They will always come for us until the metatrope grows cold.
“The Walking Dead’s” eighth season premiered last week, and though the ratings have declined, the basic-cable zombie apocalypse juggernaut is only dented. Millions continue to watch, allowing the zombie to remain the primary nightmare haunting our collective subconscious since the beginning of the 21st century. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, Pride Prejudice and Zombies, World War Z—so far, this has been a millennium of zombies and one cannot help but wonder why the usually-shuffling-but-occasionally-sprinting hordes of the undead have become such a mainstay of pop culture.
According to Roger Luckhurst, author of the slim but comprehensive volume Zombies: A Cultural History, the zombie is the most successful metaphor of our time. In the 100 years since it has entered the American lexicon, the zombie has proved incredibly malleable, representing a fascination with exoticism, fears of conformity, anxieties over atomic aggression and paranoia about immigrants and refugees massing to cross our borders. The zombie persists because it has helped us manage so many existential terrors.
Two imperial forces at the bookends of the 20th century brought the zombie to America and allowed its exportation: colonization and globalization. The United States occupied Haiti in 1915 and stories of cannibalism, voodoo and undead workers tilling the fields returned to the mainland. These workers were the purported victims of a voodoo ritual that made them tireless and forgetful of their old lives. Only the death of their master or the consumption of salt could return them to some semblance of humanity. These were the original zombies, small clusters of undead slaves who provided free labor to factory farms. The white American imagination with its racist propensity proved too willing to believe in Black voodoo, but these zombies were far removed from the mass of rotting bodies that would one day take their title.
The idea of a mass assembly of undead bodies evolved mid-century. Luckhurst points to the Korean War for its origin. The Communist forces invading from China used a “human wave”—a poorly-armed vanguard that numbered in the thousands—to overwhelm the better equipped and trained American forces. The horrific images of an endless horde of attacking bodies entered the cultural imagination and became representative of a relentless foe that, due to its sheer volume, could not be vanquished. In 1968, George Romero would make this imagery a mainstay of the zombie subgenre with Night of the Living Dead. The film would establish many of the tropes going forward: a scientific or supernatural cause for the return of the dead, extermination by braining and the eventual collapse of all safe havens under the weight of the ceaseless zombie horde.
With Dawn of the Dead in 1978, Romero imbued the zombie with the metaphorical significance that continues to this day. Set primarily in America’s largest indoor shopping mall, the zombies wander the floors and shops in a mindless meander. They are creatures of consumption that will never be satiated, wandering until something to devour is discovered. Romero made the zombie a byproduct of the global capitalist system so correctly that all manner of institutions have been given the prefix “zombie” because they devour everything and can’t seem to be destroyed.
A professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck, University of London, Luckhurst approaches his subject with the relish of a researcher intent on illustrating the importance of our cultural symbols, even when they originate from so-called low culture like pulp magazines and horror movies. “Zombies are the Rapture with rot,” he states, his writing offering the sort of wit and humor often absent from cultural criticism. But those moments also make the occasional glimpses of the pedant more glaring, as if you’ve walked into the lecture hall to find Professor Luckhurst in a foul temper.
Still, he draws a convincing through-line between what were considered serious journalistic attempts to prove the existence of zombies by American writers in the early 20th century to the Holocaust to the Cold War to Romero without ever losing his contention that the zombie has morphed into a metatrope during the brief century of its existence. It stands for the folly of a system of consumption that discards the plurality while allowing a very few survivors. The zombie is the symbol of capitalism in its endgame, mindlessly devouring the world.
It’s October, that macabre month where nature mimics dying, jack-o’-lanterns burn and monster masks abound. It is the perfect time of year to crack the spine on an academic examination of the cultural history of the zombie and why this particular piece of folklore continues to endure. We would like to believe we’ve reached peak zombie, but The Walking Dead continues in both its comics and television forms with its creator, Robert Kirkman, promising years of issues and episodes to come. The zombie army is about to invade Westeros. Zombies are still big ratings, which means they are coming for us. They will always come for us until the metatrope grows cold.