Les zombies, c’est vous

Thomas Jones

  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead
    Harvill Secker, 259 pp, £14.99, October 2011, ISBN 978 1 84655 598 5

Zombies, thousands of them. At the movies, on TV, in computer games, on Facebook, roaming the streets in protest or for kicks, the undead hordes have never been more prevalent. They’re a relatively new phenomenon, as monsters in Western horror go, lacking the canonical pedigree of werewolves or vampires. But the plague spreads quickly. The zombie as it emerged in 20th-century American popular culture, though nominally a figure looted from Haitian folklore, is a recombination of familiar mythological tropes: reanimated corpses, anthropophagy, brainwashing, speechlessness, herd instinct. The first zombie movie is generally reckoned to be Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), in which Bela Lugosi plays a mill owner in Haiti who uses voodoo to control his black zombie workers, and to enslave a young white American woman who’s engaged to one of his neighbours. As Kyle William Bishop writes in American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, ‘this germinal film presented audiences with the exoticism of the Caribbean, a fear of domination and subversion, and the perpetuation of the imperialist model of cultural and racial hegemony.’[*]

The modern zombie, however, lurched from its grave in 1968, in George Romero’s low-budget masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. Although the monsters besieging the remote Pennsylvanian farmhouse where our heroes are holed up are never referred to as zombies (‘ghouls’, they are called, or at first simply ‘those things’), Night of the Living Dead set the ground rules for most subsequent zombie narratives: the survivors build barricades out of doors, ironing-boards and whatever else is to hand, and fight with tyre irons, crowbars and shotguns; the ghouls are motivated only by an insatiable craving for human flesh, and can be killed only by having their brains blown out; and so on. There are variables, reflecting the shifting focus of our anxieties: in Romero’s film, the recently dead are indiscriminately reanimated by radiation from a space probe Nasa destroyed on its way back from Venus. In later stories zombieism is more likely to be caused by a virus or genetic mutation, and is often – as in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One – spread by biting.

Night of the Living Dead subverted the genre even as it was inventing it. The hero, famously and unprecedentedly, is black. According to Romero this wasn’t premeditated; Duane Jones was just the best actor who auditioned for the role. Jones’s character, Ben, isn’t very heroic: he’s brimming with authority, but has as little clue as anyone else how to deal with the undead hammering at the doors, and his clear priority is to save himself – which no one else, in the movie or the audience, is in any position to judge him for. Night of the Living Dead doesn’t sublimate the racism indulged in by its precursors – in many respects Zulu qualifies as a zombie film, as do a fair number of cowboys-and-Indians movies – but inverts and exposes it. As Whitehead said of it in a recent interview, ‘Black guy on the run from hordes of insane white people who want to tear him limb from limb? What’s more American than that?’

Not everyone saw it that way, however. What the film’s many imitators principally took away from it was the besieging army of slathering ghouls. The undead are ideal cannon fodder for a violent and morally uncomplicated massacre; the good guys can slaughter them with impunity because they’re already dead. The same could in a sense be said of suicide bombers – or, at least, of the brainwashed dead men walking with implacable murderous intent who have haunted the Western imaginary over the past decade – which may in part explain the recent zombie resurgence. In Theories of International Politics and Zombies, Daniel Drezner reproduces some graphs plotting the sharp rise in zombie activity since the turn of the millennium.[†] It so happens that the generally accepted way to incapacitate the footsoldiers of both horror and terror is by shooting them in the head.

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[*] McFarland, 239 pp., £30, March 2010, 978 0 7864 4806 7.

[†] Princeton, 136 pp., £10.95, January 2011, 978 0 691 14783 3.