Among the most perceptive things I’ve learned from my Night of the Living Dead studies is that director George Romero was a 1950s teenage fan of E.C. Comics, which featured graphic horror stories until U.S. Senate hearings in 1954 forced the industry to curtail the gore that was feared to encourage juvenile delinquency. “One facet of E. C. horror that George Romero seems to have particularly taken to heart is the ghoulish nightmare in which family members (whether parents and children, siblings or spouses) feed on one another’s flesh,” noted J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum in Midnight Movies. Though I never read E.C. Comics, I obviously picked up the point of Night of the Living Dead in my zombie poems.
Bitten by a zombie, the nine year old girl lay
feverish under blankets. Only one line
to remember & she didn’t forget: I hurt.
Pale & solitary, she never fidgeted or needed to pee.
On a basement table she lay at peace
with her parents’ bickering. Her bull-headed father
triumphed down the stairs to throw
his crushed cigarette pack & announce,
We’ll see when they come begging me.
Her dark-haired mother with beauty-queen lips
sneered, We may not enjoy living together,
but dying together isn’t going to solve anything.
Long bathed in strife, the girl ignored them,
yet noticed all the adults working on set smoked,
& a year later started herself: Luckys, then Parliaments.
She didn’t think much of her performance, but
who can forget her? She rose at the end
in her Sunday dress to two-hand a trowel
over her head, revealing the slip at her knees,
then dug deep into her mother’s chest to find
the love that she wanted. In black & white
blood splattered the walls as if she’d struck oil.
Hoberman and Rosenbaum also noted that “Most of the men who wrote and drew E.C. Comics were veterans of World War II or Korea, and it is reasonable to assume that their work was in some sense cathartic—superimposing the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima on the mobilized, but relatively nonviolent, home front.” So do zombies embody war traumas? One of the most startling zombies I’ve seen was an etching in Otto Dix’s 1924 “War” series of a soldier who has half of a normal face and half of a flesh rubble dome missing an eye and an ear. Though this man was a wounded veteran of the brutal trench warfare shown in other “War ” etchings, he could well have been one of the countless varieties of decayed corpses that lurch through zombie films.
No one has suggested that the zombie renaissance of the past few years has been a part of our reaction to 9/11and the mess we’ve made since then. And the genius of zombies is that they can signify most anything. I’ve even read that they represent our fatalism over being deluged by e-mails. (I’ve argued that they reflect our fears of human overpopulation. If you took a few minutes, I’m sure you could concoct your own theory.) But as the wars have dragged on, killing untold numbers of Iraqis and Afghans, whose loss we’ve poorly acknowledged, and crippling thousands of veterans, whom we also turn away from for celebrity entertainment, I wonder if zombies don’t crawl out of our guilty conscience. All the death and mayhem we’ve caused half way around the world has come back to haunt us on our own country highways. Of course, in zombie movies the villains are never the zombies themselves, but the conniving, power-hungry humans who turn a deadly threat into catastrophe. What could be more post-9/11 than that?