The Meaning of the Undead: Why Are We Fascinated by Zombies?

From Haiti to Romero: the origins of the zombie

There are two different origins to the zombie, though one derived from the other. Originally, it's a monster that arises from the colonial conditions in Sub-Saharan African and Haiti. The word nvumbi in Angola designates a body without a soul, while it exists as zan bibi in Ghana and in Togo and Benin it's known as a "creature of the night".

But the origin of the modern zombie is deeply rooted in the Haitian tradition. There, he's an individual drugged up by a voodoo priest, which sends him in a stats of near-death so that he can be used as a slave.

The origins of the zombie

The origins of the zombie

Then comes the second life of the myth of the zombie in 1960s cinema with George Romero's trilogy. Yet, there's a world of difference between the "original" zombie and Romero's. One is a living being that others take for a dead one, the other is a dead being looking like a living one and who can infect healthy humans with his condition.

Why the fascination for zombies

Public displays of zombie fascination, here marching in Moscow.

Public displays of zombie fascination, here marching in Moscow.

What's fascinating aren't the zombies themselves, but when they reappeared in popular culture. By deciding that zombies would be infectious or contagious, they have come to incarnate our anxieties about biotechnologies and radiation. It becomes deeply anchored in our era and associated with its fears and issues: nuclear war and bio-warfare in the 1960s, and nowadays unsustainable development, pollution, worldwide epidemics and so on.

While we believe that the modern zombie is an American invention, this has evolved so much in the past 40 years. So we've seen extremely successful zombies reply to concerns and anxieties more specific to populations in Europe (conformism), Japan (technology) and Canada. The mythology of the zombie therefore shows that the end of the world will come from within industrialised countries.

For the first time, our end isn't caused by an external event: a meteor or an alien invasion but by man himself, responsible for his own demise. In zombie movies, man not only loses, but he fails against a creature less powerful than him. And the zombie still looks like us and in this sense he represents the limits of human condition and our awareness that our civilisations are mortal if not ephemeral. We aren't as powerful as we thought we were. It's not merely fear of death, it's fear of the end of our time.

By mixing resemblance and monstrosity, the zombie reveals the darkness within man.

A symptom of our era

The zombie is reducing man to its simplest form, as it would appear in its most primitive state. When social order collapses, man would become a wild creature capable of the most extreme violence and cannibalism: it is self-annihilating.  There is also a considerable difference between zombies and ghosts. Unlike the zombie, ghosts are people who come back because they didn't "die right". They have been wronged and are here to fix the weaves of time. The ghost ensures necessary exchanges are possible between two dimensions or spaces, the world of the living and that of the dead. He's a repairing, fixing figure.

Whereas the zombie, that god of evil, comes back to destroy everything. He's a figure of the apocalypse in the biblical sense. The world we know has disappeared and will never come back. A new era opens up - perhaps - to those who have survived. Which is the story we're now watching be told  in the TV series The Walking Dead.

So what do zombies make you think about? Also do check out this Marxist analysis of the zombies vs vampires myths.