A Country Walking Dead: The Zombie as Metaphor in American Culture and Film

Sean Posey I Society & Culture I Analysis I February 27th, 2014

We are currently living through the age of the zombie-zombie politics, zombie banks, zombie infrastructure, etc. Public intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Paul Krugman, and others have used the zombie as a metaphor for everything from our dysfunctional financial system to our alienating political institutions. The popularity of zombies among public intellectuals and its potent symbolism is best reflected in the zombie films of the past few decades, which have traced long-term problems in American society.

For over forty years, the films of George A. Romero-and now the television show The Walking Dead-have reflected the major failings of social institutions and community in America. Zombie films tend to wax in times of discontent and uncertainty and wane (at least in quality) in times of prosperity and quietude. Romero's films echo societal themes that are growing increasingly important and increasingly dark. And in the post-2008 era, where institutional failure is so widespread that the term "zombie' can be freely and accurately applied, we have truly entered the age of the living dead, which is best showcased by the enormous popularity of The Walking Dead.

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead introduced zombies to the mainstream public consciousness during one of the most turbulent years in American history-1968. Outside of the dark movie houses, America was tearing itself apart in the streets of the inner cities and in the massive protests against the Vietnam War. The film itself centers on a motley crew of travelers taking refuge in a farmhouse as the dead rise up around them. Filmed outside of Pittsburgh, one can't help but think of how the countryside would have seemed an appealing escape in 1968 as Pittsburgh's Homewood and Hill neighborhoods burned in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination. The racially tinged power struggle that takes place in the film between Ben (Duane Jones) and Harry (Karl Hardman) mirrored the racial struggle taking place across the country and in nearby Pittsburgh in 1968.

The battle between Ben and Harry eventually sets the stage for the failure of the travelers' efforts to halt the zombie onslaught. This acts as a kind of stand-in for the inability to build the "beloved community" that Martin Luther King famously described, and which seemed to die with him. The inability of the makeshift group to pull together and the failure of the government to master the crisis-conveyed through television broadcasts-reflected the seeming impotency of the American government on both foreign and domestic fronts in the late 1960s.

The decade of the 1970s brought further crises for America that was exhibited in zombie films. Romero's 1978 zombie sequel, Dawn of the Dead, captured the ennui of the decade of stagflation, suburbanization, and consumerism. At the beginning of the film, a group of four survivors escape the confines of a collapsing city in a helicopter. Without food or prospects, they land atop a large suburban shopping mall. As in Night of The Living Dead rural areas-despite their hallowed place in the American imagination-hold little promise. Rampaging soldiers and civilians make a game out of killing zombies in the sticks. As one character puts it, "Those rednecks are probably enjoying this whole thing." [1] Instead, the mall, with its cornucopia of merchandise, becomes the mecca for the group-and for the zombies.

Dawn highlights the 'zombiefication' of the American consumer class. Even in death, hordes of former shoppers surround the mall and mindlessly wander its confines. While watching the zombies, the survivors muse on their motivations.

Fran: They're still here.

Stephen: They're after us. They know we're still in here.

Peter: They're after the place. They don't know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.

The group themselves, after expelling the undead from the mall, fall back into the familiar pattern of shopping-consumerism survives even the end of the world. And Romero's set-up mimics the geographic and societal reality of the day: Cities are "dead zones" to be avoided, and the mall is the centerpiece of American life, and in this case, also death. Even though America was reeling from high gas prices in the 1970s, it continued to build far-flung suburbs that contributed to the hollowing out of cities. The traditional downtown had been replaced as the center of civic life by the mall. [2] In the film, the group is eventually challenged for control of the mall, not by the undead, but by a marauding biker gang. Symbolically, the mall becomes a place where community goes to die. The mall, as in real life, became not a center for community, but a center for consumption-and those considered undesirable could be excluded.[3]

As the doldrums of the 1970s gave way to "Morning in America," domestic zombie films lost their hard edge.[4] Spoofs and sophomoric scripts probably seemed more natural for a frivolous decade of excess. In the middle of a long line of films like I Was a Teenage Zombie, Redneck Zombie, and Hard Rock Zombies came the third film in Romero's trilogy-Day of the Dead. This exceptionally dark film failed to perform at the box office, and was bested by the tongue-in-cheek Return of the Living Dead. Day begins with another group of survivors surveying the now totally overrun cities. However, most of the film takes place in a claustrophobic military complex underground. Members of the military-represented as brutes and would-be fascists-and a team of scientists occupy opposite sides.

Even the pretend world of the mall in Dawn is no longer possible, as one character mockingly mentions: "You know the power's off on the mainland now, in case you haven't heard. And all the shopping malls are closed."[5]

In Day, institutional failure and the failure of community are central. Once again, the remnants of humanity are unable to pull together. The military fails, and the scientific community is ultimately rendered impotent. The zombies breach the underground complex and only a few people escape. As film scholar Robin Woods puts it, "Day represents an uncompromisingly hostile response to the 80s…And beyond that, the film prefigures our own dark times: Day is if anything more relevant today than it was when it appeared, as things have only got progressively blacker and more desperate, and events are currently escalating into a world situation of which the end of life on the planet (…the pollution of the environment) seems a not unlikely outcome."[6]

The American zombie failed to captivate audiences in the roaring 1990s. There appeared to be little place for the undead-even in jokey spoofs-in a time of credit default swaps, technological triumphalism, and nearly full employment. Yet all that changed with beginning of the twenty-first century-the dawn of the new zombie era. Some scholars have tied the rebirth of interest in and fascination with zombies to the coming of the post- 911 world. [7] There certainly is truth to that; however, some of the best films of the genre from the new century are British or from other foreign markets. Dreadful dreck like Resident Evil and the remake of Dawn of the Dead were among the biggest American hits of the immediate post-911 era.

It wasn't until 2005, when George Romero returned with Land of the Dead, that we saw a return to the themes of community in crisis and the failure of institutions that directly reflects what is happening in America. As Roger Ebert put it, "The parallels with the real world are tantalizing." [8] Much like our society, the city where Land takes place is riven by vast class chasms. While most of the city's population lives in filth and misery, the wealthy elite exist in the confines of a high-rise known as Fiddlers Green. Led by Dennis Hooper-in a character directly modeled after Dick Cheney-Fiddlers Green resembles something straight out of Thorsten Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. The wealthy class relies on a series of mercenaries to do their bidding and to procure for them the luxuries they are accustomed to. However, after being rejected for membership in the Green, one of the mercenaries (John Leguizamo) sets in a motion a series of events that brings down both the rich and the impoverished as zombies breach the city's defenses.

The post-2008 era has arguably woven the living dead even deeper into the American fabric.[9] Journalism, economics, and political writing have eagerly adopted the zombie metaphor. And the zombie has come to the small screen as well. Today, the most popular show on television is AMC's The Walking Dead. And though George Romero has called it "a soap opera with a zombie occasionally," The Walking Dead sums up its time as well as any of Romero's era-defining zombie films.[10]

Walking is an unremittingly bleak show, one that would seem an unlikely hit. The desperate journey of ex-police officer Rick Grimes and his band is awesomely trying and tragic. As they stumble from one near disaster to another, Grimes' group eventually makes their home in a prison-one of the most failed institutions in modern American life. Their main nemesis becomes a man known as the "The Governor," who heads a gated community where life…almost…carries on as before, with the population largely blinded to the disaster outside the town's limits. Like the survivors trapped in the mall in Dawn of the Dead, the residents of Woodbury try to continue their lives of consumption and comfort.

Walking highlights the failure of community in America, but it also eschews individualism. Almost every episode points to the importance of communal action. This is especially evident in the pointless war The Governor wages on Rick's group that eventually ends up destroying both sides. Rick's insistence on building a beloved community where ethical action and communal decision-making are paramount, clashes with the self-destructive and maniacal vision of The Governor. As in the Romero films, humans become a far more dangerous obstacle than the undead themselves.

Despite Romero's criticism of the show, Walking reflects his own summation of his living dead series: "All of my zombie films have been about the humans. The zombies, they could be anything…. The stories are about how people fail to respond in the proper way." [11] The Walking Dead is also much more about the failure of people, institutions, and community, than it is about zombies. Like the films of Romero, The Walking Dead acts as an allegory for our times. There is little room for hope in The Walking Dead, but that has not diminished its popularity.

As the American people-and American institutions--have failed to respond in the proper way, the zombie has become a more trenchant symbol of a country walking dead. The films of George A. Romero, and now the show The Walking Dead, best illustrate that evolution. However, unlike Rick Grimes and company, and the survivors of the Romero films, we have not yet met our apocalypse, and our institutions and communities have not fully failed us…not yet.


[1] Dawn of the Dead, directed by George Romero, United Films, 1978.

[2] Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 6.

[3] Ibid., 265.

[4] Peter Dendle, The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia (Jefferson, McFarland Press, 2010), 8-9.

[5] Day of the Dead , directed by George Romero, United Films, 1985.

[6] Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 223.

[7] James Russell, The Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema (London: Fab Press, 2005), 192.

[8] Roger Ebert, Review of Land of the Dead, 2005.

[9] See Bruce Watson, "When the Recession Bites," The Big Issue, November 7, 2013; David DiSalvo, Neuronarrative, "Vampires vs. Zombies: Who's Winning the War for the Recession Psyche?" Psychology Today, October 28, 2010 and Lance Rubin, "We are the Walking Dead: Zombie Literature in Recession Era America," in The Great Recession in Fiction, Film, and Television, ed. Kirk Boyle and Daniel Mrozowski (Lexington: Lexington Books, 2013).

[10] "George A. Romero: 'The Walking Dead' is Soap Opera with Occasional Zombie," Huffington Post, November 1, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/01/george-romero-walking-dead-soap-opera_n_4183182.html (Accessed February 21, 2014).

[11] Jasie Stokes, "Ghouls, Hell and Transcendence: the Zombie in Popular Culture from The Night of the Living Dead to Shaun of the Dead " (master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 2010), 18.