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When the Dead Outnumber the Laughing; Mockery and Consumption in Zombie Narratives

The popular culture zombie is a well known figure for most people.  The ripped clothing, the slack-jawed vacant expression, and general lack of motor skills are all easily recognizable features of what we culturally accept as a zombie.  Although there are some zombie “purists” who have strict ideas about what constitutes a zombie, most zombies can embody any other number of characteristics as long as those initial three are intact.  Some zombies can run, moan, smell, and even have basic thought, but the key tenet of “zombie-ism” in popular culture is that a zombie is a reanimated human corpse that functions solely to consume or main living humans, and thereby infect them.

This modern day concept of zombies has come quite a long from where it began.  The concept of zombies began in West Africa, long before Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, but those zombies (known as voodoo zombies) have little in common with the walking dead of 2008.  Voodoo zombies were living people who had been bewitched and were under the control of another person.  They were generally silent, staring, and vacant.

So how is it that we’ve arrived at the popular culture zombie that we all know and love?  And more importantly, why do we love it?  Zombie culture goes far beyond the boogeyman and Frankenstein’s monster.  Today people are identifying with zombies and even emulating them through activities like “Zombie Walks”, in which a large group of people will put on fake blood and shuffle through a city center.  The social networking website known as Facebook has numerous zombie outlets, ranging from a group titled “The Hardest Part of the Zombie Apocalypse Will be Pretending I’m Not Excited” to a zombie role playing application that allows Facebook members to “infect” one another to gain points.

Zombies in film have come a long way from Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie in 1943.  George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in 1978 was one of the first appearances of the popular culture zombie, but more recently even this film has been trumped by Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead in 2004, which is a prolonged joke about both the futility of survival and the similarities between the undead and many members of the living.  It may seem as though the mocking or emulation of zombie culture is a new concept to deflect the anxieties that zombies represent, but overall, there is nothing new about this method.

In this paper I will be addressing the fears that are represented by the popular culture zombie, as well as what is gained by poking fun at those fears. I will also look at the history of zombie humor, both in film and in vernacular culture. In order to answer those questions I will be looking at the zombies we all recognize as well as examining the way the popular culture zombie has evolved from the voodoo zombie.  Zombie lore has survived over many years and through many different manifestations.  In some ways, zombies demonstrate a societal shift away from millennialism towards un-redemptive apocalypticism and even survivalism.  By looking at the way this change has happened, we can come to a conclusion about what facilitated the move away from millennialism in popular culture.

In 1982, Wade Davis traveled to Haiti in order to study the possibility of a “zombie drug” that could be responsible for stories about Haitian zombies.  Davis discovered that such a drug did exist, and in fact could produce a death-like state by dramatically lowering the victim’s metabolism, if it did not in fact, kill the victim (Del Guercio 320).  This drug could be administered as simply as rubbing it into the skin.  Upon obtaining a sample of this poison for analysis, Davis discovered one of the main ingredients in the zombie drug was tetrodotoxin, a poison found in many species of pufferfish (Del Guercio 320).

Poisoning a person with this toxin in order to make them a “zombie” was a form of punishment for those who practiced Haitian voodoo, and it was considered worse than being put to death (Del Guercio 322).  The zombie-like state could be prolonged by feeding the victims amounts of datura, a plant sometimes known as the “zombie’s cucumber”, which has psychoactive properties that could aid in the confusion and mental “absence” of the victim (Del Guercio 322).  In this way, the priest can hold the victim in their power for as long as they would like.  It has also been noted that the psychological impact of living in a culture that accepts zombie beliefs would aid in the victim’s cooperation (Del Guercio 322).

Since the days of the voodoo zombie, popular culture zombies have evolved into a completely different creature with their own methods of “reproduction”.  The generally accepted mode of creating pop culture zombies is through infection.  Similar to Davis’s research in Haiti, or perhaps in caricature of Davis’s work, former Saturday Night Live writer Max Brooks has written The Zombie Survival Guide, which describes the process of infection and reanimation. Boasting “complete protection from the living dead” on the front cover, Brooks’s guide names the cause of popular culture zombies as a virus, which he calls Solanum.  While Brooks’s guide is widely accepted as humor, it maintains a very serious tone and goes as far as to claim Mad Cow Disease, SARs, and Avian Flu are government cover-ups for zombie outbreaks.

The only desire of the pop culture zombie is to consume living human flesh, and it is by receiving a bite from a zombie or somehow ingesting infected blood that a person becomes infected.  Unlike the voodoo zombie, once infected, there is no way to control the pop culture zombie, which may be part of the reason the popular culture zombie has developed into such an iconic figure.  The inability to control a threat creates a lot of fear on its own, but the idea of losing control of oneself and potentially harming loved ones is even scarier.

The desire to consume is one of the scariest features of the popular culture zombie, because it reflects our own obsession with consumption.  Sure, most people aren’t consuming living flesh, but the fact remains that they are encouraged to buy expensive clothing, electronics, and other various knick-knacks that they don’t need.  This mass-consumption means harm to our planet by means of the waste created, and a dependency on corporations to fill people’s lives with “meaning” (Loudermilk 89).  Zombies represent both of those aspects of consumerism.  Zombies consume without caring or thinking, so that despite the drive to consume, the consumption is meaningless (Walker 88).

The desire to consume is also what is attractive about zombies.  From a strictly consumerist standpoint, zombies have the ultimate “life”.  Their only concern, only need, is to consume a product (“braaaaainsss” for example) that is readily available if they can still move most of their limbs.  Both George Romero’s and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Daed depict survivors seeking refuge in a mall, able to indulge their every consumer desire, much like the zombies themselves (Loudermilk 93).  This is made even more attractive and surreal by the thought that in general, technology, fashion, gourmet food, and even art would all be laid to waste by a zombie outbreak, not to mention leave most cities in ruins.

This is certainly the case in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, the former of which begins with the protagonist waking up to find London empty, except for the infected.  The infection spreads almost instantly through the infected person in this film, and they can reanimate as zombies in as little as a few seconds.  It has been argued that these films are not portraying actual zombies, since they have the capacity to run and even climb a little.  28 Days Later also gives a specific name to the infection (“Rage”), as well as an explanation of how it first broke out into the population, which is not common in zombie films.  However, the characteristics of the infected so closely resemble zombies in every other way that 28 Days Later is generally accepted as a zombie movie.

28 Days Later is a good example of one of the most important fears that zombies represent: the fear of infectious disease or pandemic.  These films are being watched, and now even written and directed, by a generation that grew up hearing about the very real, very scary, threat of AIDs.  The idea of an easily contractible, lethal virus being unleashed on the masses is something 28 Days Later captures more literally than most zombie films.  By showing the origins of the outbreak in the first scene, this film makes it clear that the “zombie virus”, Rage, is a highly infectious disease that causes almost immediate death and reanimation.

In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the reanimation time is longer than 28 Days Later, but is still relatively quick compared to other films.  Dawn of the Dead portrays zombies as slow moving and vacant, which is much more like the voodoo zombie, as well as much closer to what most zombie enthusiasts consider “realistic”.  However, the short reanimation time is completely opposed to what Max Brooks and many other zombie enthusiasts consider “realistic”, because the infected person is supposed to die from the infection before they can reanimate.

This discrepancy about the infection process demonstrates the way zombie lore changes over time; although Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is commonly hailed as one of the most ground-breaking zombie films, parts of it are now considered “incorrect”.  Texts such as Brooks’s Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z depict zombies in a way that allows people to compare movie zombies to a standardized version of what a zombie should be.  By putting his specific ideas about zombie lore into print, particularly in such a serious fashion, Brooks is giving credibility to the popular culture zombie in the same way that Davis gave credibility to the voodoo zombie (although Davis’s research was based on fact and not personal speculation).

The tone of The Zombie Survival Guide marks a recurring theme in popular culture zombie lore.  The book itself may be tongue-in-cheek, but it can be found listed under both “Humor” and “Guide Books” or “How-To” sections in bookstores.  Amazon.com associates the book with tags for “humor” and “survival”, as well as “horror”.  This ambiguity about the intent behind the book demonstrates the way people discuss zombies in vernacular culture, as well as the way zombies are represented in film.

As much as people seem to love watching zombies get smashed, torn apart and decapitated, a key tenet of zombie film (as well as zombie literature such as Max Brooks’s novel) is humor.  We love laughing at zombies as much as we love watching them die.  This is a fairly obvious feature of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, but before I discuss that film in particular, I’d like to look at the ways zombie humor is present even in serious films.

In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, there is a scene where a bicycle gang breaks into the shopping mall where the protagonists have holed up.  The greater area of the mall is still inhabited by zombies, and the motorcycle gang takes great pleasure in driving through the mall, smashing zombie brains and hooting and hollering as they go.  The principle emotion of this group is not fear, but excitement, perhaps mixed with a sense of vengeance.  At one point, the motorcycle gang is actually smashing pies into the faces of zombies, a comedy routine more commonly left to the Three Stooges.

In Zack Snyder’s 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead there aren’t any pies, but this same mocking attitude towards zombies in depicted.  In one scene, a few of the group members living in the mall are on the roof, above the horde of zombies that have gathered in the parking lot.  They can communicate with a man in a nearby building by writing messages on a whiteboard, and the men are taking turns finding celebrities look-alikes (particularly Jay Leno and Burt Reynolds) that have been infected in the crowd below and sniping them amidst manly laughter.  There is no indication that this is being done to help eliminate the zombies outside the mall.  It appears to be done entirely for “sport”.

In Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later the protagonists have a respectful fear of the zombies, but upon their arrival at an army base, they meet a group of men that have a different attitude.  The army base has tied up a fellow soldier who became infected in the courtyard to “observe” him.  The commanding officer takes one of the newcomers to the base out to the courtyard to show him the zombie, apparently for the sole purpose of relishing both the newcomer’s fear, and his control over the zombie.  Laughing as the zombie lunges toward the newcomer, the officer explains his clear superiority over the infected.  There is also a scene that can only be described as whimsical, in which the main characters cavort through a grocery store picking out their favorite foods.

Perhaps after all these films demonstrated a sense of humor directed towards zombies, Shaun of the Dead was the next rational step.  This film laughs at itself from the first scene, which is a montage depicting many characters we see later as zombies behaving in ways that are already quite zombie-like (ie. Supermarket cashiers scanning groceries with vacant looks, a little boy repeatedly bouncing a soccer ball off a telephone pole, teenagers plugged into their iPods, nodding their heads in time).  This opening scene sets up the trend of technology as a mind-numbing influence, which is hinted at in a number of other ways.  Shaun has a job he hates at an electronics store, and there are two incidents in which Shaun waits while another character uses their cell phone in an obnoxious manner.  Shaun and his best friend Ed also play video games constantly, and enjoy blaring techno or “electro” music late into the night, much to the chagrin of their straight-laced roommate.  With all those electronic distractions, it’s no surprise that upon first encountering a zombie in their backyard, Shaun and Ed laugh, assuming the girl stumbling around is drunk.  As Shaun of the Dead goes on, the jaded, disinterested attitudes of the characters remain the butt of many of the jokes.

Once Shaun and Ed realize that these people are, in fact, zombies, much of the action in the film follows the course of other zombie films.  Shaun formulates a plan to rescue his mother and girlfriend and then head to their favorite pub, which him and Ed imagine is one of the safest places they can all be.  However, the film turns surprisingly serious both when Shaun’s stepfather dies of infection immediately after explaining to Shaun that he’d always loved him, as well as when Shaun’s mother reveals to him that she has been bitten.

The film ends with the miraculous rescue of Shaun and his girlfriend, the only uninfected out of their original group.  Despite the somewhat serious tone of the last few scenes, the final scene shows Shaun playing video games in the shed with zombie Ed.  The end of the film also features a game show on television involving zombies on elastic bands trying to reach a hunk of meat placed just out of their reach while the crowd laughs hysterically.  These final few scenes demonstrate that Shaun of the Dead is just as much about laughing at Shaun and his friends, as it is about laughing at zombies.

The sense one comes away with from Shaun of the Dead is that it is very much like any other zombie film in terms of plot.  A group of people being led by the protagonist to what they hope is safety while fighting off zombies in creative and graphic ways.  The key difference of Shaun of the Dead is that the characters are generally ignorant of how to save themselves, and at times seem wholly unconcerned with the whole thing.  One particularly iconic moment occurs just outside the pub as Shaun and company try to get in the locked front door before the surrounding zombies devour them.  Ed’s cell phone rings and he takes the time to answer it and have a conversation about how he’s managed to survive.  Since nearly the whole group dies except for Shaun and his girlfriend (who are arguably the smartest characters, at least by the end), the “lesson” of the story is actually that fighting zombies, which can also be understood as resisting technological brainwashing, is no laughing matter.

Books like The Zombie Survival Guide reinforce this notion of both mocking and respecting fears discussed earlier that are represented by zombies (consumerism, infectious disease, and technology), as do films like both versions of Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days LaterShaun of the Dead demonstrates the same dichotomy of mocking and respecting zombie fears, but from the opposite end of the spectrum from “serious” zombie films.  The humorous parts of these films show that those fears are perhaps somewhat irrational, or at least exaggerated.  By laughing at the idea of zombies as brainless super-consumers we don’t have to worry as much about how it reflects our own habits of consumption.  However, the serious parts of these movies serve as a warning against the dangers of ignoring those fears.

Whether we’re laughing at zombies or being chased by zombies in our nightmares, they are an important part of popular culture.  The popular culture zombie owes its roots to the voodoo zombie, but even today’s popular culture zombie is a fluid concept.  The ability of the zombie archetype to change constantly means that as common anxieties change, the definition of “zombie” will change.

Works Cited and Consulted

Brooks, Max.  The Zombie Survival Guide.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.

—.  World War Z. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.

Del Guercio, Gino.  “The Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead”.  Harvard Magazine January-February 1986, pp.  31-37.

Loudermilk, A.  “Eating ‘Dawn’ in the Dark:  Zombie desire and commodified identity in George A. Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’”.  Journal of Consumer Culture.  3  (2003): pp. 83-108

Walker, Matthew.  “When There’s No More Room in Hell, the Dead Will Shop the Earth”.  The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless.  Ed. Richard Green and K. Silem Mohammed.  Chicago: Open Court Press, 2006.  pp. 81-89

“Zombies.”  Exit Mundi: A Collection of End-of-World Scenarios. <http://www.exitmundi.nl/exitmundi.htm&gt;

Dawn of the Dead.  Dir. George Romero.  1978.   DVD.  Divimax.  2004.

Dawn of the Dead. Dir. Zack Snyder.  DVD.  Strike Entertainment.  2004.

Shaun of the Dead.  Dir. Edgar Wright.  DVD.  Rogue.  2004.

28 Days Later. Dir.  Danny Boyle.  DVD.  Fox Searchlight.  2003.

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