Zombies function in many ways like a traditional monster in that they represent otherness–they are the opposite of how we like to think of ourselves. They are also monsters in that they interrogate boundaries by challenging the categories we take as certain and sure.
Unlike many monsters on our literary past, the zombie is not evil.
Traditional movies in the horror genre present a fairly simple morality. Often it is the monster that embodies evil. Other times, the monster is a creation of an evil scientist or sorcerer, but the representative of evil is pretty clear, as is that of the good.
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If evil is no longer a thing . . .
In zombie narratives, as in Modern secularism, because there is no transcendent source of morality, the categories of good and evil are not as clearly defined as they were in the past. The monsters are not evil in the traditional sense, nor does the hero represent an ideal to which we can aspire.
The zombie monster is hard to classify morally. It is difficult to say that zombies are evil because they lack the conscious will we usually require for the attribution of the term. Film critic, Robin Wood points out that one of the main differences between zombies and the monsters in the horror genre that preceded them is that they are “not burdened with those actively negative connotations (‘evil incarnate,’ etc.)” (102). To bear such a label would link it to some transcendent category.
In the zombie films of the voodoo era, there was a clear source of evil, but it wasn’t the undead. In these films, the zombies were mere tools in the hands of an evil sorcerer, but since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, one of the defining characteristics of the zombie horde is that it has no leader. There is no authority or power, no longer any villain bent on some evil purpose who controls them.
In his book Heroes and Villains, Mike Alsford says that villains “generally seek a law unto themselves. They usually have as their primary goal, power over others, world domination, control of the entire universe or, in some really ambitious instances, godhood (96).
This was very much the model for villainy in the pre-Romero zombie films like White Zombie, in which the evil Legendre turns corpses into zombies to work in his sugar mill, and worse, zombifies another man’s fiancé so as so as to possess her, body and soul.
But in modern zombie films, there is no villain that fits Alsford’s description. In The Night of the Living Dead “the diseased, instinct-driven automatons walk the earth without a leader. They need no master to seduce new recruits or to direct their assault on normality” (Waller 280).
Zombies are not evil
The zombies are leaderless, but they are also, more or less, motiveless.
Frankenstien’s monster sought inclusion in community, Count Dracula was driven by conquest, but the zombie’s motivation is far baser.
Alsford says that villains are motivated by “the desire to dominate, to subsume the other within the individual self and that without compunction. . . . The villain uses the world and the people in it from a distance, as pure resource” (Alsford 120).
Although this characterization of true villainy seems to describe the zombie horde, the word “desire” is too strong for the undead found in Night of the Living Dead, where we find more of a compulsion than desire; desire implies a self with at least an emotional if not spiritual longing.
Zombies are not driven by any such motive—not revenge or the quest for power, not even the desire to destroy for the sake of destruction—but by the most immanent of motives: hunger. The living dead simply
“eat warm flesh, a fact that Romero graphically records and never allows us to forget. . . . Romero’s living dead tear at their food and devour it like starving animals to whom all of existence is only a matter of hunting for food and eating” (Waller 276).
Zombies are thus not evil in the same sense that monsters always have been. They reveal that without the transcendent, there is no longer room for evil as a motivating force—these monsters are simply hungry, and who can fault them for that? The monsters are, again, a reflection of modern selves, for in neither the monster, nor the modern self can we clearly identify the source of evil–it is a category we no longer recognize.
Next Zombie post: Zombie Films and a Loss of Fullness