Why Zombies?

I’ve asked myself that question a lot over the last few years, what with the spate of books and films featuring zombies. Terrence Rafferty asks the same question in a recent NYT piece. He points out that the insatiable, relentless zombies of today are relatively new: “The title creature of Jacques Tourneur’s weirdly lyrical 1943 movie, ‘I Walked With a Zombie,’ doesn’t eat flesh and is entirely unthreatening to the living beings around her; all that’s horrifying is the unnatural, unassimilable fact of her existence. That’s not enough anymore: nature isn’t what it used to be, after all. And to be repelled by a woman just because she has returned from the dead could be considered a tad judgmental.”

Since “Night of the Living Dead,” things have changed: “The thing about these newly empowered 21st-century zombies is that they keep coming at you, relentlessly, wave upon wave of necrotic, mindlessly voracious semi-­beings. According to the current convention, the individual reanimatee can be dispatched by shooting or stabbing it in the brain, but the strength of this inexorably advancing zombie population is in its numbers: the ambulatory dead are, you might say, a fast-­growing demographic. This sort of creature is an extremely convenient monster for low-budget filmmakers like Romero, who had the wit to realize that with zombies he wouldn’t have to break the bank on highly skilled professional actors. Anybody can shamble along looking vacant.”

But why the zombie craze now? Rafferty has a theory:

“you have to wonder whether our 21st-century fascination with these hungry hordes has something to do with a general anxiety, particularly in the West, about the planet’s dwindling resources: a sense that there are too many people out there, with too many urgent needs, and that eventually these encroaching masses, dimly understood but somehow ominous in their collective appetites, will simply consume us. At this awful, pinched moment of history we look into the future and see a tsunami of want bearing down on us, darkening the sky. The zombie is clearly the right monster for this glum mood, but it’s a little disturbing to think that these nonhuman creatures, with their slack, gaping maws, might be serving as metaphors for actual people — undocumented immigrants, say, or the entire populations of developing nations — whose only offense, in most cases, is that their mouths and bellies demand to be filled.”

Oh, I see: The zombie craze unveils America’s inner racist. But then doesn’t everything for a critic like Rafferty, or any critic at the NYT ? I have to say I’m unconvinced. Rafferty asks the right question, but I’m still looking for a persuasive answer.

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