Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Who's Your Zombie?


What an awful lot of zombies there are on film lately. There’s a world of them in World War Z which I won’t be watching. It looks like every other American-saves-the-day blockbuster. I might read the book though.

I’m much more tempted to watch Warm Bodies which came out recently. I loved Zombieland, enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, didn't hate I am Legend and thought 28 days later was inspired (28 weeks later, less so).

My personal favorite however is Land of the Dead (2008) At this point I should confess that while I've seen other zombie flicks (Resident Evil, Undead and others) Land of the Dead is the only one of Romero’s works (original or remake) that I have ever seen.

George A. Romero’s status as the greatest zombie film maker of all time means this might disqualify me in some peoples mind from writing on this topic. On the one hand I agree. On the other hand I remind people that this is the internet and I am undaunted by my ignorance. Perhaps my brother Tim, as the family’s horror champion, could add his own thoughts.

What I loved about Land of the Dead is that it explored the meaning of zombie from the outside rather than the inside. Other films do this too but Land of the Dead prioritized it. To explain, consider the following definitions for a zombie;
1. Mindless, rage-filled, diseased, unholy, not really alive, hungry!
2. Expendable, can be mowed down freely as they are not a citizen in any way, too many, threatening,

The first definition includes actual qualities of the zombie. That is the zombie is treated as an actual thing. I use the word actual quite deliberately. Of course zombies are not events in the real world but that doesn’t mean that they are not treated as real in the fictions that discuss them. They are genuinely distinct from non-zombies. That genuine distinction is of the realm of objective qualities rather than merely how they are perceived. I use the word “actual” to describe this.

The second definition is different. It contains not the qualities of the zombie itself but the qualities of the gaze that produces the category of zombie. It is in fact more of a definition of the human ethics by which zombies, deserving or not, are recognized and treated as such.

Land of the Dead is interesting for emphasizing the second definition because while actual zombies don’t exist outside of fiction (or do they?), the category of zombie (the second definition) is very much a part of the real world. There are many people who are considered expendable, too populous and a threat. Tragically refugees in the Australian political context come to mind. What makes a zombie a good metaphor for how these people are being viewed is the idea of “depth of personhood”.


Our minds can extend out of our bodies. Just imagine your own back yard. Upon imagining it you may well have projected yourself into that space. You are possibly there now (mentally) looking at the yard work that needs doing. In this way we can virtually “see” around corners. Zombies in movies do this too. They hear a noise (not just any noise but the noise of people) and go to investigate. Sometimes they smell living flesh many miles away and travel to it in order to feed. To do this they must be able to project themselves mentally to the source of the sound or smell, to anticipate what they will find when they get there.

My mind and with it my sense of self also extends internally. In the form of my hopes and fears and pain sensations, identity conflicts and so on, I have depth. In fact I would say that most of the time this internal world is a trillion times larger than my external one. The yard work I need to do is dwarfed by the internal feelings of pride and shame that accompany completing it or not.

My self-hood may be infinitely deep. I can, after all, reflect on my reflections. Whole worlds of thought can become enveloped in another world of greater scale by mere pondering. When my heart breaks it feels like the universe ruptures and then from a later vantage point that universe of heartbreak will seem like a single satellite. Over my life there are galaxies and galaxies of internal life created and explored inside of me.

We can’t directly observe this internal world of others and unlike how our minds extend externally we don’t have any great evidence of its processes. It’s not easy to even infer the full depth of another person’s internal word from what we can casually observe of them. Art can be a way to communicate it, intimacy can reveal it, but mostly we have to hypothesize from our own experience of life and our external similarities that we are internally (roughly) the same as other people.

This reasoning process is so ingrained that its conclusions feel intuitive. In fact this is probably the best example of intuition I can think of. We realize that other people go as deep as ourselves because they are otherwise like us. It’s very much the basis of empathy which I believe is in turn the soundest basis for morality.

A zombie despite appearing superficially similar to humans is afforded none of this depth to their personhood. Their internal life is gone (or imagined gone). They don’t hope or fear or attach meaning to events. They certainly don’t reflect on their reflections as deeply as you or I. They are essentially going through the motions of being human. They are “soulless” (or are they?).

Once people are put in this category of Zombie it’s easy to see how they can be indefinitely detained or killed. They are completely expendable because even when they experience pain it just isn’t as meaningful as the pain we experience. It’s a purely sensory thing not the deep universe-rupturing event of our own or another humans suffering.


In a much more subtle way than what is happening politically in Australia with refugees I think we are always creating these sorts of zombies around us. That is we are always forgetting or dismissing other people’s equal internal depth.

Perhaps it’s almost impossible to equally appreciate the depth of personhood that others possess as we do our own. We may achieve it occasionally with our family and close friends but it seems to me that we struggle to sustain it even there. Genuinely living with the knowledge of other people’s depth of personhood as infinitely large as my own seems similar to Buddhist concepts of enlightenment. In other words some distance away from my current state of wisdom.

Powerful forces encourage us to perceive people as Zombies – not everyone, as that would make us a psychopath, but certainly neither is everyone supposed to be a human person to us. As I discussed in a post titled "A current cry for help", the perpetrators of violence and our own fear are not the only voices dissuading us from hearing cries of help. Every part of life that simply has another agenda for us – another way for us to spend our time and money – is also interested in us ignoring other people’s situations of need.

To do this we must create our philosophical zombies. Philosophical zombie is an established term which means specifically “a hypothetical being that is indistinguishable from a normal human being except in that it lacks …sentience.” I’m using it only slightly differently. I don’t think we care that a zombie possesses the external mind I spoke about that enables it to hunt effectively. That’s sentience too and we anticipate such a mind in those we place in the zombie category.

It’s the internal mind – the depth of feeling and meaning and significance – that we truncate in order to ignore our zombies potential suffering. We don’t even need to truncate it entirely. We only need to shorten it sufficiently to outweigh their needs with our own. Given the infinite size of our own internal life, any finite space for others may even be enough. While we contain galaxies, our zombies can still hold something like oceans of thought without it perturbing us too much if we step on their heads to get past.

Everyday if we live in a major city a million such zombies may get in our way. They clearly have no idea of the magnitude of our internal world when they stagger in front of us, congest our car’s path or buy the last white choc muffin. Certainly they are not actually zombies we might tell ourselves in a quiet voice but louder voices will insist that they must be.

Our tribal leaders, be they radio-shock jocks, pop-stars, preachers, advertisers and even academics thrive on declaring other people outside their fold as un-thinking and/or heartless. In other words, a zombie. And we are constantly stretching our mercy to forgive them. Haters of the graphic novel, watchers of Big Brother, executive and corporate types, Liberal voters, regurgitators of The Secret, are some of my own different tribe’s zombies. Your tribe’s zombies might include atheists or it might include Christians or it might include people who vaccinate or people who refuse to, or fans of Justin Beiber or people who don’t understand how amazing he is. How indulgent we all are to put up with them….just.


In most zombie movies becoming a zombie oneself is the critical fear for the hold-out humans. Unlike picky Vampires or Werewolves who pass on vampirism or lycanthropy selectively, zombies tend to come in an overwhelming plague. This threat level of contagion justifies extreme measures in the containment and elimination of zombies. All the civil restrictions and military authority required are justified. The future of the human race is at stake.

Even some humans may have to be cut loose if they drop behind. That’s the thinking of the member of the human party in zombie movies who ends up betraying the others. This person looks at people well before they get bitten as “likely” zombies anyway. They may even have had that attitude before any “actual” zombies showed up. They were always alone in how they understood the unique depth of their own person hood.

Because movies are wonderful the sneaky backstabber who looks out for themselves or who exploits the zombie plague for personal gain will inevitably get bitten. When they do they are seldom that different as a zombie from how they were before. This is because the truncation of their internal life – the zombification of themselves – has already occurred for the audience. They are and were a villain.

While human the villains mind extended externally as far as anyone else’s if not further. They never had a problem tactically projecting themselves where they needed to be to look after their own interests. But then a zombie can do that too. A zombie’s problem is their singlemindedness, the lack of greater significance to their actions and ultimately their reduction of even their loved ones to food. This is exactly (substitute food for target practice) the mindset of the zombie persecutor.

(Whereas the fear the heroes have of turning into zombies is often about not recognizing their loved ones if they do, the villains' fear seems to be of being killed once zombified. They don't recognise any “loved ones” while still human. What humanity are they preserving then?)

It’s a paradox. The very gaze that determines others as zombies turns us into actual zombies. Great films of this genre explore this concept. In the real world we all have to grapple with it too. Whenever we cultivate empathy we deepen our internal life. Whenever we give up on or dismiss the depth of reality for others we shrink who we are; As we see zombies around us we become more and more zombie-like ourselves.

(Note: After watching fifteen minutes on youtube of Survival of theDead (2009) I am hugely impressed. I have a lot of research to do but bandwidth restricts me from using the internet to do it. If you have the movies, I'll make the popcorn.)


  1. Bring lots of popcorn. I have Night Of The Living Dead('68), Dawn Of The Dead('78), Day of the Dead('85), AND Land Of The Dead('05). Theyre all great but the best are the first 2. The amazing thing about the Dead series Romero made is the timespan. He made one nearly every decade and each is a commentary about it's time in America, with zombies as the ever evolving metaphor.

    I recommend Dead Snow too, just for the laughs. Pontypool is a must watch. Thats no guarantee you'll like it, or even get it, but it's one of the most original horror/zombie movie i've seen.

    There's a book by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of the brilliant Let The Right One In who also scripted the movie adaptation, called Handling The Undead which i'm eager to read.

    A movie that i've avoided becaus i believe it's concept is great in the mind (or even as a dark short story) but i wouldnt watch it as a feature length film is titled Dead Girl. I may see it someday but... well... i'll leave it to you to google what it's about.

    Will talk more later. Must now watch Monsters versus Giant Robots.

  2. I think an interesting movie to add to this research might be a recent one called "Warm Bodies".
    I haven't seen it but the main protagonist is a zombie who has a complete internal world. It's about how, through the power of luuurve, the zombies can become human again.
    Almost to prove the point you make with this blog, for the movie to work so that you care about a sentient zombie main character, there are other zombies called "bonies" who are zombies who have just given up and then clearly become more "zombified"! Ha! Even in a "zombies are people too" movie you need a few "well, except for THOSE zombies" characters.

    Check out a clip from the movie here:

  3. I saw Warm Bodies recently. Its brilliant. So much allegory.