(“The Roundtable” on WAMC broadcast this “Listener Essay” on Friday, March 18th, 2011.)
I’m old enough to remember a time before vampires ruled as king of our fears, or at least of the young adult section of Border’s and Barnes and Noble. That would be March 2006 when the Style section of The New York Times proclaimed zombies as the monsters of the Zeitgeist for their outbreak everywhere, or at least in books, movies, video games, and Halloween parades. At the time I happened to be writing a series of poems inspired by Night of the Living Dead, so I was delighted to discover that I was in sync with popular culture.
What is it about zombies? We know what it is about vampires: sex and the adolescent fears it excites. But what do the living dead tell us about what’s suppressed in ourselves? Some day, I hope, a brilliant French critic will wow us with theories. For now, I’ve got some ideas I put in a poem.
Why I Love Zombies
They’ve let go of their pride.
They’re not vampire aristocrats
spoiled by virginal necks,
or mummies older than Christ.
They’re retired plumbers
in boxer shorts pulled snug
on beer-and-potato-chip bellies,
or housewives in dumpy nightgowns
wandering barefoot on the lawn,
hypnotized by crickets.
They’re not Frankenstein’s
monster with bolts in his neck,
or alien coneheads with 500 IQs
& rotten claw teeth.
They’re volunteer firemen
with charcoal puffy eyes
from watching Carson night after night,
or secretaries softening faces
with cold cream before bed.
They’re not bikers, hippies, or rednecks,
the stock villains of 1968,
but young men with good haircuts
& worthwhile careers,
teaching high school biology,
or managing a Chevrolet showroom.
All good citizens, they’re eager to help
a young crew from Pittsburgh
film a low-budget nightmare
at an old farmhouse. Amid spotlights
slashing the lawn, they shuffle & groan
as cameramen kneel for closeups:
gunshots to the chest, spikes to the head.
They’re thrown out & burned
like junk furniture. They have no idea
one day they’ll be famous,
terrifying us by being so ordinary.
But there has to be more. For starters, zombies make a mockery of our sanctified notions about death. They are the fart jokes of mortality. (By the way, my favorite definition of good horror is that it makes us scream just a bit louder than we laugh.) Instead of the dearly departed leaving for heaven, they stumble after us with an appetite, cannibals who see us as sushi. A crass metaphor, of course. But anyone who has suffered through grief knows the terrifying power that lost ones have to suck out our life forces. Maybe zombies are trying to warn us that sympathy cards are weak medicine.
For those who find politics everywhere, zombies are the dead power structures that refuse to topple to allow change. Or the frightening fate that stalks many of us in this jobless recovery in an economy that hasn’t done much for the middle class in generations. In George Romero’s movies—Romero being the auteur of zombies since his classic Night of the Living Dead—zombies are the ones with heart, simple creatures crudely attempting to satisfy simple needs amidst the living who are callow, calculating, and too clever by half. The humans who treat zombies as jokes always seem to go down first.
Here’s my theory for the day: zombies embody our latent fear of human overpopulation. Back in the late Sixties and early Seventies overpopulation was a five alarm topic—see global warming today—but by the early Nineties, when I worked at an environmental magazine, it was a third rail subject. Mention overpopulation and you immediately got zapped by the rage over racism, immigration, abortion, any subject that touched on the question of who should be born and who shouldn’t. I humbly submit that it’s not my decision to make. But that answer evades the issue of overpopulation. There are conservative thinkers, of course, who hail our planet’s growing numbers as a source of vitality and perhaps genius to solve the problems we can’t solve for ourselves. But I wonder if the rest of us don’t feel an uneasiness. In airports, at the mall, in cities, on many occasions we encounter more people than we could possibly know as friends or acquaintances. We abide by an unwritten code of courtesy toward strangers. But what if we passed a tipping point, the zombie outbreak, at which they turned on us? Hold onto your popcorn. The movie’s about to begin.