“Mommy, where do zombies come from?”


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Zombies are our monsters; they scare us.  We are modern and we are secular, so our monsters will be just the sort of creature that would be scary to a modern, secular audience.    Because they terrorize the closed immanent frame, zombies can’t suggest any transcendent meaning because we really don’t go for that sort of thing.  One of the features of movies in the zombie genre is that they are not very clear as to the cause of the zombie infestation.  I believe the reason is that to offer a cause would be a step toward attributing a meaning to the disaster.  This ambiguity as to cause, protects the immanent nature of the world of the zombie film.

This motif was established in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and it is true of almost all the stories of the undead that follow.  Various theories as to why corpses have re-animated are sometimes suggested: “human error might be the cause, so might the space program, extra-terrestrial forces, ‘natural’ conditions in outer space, and so on” (Waller 275-6).  But the cause is almost never certain.

To offer some rational cause for the walking dead would give meaning to the calamity.

It is not important, nor is the plausibility of that cause, since the movies are really always about the effects, not the causes, of the zombie infestation.

Zani and Meaux analyze this lack of clarity surrounding the cause of the zombie horde in the films of Italian director Lucio Fulci, whom they describe as the “quintessential director of zombie gore horror.” One of the most fascinating qualities of his films is that Fulci is “not afraid to throw aside logic or narrative” (Zani [Better off Dead] 108).  In his film Zombie 2, for instance, the cause of the zombie infestation changes from a pagan curse early in the story to some form of contagious disease later in the film.   This disregard for consistency shows that “the central concern of zombie films has nothing to do with . . . discovering the ultimate cause of the catastrophe.”

To offer some rational cause for the walking dead would give meaning to the calamity.  The search for the cause would end up being a search for the meaning of the zombie within the context of the film, and this is precisely what the zombie film will not do—the lack of meaning is at the heart of zombie narratives.

A consistent ambiguity surrounding the cause of the zombie infestation, both within or between movies of this genre, places the attention on the immanent struggle of the human protagonists and away from a cause for which transcendent explanations would have to be too seriously considered.

Next zombie post: Challenging Modern Boundaries

4 Replies to ““Mommy, where do zombies come from?””

    1. Thanks for these links, Dylan. I think it’s interesting to think of zombies in terms of the habitual. Now I find I am looking at other things in terms of habit. Thanks….

  1. It is consistent with your thesis, however, that the origins of zombie infestations in modern narratives (besides Romero’s) are technological; lab experiments gone wrong and whatnot (28 ___ later, I am Legend). It seems to me that the supernatural zombie lives on only in parody (e.g. Cabin in the Woods).

  2. Trent, i must agree that you have a very interesting idea as to the origin or zombies. The fact that a zombie is mindless, chaotic, and uncontrollable all helps to shape a story. “The lack of meaning is at the heart of zombie narratives”, I especially enjoy how you worded this, it is exactly what zombies are, they are a lacking of humanity. To find their origin, would be, like you said, giving cause to the mayhem that they are. Splendid job in all!t, i must agree that you have a very interesting idea as to the origin or zombies. The fact that a zombie is mindless, chaotic, and uncontrollable all helps to shape a story.

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