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The horror story in general, turns fear, “whether personal or social, into a specific type of monster; and seeks to contain and destroy it” (Worland 17).

As a very popular figure in modern narratives, the zombie is the embodiment of the fears of modern man.  Because modern man is secular man, the zombie represents fears that have come as a result of secularization on the human identity.

Romero’s Night of the Living Dead took zombie narratives in a whole new direction from the voodoo zombie films.   This direction is resonates with a culture that is permeated with secular modernity: a culture that no longer recognizing the relevance, or even the presence of the transcendent beyond the material.   For this reason, it is called the first modern zombie film.

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Betrayed by the Gods

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many in the west were coming to terms with the death of God, as declared by Nietzsche, by transferring their faith to a new master and savior: technology and science. But with the events of the Second World War, most particularly the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the Cold War that followed, American culture found its new gods inadequate.  Betrayed by these gods–we thought they would bring salvation, fulfillment and flourishing– we now have difficulty putting our faith in anything.

The zombie that Romero’s presented in Night of the Living Dead still represented the loss of our selfhood (subjectivity), but more importantly, and more horrifyingly, it also represented humanity experiencing loss of the transcendent.

The Loss of the Transcendent

The transcendent is a broad category that includes realities beyond the simply physical, or immanent reality.  Things like God, the human soul would be considered transcendent.  As would the Good, or Truth and Beauty, as objective realities.

The modern self is secular because denies the existence, or at least relevance, of the transcendent.  So, the monster which terrorizes the modern identity is completely immanent.

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The absence of the transcendent is apparent in the modern zombie film, most particularly in the monster itself. In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the walking dead, except for the fact that they are walking, are very ordinary. Some of them “are fully dressed; one of them is rather fat and dressed only in jockey shorts; one of them, a young woman, is naked. They look vulnerable, and they are vulnerable, to a blow to the head and to fire” (Dillard 21). Interestingly, “they were cast from local citizens of Pittsburgh . . . becoming extras in a story . . . and in many senses playing themselves” (Warner 366). There is very little difference between the zombies and one’s neighbours.

As a modern monster, like a werewolf, a vampire or a ghoul, the zombie has no supernatural qualities, but unlike them has no superhuman qualities either: “they cannot fly, they cannot turn into vapor, bat, or wolf; they are not possessed of superhuman strength; they don’t have fangs” (Paffenroth 8). Max Brooks, in The Zombie Survival Guide, reminds us that “the body of the undead is, for all practical purposes, human” (6).

Without transcendence or superhuman qualities, these lurchers are “just pale skin, gaping wounds, and noticeable decay” (Bishop 117). Unlike the spirits of distant generations, “a zombie is embodied and material, [it] walks and bleeds and sweats” (Warner 358).

Where is our identity in crisis?  We moderns have done away with supernatural categories.  Zombies are a representation of what a human being looks like if there is no such thing as the transcendent.  Are we zombies?  This is the terrifying question that zombies are asking.

The thoroughly immanent zombie, then, is a suitable terror for the residents of a world that is only material.

Next Zombie post: Settings