In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many in the west were coming to terms with the death of God, as declared by Nietzsche, by transferring their faith to a new master and savior: technology and science. But with the events of the Second World War, most particularly the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the Cold War that followed, American culture found its new gods inadequate. Consequently, are now a people that have difficulty putting our faith in anything. The zombie that Romero’s presented in Night of the Living Dead still represented the loss of subjectivity, but more importantly, and more horrifyingly, it also represented humanity experiencing loss of the transcendent.
The transcendent is a broad category that includes realities beyond the simply physical, or immanent reality. Things like God, the human soul would be considered transcendent. As would the Good, or Truth and Beauty, as objective realities.
The modern self is secular because denies the existence, or at least relevance, of the transcendent. So, the monster which terrorizes the modern identity is completely immanent.
The absence of the transcendent is apparent in the modern zombie film, most particularly in the monster itself. In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the walking dead, except for the fact that they are walking, are very ordinary. Some of them “are fully dressed; one of them is rather fat and dressed only in jockey shorts; one of them, a young woman, is naked. They look vulnerable, and they are vulnerable, to a blow to the head and to fire” (Dillard 21). Interestingly, “they were cast from local citizens of Pittsburgh . . . becoming extras in a story . . . and in many senses playing themselves” (Warner 366). There is very little difference between the zombies and one’s neighbours.
As a modern monster, like a werewolf, a vampire or a ghoul, the zombie has no supernatural qualities, but unlike them has no superhuman qualities either.
As a modern monster, like a werewolf, a vampire or a ghoul, the zombie has no supernatural qualities, but unlike them has no superhuman qualities either: “they cannot fly, they cannot turn into vapor, bat, or wolf; they are not possessed of superhuman strength; they don’t have fangs” (Paffenroth 8). Max Brooks, in The Zombie Survival Guide, reminds us that “the body of the undead is, for all practical purposes, human” (6). Without transcendence or superhuman qualities, they are “just pale skin, gaping wounds, and noticeable decay” (Bishop 117). Unlike the spirits of distant generations, “a zombie is embodied and material, [it] walks and bleeds and sweats” (Warner 358). The thoroughly immanent zombie, then, is a suitable terror for the residents of a world that is only material.