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Zombies in Western Culture

John Vervaeke
Christopher Mastropietro
Filip Miscevic

1. A New Zeitgeist

Texte intégral

“Not the Black Death, this time; the Gray Life”.
Huxley 1962: 59

  • 1 From Google N-Gram Viewer (Michel et al. 2011).

Fig. 1: Prevalence of the use of the word “zombie” from 1920–2008 in predominantly English books published in any country.1

Fig. 2: Zombie Walk Mexico (2011). Photo by Munir Hamdan.2

1In 2001, a very peculiar performance art begins to take place across North America. It occurs first in Sacramento, California and again two years later in Toronto, Ontario. By 2008, it starts recurring annually in certain urban centers, grows steadily with each passing year, and spreads from one city to the next. Sometimes it has fewer than 50 participants. Sometimes it has over 1000. In late 2011, Mexico City boasts a record of 9,000. Some gatherings are meticulous and coordinated, others are impromptu. Some participants join in advance, and many decide to follow spontaneously. Before long, the phenomenon begins to spread around the globe.

Fig. 3: “I thought that beauty alone would satisfy. But the soul is gone. I can’t bear those empty, staring eyes”. Screenshot from the Halperin brothers’1932 film, White Zombie, at 40:11.3

2It should surprise us that these “walks” have only begun to appear, when the paradigm for their behavior has existed since the Halperin brothers produced White Zombie in 1932. In this film, a young man turned voodoo master transforms a young woman into a subordinate, pale-skinned corpse. Though his motive is initially to gain her love, his magic succeeds only in removing her vitality. This ironic consequence comes to effect change in his intentions, and he repents to her: “I thought that beauty alone would satisfy. But the soul is gone. I can’t bear those empty, staring eyes”. It is a mark of how the zombie has developed over the years that the word “beauty” could ever have been used to describe it.

3The outbreak of zombieism is a twentieth century phenomenon, but in the twenty-first century it explodes into zeitgeist. Over 600 zombie movies have been made since 1920, but over one half of them have been in the last 10 years. Two great waves have lapped onto the shore of American cinema since 2000: one around 2001, and then again in 2008.4 Twenty-Eight Days Later comes out in 2002, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is remade in 2004, and Zombieland becomes the highest-grossing zombie film to date in 2009. This is quickly overtaken in 2013, first by Warm Bodies, and then by the Brad Pitt epic, World War Z.5 By 2015, there are three TV series based on zombies: Z Nation on Netflix, iZombie on CW, and AMC’s breakthrough hit, The Walking Dead.6 The genre has also enjoyed considerable success in the medium of video games, most notably in the highly lauded The Last of Us.7

4Clearly, the zombie has transcended the constraints of its own genre. Whereas early zombie films closely adhered to horror tropes, more recent renditions have wed themselves to comedy and romance (Zack Snyder released the comedic Shaun of the Dead in 2004 to critical and popular acclaim),8 and broken away from melodrama. The zombie has become a pervasive cultural symbol that is constantly expanding its reference, not content to relegate itself to its tradition. As Deleuze and Guattari (1972: 332) put it “the only modern myth is the myth of zombies”. The zombie seems to be a shifting signifier with an unending hermeneutical compass. And yet its features remain remarkably consistent from one story to the next, and it has represented many varieties of apocalypse without altering its basic nature: consumerism, poverty, hunger, political dystopia and environmental degradation, zombies have assumed a heterogeneity of ugliness. No longer simply a vehicle for entertainment, it has become the basis for critical reflection and cultural self-examination, to which an increasing number of academic publications on the subject attest (Goto-Jones 2015; Moreman 2010; Webb and Byrnand 2008). For instance, Television Ontario devoted an episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin in 2011 to an unreserved examination of humanity’s most nauseating adversary. Four panelists―Daniel Drezner, Arnold T. Blumberg, Robert Smith and Andrew Watson―sat down to parse its menaces and flesh out its metaphors. Zombies have pressed us with the dangers of a unique moment in time, and they have become the most enduring, expressive and consummate metaphor for our crisis in meaning.

5The zombie has been subject to a vast variety of interpretations by culture theorists and academics. To examine these exhaustively would be beyond the scope of this or any other monograph. The affinity between zombies and states of human decrepitude has permitted the view that zombies can stand for nearly every conceivable human failing. The present authors propose that the interpretations most favoured by academics―mortality, consumerism and environmental degradation among them―are plausible without being sufficient. The mere fact that each seems to apply invalidates the proposition that any one of them can apply exclusively. We take the position that this exegetic pigeonholing often falls deftly into the “forest for the trees” category of thinking. The zombie zeitgeist accommodates interpretations of disquiet about many topics, yet we will argue that each of these readings should be understood as elements of a broader symptomatology. This symptomatology, we will explain, relates to a condition that is far more complex than has been supposed by any theorist that has previously written on this topic.

  • 9 It will be apparent throughout the monograph that our reference to ‘the West’ is invoked with pred (...)

6We propose that the cultural phenomenon of the zombie has provided us with a constellation of four intersecting symbols for a modern human ethos, and that these symbols represent a crisis of worldview that has no precedent in modern western civilization. Our use of the collective pronoun “we” shall be in broad reference to North-American and Western culture more generally. This limitation notwithstanding, the authors will make no claims regarding the applicability of these arguments to cultures that may fall outside of that moniker.9

7In this book we will suggest that the appearance of these zombie symbols is approximately co-emergent with the West’s dawning cultural awareness of a worldview crisis, and that there are sufficient correlations between the traits of the zombie and the symptomology of the crisis to demonstrate this linkage reliably. We will provide a preliminary discussion of the origins of the crisis (the full argument will be reserved for forthcoming work), and argue that it is extant in the personal, social, political and religious domains of life in which we participate, and which define us uniquely as a meaning-making species.

8In the forthcoming sections, we will also argue that while the zombie is a versatile enough symbol to stand for many kinds of human defilement, the symbol ultimately draws its aptness from being a perversion of the Christian mythos of death and resurrection, and that most of its traits and features have emerged from, and harken back to, the matrix of the Christian worldview. We will contend that the zombie has evolved to become a representation of the loss of the sacred canopy traditionally provided by Christianity, and that its features have evolved along the fault lines of this loss, representing a world that no longer explains itself, nor provides us instruction for how to live within it.

9Section 2 will retrace the genealogy of the zombie from its precursory influences and the peak popularity that began at the turn of this century. We will also discuss how the zombie replaced the extra-terrestrials to become the preeminent monster for the twenty-first century, reflecting the weariness and alienation left by the Cold War and the threat of nuclear apocalypse.

10Section 3 will provide the main exegesis of the zombie itself, separating its myth into four predominant symbols that are recurrent in its popular depictions in film, television, and other literature. These symbols will not simply be icons associated with the zombie’s image; they will be the zombie’s physical attributes, the treatment of its name, contortions of its narrative structure and the ecology of apocalypse that invariably follows it from one story to the next.

11Section 4 will introduce the concept of cultural domicide (the destruction of home) by exploring two chronologically distant but revealing case studies examining the loss of home on a cultural scale. The first of these will refer the Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario, Canada, and the second to the decline of the Hellenistic civilization following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. This section will depart from discussions of the zombie to build a framework for worldview attunement that will inform the discussions in the remaining sections.

12Section 5 will discuss the symptomatology of this crisis in detail using the four horsemen of the Christian apocalypse as an analogue for the four domains affected by the meaning crisis. Famine, Pestilence, War and Death will stand for the personal, social, political and religious manifestations of the crisis, framed by the loss of worldview introduced in the previous section.

13Section 6 will offer an overview of the historical origins of the meaning crisis, tracing the rise and fall of a western worldview that was composed of three constellating orders from the Aristotelean and Christian paradigms. This introductory genealogy will chronicle the emergence of our cultural domicide throughout the centuries, an argument that will be elaborated in forthcoming work.

14Though we will subdivide the representational corpus of the zombie zeitgeist into different symbols in section 3, and the symptoms in section 5, we will also refer to the amalgam of zombie phenomena as a single symbol for the purpose of surveying these phenomena collectively. There are two fundamental claims that we will introduce hereto and reiterate throughout this book. The first is that, by almost all accounts, zombies are the fictionally distorted, self-reflected image of modern humanity. Most zombie interpretations begin with this premise, that in some pivotal way, “zombies are us” (see e.g., Goto-Jones 2015, Moreman 2010, Webb and Byrnand 2008). This book will seek to add valence and depth to this proposition. Zombies do represent us, but more specifically, they represent the ruin of all that is meaningful within us. Zombies represent the modern deterioration of our uniquely human ability to make and sustain meaning in our lives.

15The second conclusion is that the zombie zeitgeist is a powerful but inarticulate form of representation. It is a raw opus of pop art, and it is not replete with self-analysis. The main function of zombie symbol seems to express the meaning crisis, not to treat or explain it. Naturally then, our aim here is to buffer the gaps within the zombie’s expression with the evaluation required to appreciate its gravity. This is our undertaking in the forthcoming sections.


1 From Google N-Gram Viewer (Michel et al. 2011).

2 Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

3 A remastered version of the movie is available at

4 Annalee Newitz (2008), “War and Social Upheaval Cause Spikes in Zombie Movie Production”,

5 Trailers available on YouTube: Twenty-Eight Days Later at; Dawn of the Dead at; Zombieland at; Warm Bodies at; World War Z at

6 Trailers are available on YouTube: Z Nation at; iZombie (Season 1) at; The Walking Dead (Season 1) at

7 The trailer of The Last of Us is available on YouTube at

8 The trailer of Shaun of the Dead is available on YouTube at

9 It will be apparent throughout the monograph that our reference to ‘the West’ is invoked with predominantly American examples. As the US is the most significant exporter of popular culture in the West, our focus on American culture is proportionate to its contribution to the phenomenon. Though this does not necessarily suggest that the phenomenon is absent from other western countries, America certainly seems to be the epicenter of the crisis, and most exemplary of its features.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1: Prevalence of the use of the word “zombie” from 1920–2008 in predominantly English books published in any country.1
Fichier image/jpeg, 77k
Légende Fig. 2: Zombie Walk Mexico (2011). Photo by Munir Hamdan.2
Fichier image/jpeg, 145k
Légende Fig. 3: “I thought that beauty alone would satisfy. But the soul is gone. I can’t bear those empty, staring eyes”. Screenshot from the Halperin brothers’1932 film, White Zombie, at 40:11.3
Fichier image/jpeg, 78k


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