Zombies have political, social, and cultural relevance—who knew?
If you believe zombies are a manifestation of evil, check the mirror.
The ugly truth, suggests PhD student Kelly Doyle, is that deep down, zombies have a lot more in common with living, breathing humans than we’d like to believe.
“The hardest thing to face is that there might be something about your existence that you don’t want to acknowledge,” she says.
As Halloween nears Doyle suggests zombies are symbolic of humanity’s worst fears and most basic urges. More than any other monster, zombies represent what we hate and fear most about ourselves and society.
“Zombies are recognizably human in a way that a lot of other monsters are not,” says Doyle.” A zombie is a decaying yet undead body with no ability to control its urges. It’s disgusting, revolting. And yet, it signifies the truth of what living things inevitably become: cadavers.”
This grotesque nature is in stark contrast to another popular undead monster—the vampire, portrayed in many genres as sexy, civilized, even glamorous.
“People may tend to think that it would be wonderful to be an immortal, youthful vampire. But a zombie—a mindless rotting corpse whose only purpose is to tear apart, move through the masses and eat flesh—that’s truly terrifying to many people.”
Doyle has been a fan of horror movies since she was a little girl, but never dreamed her fascination would become a springboard to a career. An interdisciplinary graduate student in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at UBC’s Okanagan campus, Doyle’s current research focuses on exploring the racial, social and political relevance of zombies and zombie culture through horror films and media.
“I started with the first zombie film ever made in 1932, White Zombie by Victor Halperin. Then I moved on to what I thought to be key films throughout history, including George A. Romero’s pivotal zombie films, and concluding with the Resident Evil film series and 28 Days Later.”
What Doyle discovered is that zombie movies are socially relevant to the landscape of the times, and serve as a barometer for political and cultural anxieties.
From the beginning, there were overt racial overtones with zombies, Doyle says. “In the 1930s, the zombie is Haitian. In White Zombie, the zombie is represented as a slave.”
“I am not suggesting that the zombie folklore of Haiti is racist, but the representation of the zombie in White Zombie is based on an ongoing theme of racialization as well as a slave/master dynamic,” says Doyle. “When adapted as a colonizing narrative, zombie films take on a political context of domination and othering.
Flash ahead to 1968, following the U.S. civil rights movement. The protagonist in the seminal film Night of the Living Dead is the sole African American. He ends up the only survivor, only to be shot by police at the end.
“It leaves you wondering if the police killed him because they thought he was a zombie, or shot him because he was African American,” says Doyle. “Zombie films are never only about the sensationalism of gore; there is often political and rationalized social commentary that’s being made.”
Doyle also points to the recent Resident Evil franchise, which tackles the theme of corporate power and viral weaponry.
“In Resident Evil, the zombie apocalypse was created by modern scientific endeavors. The films address all sorts of questions about widespread disease, corporate control, and weaponry. It asks culturally relevant questions about what happens when corporations get involved in the welfare of social being.”
Another noteworthy theme in zombie narratives, says Doyle, is that they are almost always apocalyptic.
“There is no going back and no cure. There may be a group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, but the world is never the same. There is often a question in zombie films about what humans are capable of, and how far is too far. Zombie films suggest there is something in human nature that is destructive.”
But perhaps most intriguing, adds Doyle, is that zombies do not truly represent the “bad guys” in the majority of film treatments.
“In most zombie narratives, there is a main character whose selfishness and individual needs trump those of the group, eventually tearing the group apart. Ironically, it ends up being a human who is even more monstrous than the monster. Zombies become what they are through no fault of their own. But the humans in those situations are often far more selfish, murderous, and violent than the zombies.
“It’s always interesting to look at who is the real ‘monster’ is in the zombie genre—us or them. It’s false … because they are us. And it makes you question, what really sets us apart?”