After breaking my own vow never to do a list article last month, I felt like I should come back with something a little more rigorous to make up. So here it is: a postmodern examination of the zombie, and a chance for me to use up all my five-dollar words. And yes, I will be quoting Baudrillard.

You’ve been warned.

Let’s start by saying that zombies are thoroughly postmodern. The zombie is what Arthur Kroker calls the somatic body, the antiverbal part of ourselves with which we have lost contact and suppressed through our determination to posit language as the be-all and end-all of existence, through the desire to be semiotic. But the zombie is also the epitome of Kroker’s panic body, which results from the breakdown of our semiotic system. Hence, the zombie attacks us from both sides, in the bodies we have left behind and the bodies we are reluctant to embrace.

George A. Romero’s films in particular take place in what Kroker describes in The Postmodern Scene as

the violent edge between ecstasy and decay; between the melancholy lament of postmodernism over death of the grand signifiers of modernity–consciousness, truth, sex, capital, power–and the ecstatic nihilism of ultramodernism; between the body as a torture chamber and pleasure-palace…

As Night of the Living Dead (1968) opens, heroine Barbra and her bother Johnny are visiting their mother’s grave. Within minutes, a zombie attacks them and Johnny is killed. Mentally unhinged by the incident, Barbra flees to a nearby farmhouse where she is joined by salesman Ben, a family, and a pair of teenagers all hiding from the menace of the ghouls. The house becomes a microcosm of social stresses and forced cooperation as the group attempts (unsuccessfully) to survive until morning.

Zombie_250 2.jpgThe farmhouse is precariously perched on Kroker’s violent edge between ecstasy and decay; between the survivors’ fierce and logical determination to live and the shambling onslaught of the zombies, who progress successfully without either ideology or meaning. The house is much like the postmodern condition as described by Buadrillard: “a space radiating with power but also cracked, like a shattered windshield holding together.” It hums with the energy of the nuclear family, but as nuclear father Harry Cooper observes, arguing for retreat to the basement, “There are a million windows up here. A million ways for those things to get in.”

The only character that truly realizes the death of the grand signifiers is Barbra,
whose constant, unanswerable question, “What’s happening?” expresses the panic of the situation most aptly. Likewise, Barbra’s mental and physical apathy, her total surrender to the situation turns out to be the most rational response. While the other characters fight against the encroaching darkness–boarding doors and windows, hoarding weapons and food, and attempting escape–Barbra sits motionless, waiting for the death that is slouching toward her. She is in shock: Kroker’s “shock of the real” and “shock of the stiff.”  Because this is more than just panic; it is horror. And the only realistic response to such overwhelming horror and panic is an evanescent desire, “the ecstatic nihilism of ultramodernism”. Although this suicidal urge may seem irrational, in the context of Romero’s films it can be read as a rational desire for a sense of finality.

For those fighting the zombies, what’s scary is not dying at the ghouls’ hand, but
becoming one of them, not being able to stay dead, realizing that when death ceases to have meaning, so does life. Johnny’s death leaves Barbra shattered and immobile because she has invested the concept of death with meaning. But
when he returns to her as one of the zombies, she suddenly becomes active again.

In the face of semiotic breakdown, she panics, and tries to escape. But the only way to escape is to beat the system–to die and stay dead. Without doubt, this is a panic response; the flight half of the fight or flight urge.

Perhaps most importantly and probably most horrifyingly, the story of Romero’s films is one of aftermath, of something that has already happened, that cannot be reversed. No last minute strategy to prevent the zombies, because they are already here. This is not racing against time; it is turning on the television to find that the race ended long ago (just as the characters in the films turn on their sets to find a nation already engulfed by death). What Romero’s characters experience is a sudden coming into Kroker’s “fin-de-millennium consciousness which… uncovers a great arc of disintegration and decay against the background radiation of parody, kitsch, and burnout.”

This is the sudden, cold sweat surety of knowledge that the end has been here for some time. The decay is laid bare as zombies parody life in all its gory, kitschy glory and burnout starts: media stop broadcasting, power goes out, and it’s actually darker after the dawn.

Especially when they let Zach Snyder direct the remake.


Ian Driscoll is coming to get you, Barbra.

5 replies »

  1. “the ecstatic nihilism of ultramodernism”
    Classic! I want a T shirt with that and a Romero zombie on it.


  2. I’d wear one.
    It’d be almost as cool as the Magneto Was Right t-shirt.
    Maybe the internet can help us out. Cafepress anyone? Etsy?


  3. Hi Ian,
    Wugguduh! Despite oversaturation right now, zombies still give me the jibblies, especially Romero’s ghouls. I think you sum it up really well:
    Perhaps most importantly and probably most horrifyingly, the story of Romero’s films is one of aftermath, of something that has already happened, that cannot be reversed.
    It’s done, it’s over. His movies are not stories of scrappy heroes overcoming bad odds, but of the audience slowly realizing the inevitable. You know how this will end, you’ve always known, but you hoped for something else. When hope finally succumbs, there’s no way to laugh it off.
    Way to be brainy about brainlessness!


  4. I actually see George Romero’s movie (maybe even all his movies) as more classically tragic than post-modern, because it seems it’s always human beings who screw themselves over, who fail to cooperate, who don’t listen, who don’t trust each other at important junctures.
    I agree that “what’s scary is not dying at the ghouls’ hand, but becoming one of them, not being able to stay dead, realizing that when death ceases to have meaning, so does life.” But while I recognize that the setting is one of apocalyptic aftermath, I don’t see that as the source of nihilism in these movies. Maybe my take is more Existentialist: I see other people as the reason for nihilistic despair.


  5. more and more i wonder if fast zombies are an attempt to avoid the very existential horror you are talking about. making the death at the hands of the ghouls the source of the horror, by making them so fast they could be any predatory animal or monster or person. moving too fast for us to think of the horror beyond being killed that these particular monsters represent.


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