The idea of the dead walking among the living has been around for a long time. In Inferno, Dante meets Fra Albergio who tells him of traitors like himself who are dead before their bodies die. Dante is horrified; he has seen one of these men the friar describes, one that “eats, and drinks, and sleeps, and puts on clothes” (33.141) but is, nevertheless, dead. In Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors walks Dr. Pinch, who is described as “a living dead man” (5.1.241).
Isn’t it strange that both Dante and Shakespeare conceived of the zombie, but it never caught on as a monster.
It sure has caught on lately. The zombie is one of the most popular monsters of the last century. Over four hundred zombie movies have been made and almost half of these since 2000 (see Wikipedia, “List of Zombie Films” and do the math).
So why the popularity of zombies now and not before?
The short answer is that monsters show up when our identity is under is threatened. Not our individual identity, but our collective identity. The form the monster takes has everything to do with what our collective identity is, and where it is vulnerable. The popularity of the most recent addition to the monster pantheon, the zombie, suggests that it is representative of that which menaces our contemporary collective identity. Consequently, we can learn a lot about ourselves by paying some attention to our monster, the zombie.
George Romero’s in Night of the Living Dead (1968) presents us with the “modern” zombie. He changed earlier ideas of the undead and the transformation embodies exactly what scares the crap out of the modern identity. What is this modern identity?
Our society made the turn toward materialism over a century ago. Materialism in the philosophical sense: the idea that that mater is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in physical terms. In other words, materialism claims that there is no spiritual reality, no transcendent — no God or gods, angels, demons; no objective Good, Truth, or Beauty, no universal meaning or human purpose. This is what Friedrich Nietzsche had in mind when he voiced this idea through the madman declaring the death of God in The Gay Science (1882). This idea didn’t immediately percolate down to the popular level of our culture. They were beginning to be felt in the 1960s. The implications of materialism are one of the key features of the Dead in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
My thesis is that the zombie is a horrifying reflection of the modern self in a world without transcendence—it is a monster for our time.