Are zombies a proxy for the American Zeitgeist?

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2009

If this isn't a sign that the undead are a dead meme, I don't know what is...Via SlashDot, here’s a brief piece at Forbes that wonders whether the zombie is Americas equivalent of Godzilla – a symbol of technology run amok, but one that can be dealt with in hand-to-hand mano a mano combat rather than by the deployment of the state’s military resources:

[…] there’s one major difference between Godzilla and the attack of the zombies: Godzilla fought scientists and the military (and maybe the occasional band of adorable children), but zombie battles usually are a person-to-ex-person struggle. While Godzilla swatted at planes and crushed tanks underfoot, zombies are done in by weapons such as shotguns, hand grenades and the ever-handy chainsaw.

Americans must like the idea that, as out of control as our hubristic science might become, a good machete and a 12 gauge in the hands of a competent man or woman can always save the day.

[…]

To be sure, it’s easy to read more into the popularity of zombies than might actually be there. Film-goers have always loved a good scare, and a shambling collection of neuron-challenged corpses make a pretty terrifying story. And if my zombie-obsessed 14-year-old son is a representative sample, blowing the undead away with heavy weaponry has a solid adolescent demographic appeal. But there’s no question, at least in my mind, that zombies (and Godzilla) are an allegorical representation of our fear that science and the technologies it spawn will lead to our destruction.

It’s a plausible reading, I think, though I’d hesitate to claim it as anywhere near definitive. It does chime rather well with our very own Jonathan McCalmont’s theory that the modern iterations of the zombie trope reflect a fear of transhumanism. I also seem to remember reading a recent critique that pegged the zombie as representing our subliminal fears of population expansion due to increased lifespans for the “unproductive elderly” (and/or immigration), but I’m damned if I can find the link or remember the source – anyone else catch that one, at all? [image by ella_marie]

One thing I can say for certain about zombies, though, is that I’m sick to the gills of hearing about them. As far as shark-jumping in the genre blogosphere goes, the only meme that comes close to the tedious prevailing ubiquity of zombies is steampunk… which is also starting to wear the welcome mat very thin indeed, at least in this household.

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5 Responses to “Are zombies a proxy for the American Zeitgeist?”

  1. Heidi Cautrell says:

    Perhaps I’m just not looking around enough, but I truly don’t find an overload of Steampunk. Tor.com made October Steampunk month and I was honestly grateful, because I truly can’t seem to find that much on Steampunk. Perhaps my search engine skills are not where they should be if I’m missing out on that much in regards to steampunk.

    I will say I’m overly sick of Zombies and Vampires, though. Enough, we get it, you’re dead and scary. Next trope please.

  2. Kian says:

    Zombies I’m generally fine with. Vampires on the other hand (or at least their modern incarnation) is doing my head in.

    Steampunk I find can be very hit and miss. I agree with Heidi there isn’t really that much of it and at the very least it hasn’t hit the popular culture.

  3. Kian says:

    I should add that yeh Zombies are becoming very much a bandwagon with Zombie land and Zombie Strippers etc. They were always very B-Movie esk for me. Still I enjoy Left 4 Dead and the old Zombie films.

  4. rozele says:

    the most compelling version, to me, applies to both vampires and zombies (which are definitely the critters with the strongest appeal right now, i’d say, across a far wider range of subcultures than any steampunk trope).

    both zombies and vampires are very blatant figures for the past. for what u.s. culture (meaning mainly corporate culture-for-profit and state-sponsored culture) insists is dead and forgotten. for the unfinished business of history that this country has always done its best to ignore.

    this is pretty explicit in both genres from their beginnings. here are a few examples:

    – the conclusion of the original “Night of the Living Dead” and its echos of what white cops actually do to young black men (then and now);
    – bram stoker’s “Dracula”, with its xenophobic depiction of what happens when those on the margins of the empire come settle at its core (for a less bloodthirsty recent version of the Eastern peril, look at the ‘polish plumber’ tv ads from a few years ago);
    – “Homecoming” – dead veterans against the war;
    – “Twilight”, reminding us all that abstinence education and other religiously-driven efforts to substitute paranoia for information do one thing well: kill people.

    the question is: will folks in the u.s. only learn from the past when it crawls out of the grave and starts to eat them? the evidence of the wars in afghanistan and iraq, of barely-subtler u.s. involvement in haiti and palestine and venezuela (and honduras?), of the current attempts to describe a bailout of the insurance industry as “health care reform”, etc. all suggest that even that may not be enough.

  5. Babylon says:

    I’m looking forward to steampunk zombies personally.