What zombies tell us, or would if they were a little more articulate, is that the same fate awaits us all. Wisdom, folly, wealth, family, pleasure, power, food, creative endeavor. All is exposed as a threadbare, moth-eaten veil; a laughable attempt to hide the ugliness of the bride lurching up the aisle toward us. No other popular genre does nihilism quite so well.
Zombies are reanimated corpses. Typically slow-moving, incapable of speech or self-awareness, they have no reason to live—except to chomp down on the flesh of the living, thus infecting them, and adding them to their mournful ranks.
The word zombi was introduced to American audiences with the 1929 novel The Magic Island. But zombies really stumbled into the cultural consciousness in 1968 when director George Romero released the monochrome Night of the Living Dead. And since then, true to form, they've refused to die.
Just as zombies themselves seem to multiply without end, so have their appearances in popular culture over the past 45 years. Along with your standard zombie horror-thriller (Dawn of the Dead, Rec, 28 Days Later, World War Z), there are zombie romances (Warm Bodies), zombie comedies (Shaun of the Dead), zombie comic books and TV series (The Walking Dead), parodic zombie fiction (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and zombie games (Resident Evil, Judge Dredd vs Zombies, Plants vs Zombies, Zombie Highway, Zombie Gunship, Pro Zombie Soccer . . . I could go on, but ironically enough I'm losing the will to live).
So why won't the undead leave us alone?
1. Zombies show us what we can easily become.
George Romero realized that the genre offers a pungent metaphor for the way human beings can easily seem less than human. Zombie films expose the maggoty underside of human nature, whether through materialism (the zombies' witless obsession with the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead), individualism (the survivors' often fatal mistrust of one another), or simply by showing what happens when we become part of a mob.
One of the most chilling lines in Dawn of the Dead comes when one horrified character says to another, "What the hell are they?" "They're us," comes the blank response. "That's all."
Next time you see an iPhone-fixated pedestrian ambling into a lamppost, remember: they're us.
2. Zombies suggest we're more than meat.
Despite the familiar naturalistic assertion that humans are merely machines made of meat, zombies offer an (unknowing?) critique.
Zombies present to our appalled eyes an estimation of what human beings ought to be like, were we merely the product of naturalistic forces. They are pitiful, shambling creatures, driven by blind instinct, without any capacity for joy or love, reason or compassion, self-control or courage, and without any longing for the transcendent. Unsurprisingly, no zombie has ever written a Petrarchan sonnet or composed an operetta—not even a bad one.
In short, and for want of a less contentious word, zombies clearly have no soul. All of which suggests a question for the naturalist: from where do we get ours?
3. Zombies remind us of where we're all headed.
We like to think we're nothing like them. But the psychological horror of the zombie is rooted in the creeping realization that we, too, are the walking dead. We all bear the family likeness of Adam, as sure a promise of oncoming death as a bite mark from one of the zombie horde. As the poet Philip Larkin expressed it, "Life is slow dying."
That's why zombie purists insist that zombies should move slowly. To portray them as tearing around like 5-year-olds on tartrazine (as they do, for instance, in Zach Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead) dilutes what zombies represent: the slow but inevitable approach of death. They don't need to move fast, because they know they'll get you in the end.
"Are they slow-moving, chief?" asks a reporter in Night of the Living Dead. "Yeah," a police officer says wearily, "they're dead."
4. Zombies hint that there is death after death.
Life after death is, for most, a pleasant possibility—and one that is easy to unthinkingly assume. But zombie movies trouble us with the thought that what actually awaits is a living death after death.
In more recent films, the zombie apocalypse is sometimes explained as the result of a deadly virus. But in others, there is a spiritual explanation. In Dawn of the Dead, for example, one character says, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth." There is uneasy awareness that death (and a living death beyond death) is the only just response of a good Creator who must condemn evil.
However far-fetched zombies may be, fear of death and what lies beyond it are real—and justified. We're destined to die once, and after that face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). According to the same writer, fear of death holds humanity in slavery. Zombie movies (and books and comics and games) attempt to quarantine that fear, isolate it, and turn it into something we can control or fight or even mock. But it's a flimsy barricade.
In a sermon on Revelation 6:8, 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon captured that oppressive fear of onrushing judgment followed by a living death:
Yes, death is after me and thee. Ah, run! run! run! but run as thou wilt, the rider on the white horse shall overtake thee. If thou canst escape him 70 years, he will overtake thee at last. Death is riding! Here his horse comes—I hear his snortings, I feel his hot breath; he comes! he comes! and thou must die! But, wicked man, what comes afterwards? Will it be heaven or hell? O, if it be hell that is after thee, where art thou when thou art cast away from God? Ah, I pray God deliver you from hell; he is coming after you, sure enough; and if you have no hiding-place, woe unto you.
I wouldn't encourage you to seek out zombie movies. They're graphic, sickening, and the lack of hope is infectious. But perhaps, in God's grace, the cultural fascination with zombies will draw some toward our only hope: hiding in the One who has already gone through death, and been declared its victor.
Whatever apocalypse awaits, there is shelter, there is rest. As Spurgeon says, "See you that cleft in the rock, see that cross, see that blood. There is security. And only there."