The Times recently crowned the zombie the new mascot of the economic global recession. With a slate of zombie movies from Zombieland to Breathers – A Zombie’s Lament poised to tear through our multiplexes and a host of books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies clawing their way up the best seller lists, it’s not hard to see why.
Research has shown that the popularity of zombies has always rocketed in economic down turns. It was in 1929, during the great depression, that the zombie was first introduced to the west in the Haitian travelogue The Magic Island by the alcoholic adventurer, and associate of Aleister Crowley, W B Seabrook. The zombie has done it’s best box office in times of recession ever since.
What’s more economist are now turning to the zombie genre to describe the carnage that is our current economy. Terms like Zombie Bank, describing a financial institution that is effectively bankrupt but kept alive by government bail outs and Voodoo Accounting, the art of hiding your expenses and inflating your income, are being bandied about with alacrity.
ALL THIS IS MUSIC to my ears, having just written a satire on the credit crunch entitled Way of the Barefoot Zombie, (that should be on the shelves as you read this). This means that I’ve spent more time than is healthy thinking about Economics, Voodoo and what they mean to the zombie.
At first glance it’s not hard to see why zombie stories seem so resonant in times of hardship. For many people losing their job doesn’t just mean losing their income, it can also mean losing their identity. It stirs up fears of becoming a redundant member of society, with nothing better to do than shamble around supermarkets all day, dressed in rags like, well like a zombie.
Those people lucky enough to keep their jobs might feel like the post apocalyptic survivors of your average zombie flick. Desperately trying to carry on with their normal lives while more and more people around them fall prey to the economic holocaust.
However, I think the appeal of the zombies during hard times lies in more than just this simple metaphor. The power of the zombie as an icon lies in its mutability.
VAMPIRES AND WEREWOLVES symbolise pretty much the same thing today as they’ve always done. Their costumes might have become more modern but they still represent the same primal fears and neuroses.
Zombies on the other hand have continually reinvented themselves. To begin with the zombie represented white colonialism’s fear of the rebellious native. Back in 1791 Haitian slaves, led by their Voodoo priests, had revolted against the French and established a free country. This was the first time a western empire had ever been successfully challenged and it sent shockwaves through Europe. The popular image of the evil Voodoo priest raping and torturing innocent white settlers was established.
By the time the first zombie film White Zombie came out in 1933 America was having to admit that its own twenty year occupation of Haiti had failed and these same fears were at the forefront of the American mind. Right up to I Walked with a Zombie in 1949 zombies in the movies were invariably mindless black slaves of an invariably white magician. Though they were in thrall to their oppressor they threatened at any moment to over turn his power and turn on him, like they did in Revolt of the Zombies.
THEN IN 1969 George Romero borrowed a scenario from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend and recreated the zombie in Night of the Living Dead. Romero not only added the post apocalyptic motif to the genre, he also introduced the theme of social conformity versus the rights of the individual. The American public were bitterly divided over an un-winnable war abroad and popular dissent at home. Romero used the zombie to capture the neuroses that were bubbling to the surface as America once again struggled to come to terms with its new cultural identity.
IN VIDEO GAMES like Resident Evil the zombie reinvented itself once again, as the perfect target for a shoot ‘em up. They might look like human beings but they’re actually soulless husks. They’re the hordes of the enemy. The deadly other who is coming kill and convert us just for being the way we are.
So we don’t have to worry about their human rights. It’s okay to blow them away with abandon. It won’t even stain our consciences if we lock them up in detainment camps and torture them for intel because, like terrorists, they threaten us and we can’t identify with them. Therefore they’re not really human.
ZOMBIES AREN’T just the other though. “They are us” is a phrase that appears in several films by Romero and other directors. The zombie might be seen as a secret reflection of our western society, mindlessly consuming material goods and natural resources as a zombie consumes flesh. Like a zombie in search of prey we overwhelm other cultures and convert them into consumer societies to expand our market. All the while we fear that this endless expansion will inevitably bring about the sort of societal break down that most modern zombie films depict.
Of course there are other themes I haven’t mentioned. During the cold war zombies played on our fears of the deadening economic conformity of communism. Contagion and our fears of a pandemic disaster run through the Return of the Living Dead series and were picked up by Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later.
The brilliance of the zombie as a horror icon has always been its ability to mutate to reflect the endemic fears of our society, in a way that other staples of the horror genre just aren’t able to. It’s for this reason that writers like myself keep turning to the zombie story as a vehicle for satire and blood soaked social commentary.
Oh, and let’s not forget that they eat brains. And they never wash. And they always, always win. I mean how cool is that.
Way of the Barefoot Zombie by Jasper Bark is published by Abaddon Books.