An individual zombie is almost no threat to any healthy adult. It can be easily outrun or dispatched by a decent blow to the head. What makes zombies a threat is that there are so many of them and their bite results in the absorption of their victims into the horde. This loss of the unique self is an affront of to our modern conception of the individual.
Historically, our monsters have usually been solitary: Grendel, Satan, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dracula, Injun Joe. This changed in the 20th century, especially after second world war. Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954) is one example of multiple monsters.
This characteristic of the zombie makes it ideally suited to terrorize our contemporary society. They attack in large numbers and overwhelm their victims by sheer weight of numbers. The horde absorbs individuality—and we modern selves are obsessed with questions of identity (what is me and what is not me?). And with the absorption into the zombie horde, these questions, for the victim, become irrelevant.
With absorption into the zombie horde, questions of identity are irrelevant.
We assume our individuality, who are we if not an individual, but people didn’t always think this way. Individualism of the past was restricted to the artistic élites, but by the time of Romero’s first zombie film, it had become a “mass phenomenon” (Taylor 473). Before the Enlightenment, one’s identity was, in part, contingent upon one’s place in society and the honour conferred accordingly. A shift occurred in the Enlightenment when ideas of honour were replaced with the more Universalist notions of the dignity of all human beings. In the late-eighteenth century, the idea of universal dignity was complemented with the idea that each of us has a particular way of being human. Thus, it became “important to find and live out one’s own [humanity], as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or previous generations, or religious or political authority” (475). Taylor considers the 1960s as the “hinge moment” (476) where this individuation became mainstream. Significantly, it was in this decade that the first modern zombie movie was released. Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968) are monstrous in that they attack this new understanding of the individual.
The bite of the zombie means an imposed conformity that bases identity, not on uniqueness, but on context.
In an age when the dignity of all human beings translates into the importance to being true to oneself, a zombie’s bite obliterates that unique self. The zombie horde is a mass in which all individuality has been eradicated; it is an ironic caricature of the “mass phenomenon” of modern individualism. There are small differences between zombies, like clothing or “degree of putrefaction,” but these “only exacerbate their similarity, since they are markers which refer to the state of their corpse when they died, not anything that has been chosen to create individuality since reanimation” (Cooke 167).
The bite of the zombie means an imposed conformity that bases identity, not on uniqueness, but on context. This is yet another source of horror that the zombie horde embodies for the modern self, who considers itself, above all things, autonomous.