one hand, and a burgeoning horde of newborn zombie converts to the unbridled appetites and feral ids of postmodern nihilism, on the other. The latter just mirrors the former. In fact, the phrase "unbridled appetites and feral ids" would be a pretty good hip-pocket characterization of the Trump Presidency. (As humor columnist Dave Barry would be the first to agree, "Unbridled Appetites and Feral Ids" would also be a great name for a heavy-metal rock band.) So ... bottom line: if you, like me, are a Walking Dead aficionado, we have to stop looking at The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead as fiction. In reality, they are both documentaries.
Don't believe me? Think I am overstating the case? Turn on CNN or MSNBC -- or, hell ... Fox News -- anytime!
James R. Cowles
Female zombie in forest ... Pixabay ... Public domain
German-American Bund marching ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
"Night of the Living Dead" ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Trump Cabinet ... White House ... Public domain
Post-ZA cityscape ... Pixabay, artist unknown ... Public domain
Zombie in Krugman column ... Bettman Archive ... Public domain