Zombies function in many ways like a traditional monster, in that they represent the opposite of how we like to think of ourselves. In other words, they transgress boundaries and challenge the identity of the modern self. Their otherness is tailor-made to terrorizes the residents of a world that is composed of no more than matter: they have no cause and therefore have no meaning; they embody the abject, and thus threaten identities formulated against the physical world; they rub our noses in our very biological materiality and force us to face the finality of death in a world with no transcendence; and, in part, they offer us the humour needed to deal with this fact. While the zombie monster represents otherness, the zombie films themselves, particularly Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, also reflect the modern secular denial of the transcendent as well as the consequences of this denial.
Traditional movies in the horror genre present a fairly simple morality. Often it is the monster that embodies evil. Other times, the monster is a creation of an evil scientist or sorcerer, but the representative of evil is pretty clear, as is that of the good. In zombie narratives, because there is no transcendent source for morality, the categories of good and evil are not as clearly defined as they were in the past. The monsters are not evil in the traditional sense, nor does the hero represent an ideal to which we can aspire.
Zombies reflect the modern secular denial of the transcendent as well as the consequences of this denial.
The zombie monster is hard to classify morally. It is difficult to say that zombies are evil because they lack the conscious will we usually require for the attribution of that term. To call them evil would link them to some transcendent category. In the zombie films of the voodoo era, there was a clear source of evil, but it wasn’t the undead. In these films, the zombies were mere tools in the hands of an evil sorcerer, but since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, one of the defining characteristics of the zombie horde is that it has no leader. There is no authority or power, no longer any villain bent on some evil purpose who controls them. In his book Heroes and Villains, Mike Alsford says that villains “generally seek a law unto themselves. They usually have as their primary goal, power over others, world domination, control of the entire universe or, in some really ambitious instances, godhood (96). This was very much the model for villainy in the pre-Romero zombie films like White Zombie, in which the evil Legendre turns corpses into zombies to work in his sugar mill, and worse, zombifies another man’s fiancé so as so as to possess her, body and soul. But in modern zombie films, there is no villain that fits Alsford’s description. In The Night of the Living Dead “the diseased, instinct-driven automatons walk the earth without a leader. They need no master to seduce new recruits or to direct their assault on normality” (Waller 280).
Modern zombie narratives don’t have some evil figure controlling the zombie horde. This wouldn’t make sense in our modern context because we are uncomfortable with the category of evil. As a truly modern monster, they are not controlled by an external evil. But what about an internal evil?