In Resident Evil 5, the latest in the series of multimedia adventures about corporate greed and zombie apocalypse, you act out some postcolonial violence against hundreds of black bodies… or die trying over and over again. In Call of Duty: World At War, a patch turns Nazi opponents into Nazi zombie opponents. Zombie novels litter bookstores like so many wayward limbs, including the recent pomo mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. George Romero, the grandpappy of the modern zombie menace, will be releasing his latest film this year (or maybe next), and it is called … of the Dead. And in those three little dots are competing visions of posthumanity. Like the socialists sang over a century ago, “Whose Side Are You On?” The iconic zombie horde isn’t just a stand-in for a terrifying undifferentiated Other, but a symbol of how we might shamble and shuffle toward liberation.
For Romero, a political radical whose Night of the Living Dead was made during the upheavals of the late 1960s, the zombies were a new world rising up against the old. The cannibalism of the undead was comment on exploitive social relations made flesh. As bad as the zombies were, the small-town racist cops were that much worse. But as the 1960s went, so too did the zombie. For many readers and viewers of zombie stuff, the zombies are what you practice on while preparing for the real uprisings to come. “You can have my brain (and my canned goods) when you pry them out of my cold dead hands!” is only a part of zombie anxiety — those cold dead hands may rise up and join the other side, after all.
The zombie was once a servant, animated through the spiritual prowess of the vodou bokor. A zombie was someone who had wronged the community (or the bokor) and had been cast out, reduced to shambling, asocial slavery. A zombie was less than human. Romero’s vision of the zombie, the vision that has influenced popular culture for the past forty years, is a transhuman vision. And zombies continue to evolve. There are zombie banks now, institutions that are worth nothing but continue to shamble through the economy thanks to government subsidy. 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead showcased fast zombies, and zombies with a measure of intelligence and internal lives can be found in novels such as Dying to Live by Kim Paffenroth and David Wellington’s Monster series. The zombie superheroes in the Marvel Zombies series are also smart, or at least chatty.
And people want zombies. Zombie-themed flash mobs have littered the United States and Europe for the last few years. Zombie message boards discuss not only the film and fiction, but bleed into survivalist strategies and rhetoric. It’s no surprise that the Austen pastiches, the deadpan advice books, the video games seek to rewrite both the future and the past to include the zombie apocalypse. Zombies appear to be unalterably Other, just mindless consumers and reproducers of themselves, but they needn’t be. Reducing the zombie to a mindless Other despite the evidence — teamwork, learning, tool use, a rather brutal sense of irony — is a human problem. (After all, there’s no reason to believe that any living person you might meet on the street really has a rich internal life.) Recognizing the agency of the zombie is a posthuman solution.
In the traditional post-Romero zombie narrative, the characters who escape the zombies often find themselves confronting a corrupt human authority even worse than the undead… and not nearly as competent, despite supposedly still being in possession of their brraaaaaaiins. For example, in Max Brooks’ World War Z, a novel in the form of an oral history recorded in the wake of an outbreak, it’s Tibet and Cuba who are the “winners,” while the United States has all but collapsed thanks to its own bureaucracy and political corruption (and zombies).
“You can have my brain (and my canned goods) when you pry them out< of my cold dead hands!” is only a part of zombie anxiety.
What makes the zombie posthuman is the elimination of human limitations intrinsic in the state. Everything is explicit in a zombie hoard. Scarcity, the thousands of implicit rules and social agreements that keep us from fulfilling all of our needs, failures of health and stamina, the state’s monopoly on force, these all go by the wayside. Zombies will wear the monkey suits they were buried in, or the tattered uniforms of their old day jobs, but they don’t have to dress to impress or keep up appearances. Romero’s 2005 film The Land of the Dead features a utopian high-rise kept stocked by raids across the river into nightmarish zombie territory. Then the zombies learn to walk under water and the utopia crumbles into… not a dystopia, but a new and different utopia — one for the zombies.
Back during the last Great Depression, when the Next World War was still being plotted out in the backrooms and mass-minds of Europe and Asia, anthropologist Robert Briffault wrote, “It is not a new economic system or a social order which is being forged and which menaces traditional civilization. It is a new humanity.” In a zombie apocalypse, there are only two choices. Go down fighting, and not for humanity but rather for canned goods and isolated mountain cabins. Or you can find the awe within the horror, the freedom of a sort that can only be enjoyed by former slaves, and do what George Romero once said he’d do if the zombie apocalypse came to his door: go out and get bitten.
Nick Mamatas is the author of the short story collection YOU MIGHT SLEEP… and many other things. http://www.nick-mamatas.com