Zombies (7): “Mommy, where do zombies come from?”

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

There is not clear answer to the question, “Where do zombies come from?”

Zombies are our monsters.

We are modern and we are secular, so our monsters will be just the sort of creature that would terrorize a modern, secular audience.  It’s like they are rubbing our face into what a truly material human being would be.  This is a horror.

If human beings are strictly material, then we have no meaning.

Cause and Meaning

This is why zombies resist meaning.  This is why there is no definitive cause to the zombie infestation.  To have a cause would necessarily attribute meaning to the presence of zombies.

  • If they are clearly caused by scientific hubris, then the zombies are a warning to not be scientifically hubristic.
  • If it is discovered that the dead have animated because of environmental degradation, then they mean we should stop driving SUVs.
  • If it is discovered that the infestation is a disease, the zombie would represent the perpetual struggle of man against a hostile world.
  • If they are the minions of an evil genius bent on world domination they would represent the negative effects of totalitarianism on humanity.
  • or created by aliens they symbolize an external political threat.

Ambiguity of Zombie Origins

Zombies refuse to explain their origin.

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. Within the story, 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.

And that’s because it’s 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.

To offer some rational cause for the zombie infestation would give meaning to the calamity--the lack of meaning is at the heart of zombie narratives.Click To Tweet

In fact, Italian director Lucio Fulci is “not afraid to throw aside logic or narrative.” 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”(Zani [Better off Dead] 108).

To offer some determinate 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 struggle of the human protagonists and away from a cause.  If there were a definite cause, the zombie and the struggle might end up meaning something–even transcendent explanations might have to be seriously considered.

When we stopped living in a world enchanted by the supernatural, we lost supernatural purpose and meaning.  Meaning, if it is to be found, will be found inside the self.

This means there are as many meanings as there are people, or at least groups of people.  It’s as if, out of respect for our unwillingness to impose some universal truth on anyone.

If there is a declared source of the zombie infestation in a particular movie, as does World War Z, (more here) then it has broken from a significant marker of zombie narratives.

The apparent meaninglessness of the zombie infestation challenges out identity and deepens the crisis.  Zombies resist meaning anything, because secular man refuses to mean something.  The zombie is giving us a picture of what meaningless may look like if we took it to its logical end.  And then it asks us if we are serious about it.

Next Zombie Post: Modern Boundaries 


  1. Dylan

    Relevant alternate/complimentary interpretations:



    • Trent

      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….

  2. Dylan

    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).

  3. Jonny

    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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