Why won’t zombies just die?

June 24, 2013
(Crown Publishing Group)
(Crown Publishing Group)

With zombie sightings rising quickly over the weekend, I tried to calm myself by contacting some undead experts.

Joshua Blu Buhs is a scholar of America’s occult fears and obsessions, who wrote an insightful book about Big Foot a few years ago. (No, seriously.) He tells me that Americans first became interested in zombies in the late 19th century, and then again during the Depression when Bela Lugosi starred in “The White Zombie.” Once George Romero unearthed the putrid hordes for “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, they’ve never stopped running around pop culture.

“But the loving and lovable zombie is a new addition,” Buhs says, referring to the recent novels “Zombie, Ohio,” “My So Called Death” and “Warm Bodies,” which was made into a movie this year. “They’re following in the steps of vampires, which have, of course, become very sexy.” What are you trying to tell me, Josh? “The line between zombies and us has been eroded: They is we, and we is they. And so events arise in which we play at being them: zombie walks and zombie races.”

According to Buhs, what’s best about zombies is as obvious as the noses rotting off their faces: “They are good at depicting the material reality of death, putrescence and decay,” he says. “Vampires don’t do this nearly so well. And this grossness is a draw. It’s one of the few ways to really depict death’s processes in popular culture.”

Bennett Sims’s brand new “A Questionable Shape,” may be the smartest zombie novel since Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” (2011). And listening to him talk about these gangrenous monsters, it’s clear that he’s got braaaaaaains. “Zombies embody a modern anxiety about globalization and societal collapse, which might explain their appeal as metaphors for these crises,” he tells me. “Economic meltdowns are said to be caused by ‘zombie banks’ and ‘zombie mortgages,’ and the CDC prepares for real epidemics with fake zombie-survival guides.”

(Two Dollar Radio)
(Two Dollar Radio)

But Sims doesn’t want us to miss the zombie for the horde. “Taken individually, zombies pose unsettling questions about consciousness. Any given zombie is a figure of pure liminality,” he says, which makes me think a certain New York Times book critic has already bitten him. “It straddles the thresholds that we use to define ourselves as human. Zombies are both alive and dead, driven both by will and automatism; they both remember (they return to familiar spaces) and forget (they bite their loved ones). In this respect, zombies have persisted in the culture for as long as our anxieties about selfhood have. Traditionally, what’s uncanny about these zombies is the moment of recognition, when we see in them what’s already undead in us. They confront us with our own habituated, repetitive and mindless ways of being.”

But enough about the office! How can I protect myself from these necrotic fiends? Fortunately, I caught up with Roger Ma just before he went off to see “World War Z.” He’s the author of the very helpful “Zombie Combat Manual: A Guide to Fighting the Living Dead.” (Buy two copies; otherwise, when the apocalypse comes, your “Zombie Combat Manual” is always in your other purse!)

“Never be unarmed — mentally and physically,” he warns me. “You never know when the dead will rise.”

(Penguin)
(Penguin)

Until that dark day, though, he admonishes me to consider that the living dead are surprisingly malleable creatures. “They can represent so many deep seated fears,” he says. “Fear of death, disease, plague, class warfare, social anarchy. And that’s precisely why they are so popular now. We live in very uncertain times, and many fans I speak to not only are preparing for a zombie apocalypse, they relish the thought of it.

Mmmm, relish.

Curiously, there’s one formidable holdout against the undead hordes: Anne Rice, the queen of the damned, remains singularly unimpressed by zombies. “I have not watched the zombie TV shows, and don’t quite get zombies,” she tells me. “I suspect that, like all supernatural heroes or monsters, they have a deep metaphorical meaning for the audience. But what is it exactly? Do people today feel like zombies, or do they see most other people around them as zombies who are attacking them? Don’t know. Wish I did.”

Me too.

Follow on Twitter @RonCharles

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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