LonCon3 #12: Sympathy for the Zombie

Panellists: Laurie Penny, Daryl Gregory, David Towsey, Claudia Kern, Deborah Christie

According to M John Harrison, “The zombie is the ultimate other in a neoliberal society … they will never embarrass you by revealing their humanity.” To what extent does this reading explain the popularity of zombie franchises? And what are we to make of works such as Warm Bodies, The Returned and In The Flesh, that start to rehumanise the zombie?

Since Deborah Christie and Claudia Kern never showed up to this panel, Laurie Penny stepped up and carried it almost exclusively through to its conclusion.

George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead was released at a time of civil unrest during various movements for civil rights. Fear of the mob which can’t be reasoned with symbolizes American panic over the possible collapse of society, of capitalism, and the destruction of existing infrastructure. This is where preppers, survivalists and gun-toting rednecks come into play – “Finally I can use my gun freely!”, they say.

Laurie on fear of Ebola: “Just don’t lick a sick person.”

In class terms, the zombie is the parasitic ruling class bleeding the working class dry until capitalism inevitably collapses. Think of the zombie as the bankers that brought us the global recession. Patient zero can be found in America but the infection quickly spread around the world. Now bankers are seen as the lowest of the low – outcasts – their power weakened. Vampires, on the other hand, are the opposite of zombies – they’re the powerful upper class with a shiny image and a great PR team.

“A mummy is just a zombie in drag” – Daryl

Zombies are interesting vehicles for exploring mortality. Oxymoron ‘the living dead’ describes a state halfway between living and dead. There’s a moral ambiguity in killing them. We’re taught all our lives some variation of ‘thou shalt not kill’ but we’re to make an exception when humans visibly become monsters, even when they wear the faces of those we love.

Complexion changes in zombies reflects changes in race. Skin pales. Racial prejudice ties in with the fears surrounding the civil rights movements. In the Flesh presents us with a unique take on this. Once fear is removed by curing the ‘partially deceased’ of their mindless bite-y ways they’re then submitted to prejudice and oppression, a sort of punishment for their unwitting crimes and still undead state.

A zombie can’t help its demeanor just as Luke and Rick can’t change their sexuality and a brown-skinned person can’t change their skin tone (unless they’re Michael Jackson – the irony of the Thriller video is just hitting me).

The awful treatment the partially deceased suffer In the Flesh is heightened by the introduction of a brown-skinned oppressor in season two. To see her doing what was done to her parents 30 or 40 years ago really hits home. Watching Luke and Amy struggle with inner turmoil and outer bigotry elicits heartfelt sympathy from the viewer. Despite possessing cold unbeating hearts they’re both desperate to love and be loved – a quality that can’t be more human.

Speaking of love, paranormal romance Warm Bodies humanizes zombie R(omeo) via infatuation with his natural prey – a frightened human girl. While he protects her from his undead brethren he shows us his large collection of human memorabilia, cultural artifacts he comes across while hunting for his walking, talking food. You could argue his fascination with humanity primes him for his interaction with Julie(t). His falling in love with her restarting his heart and regaining ‘life’ screams ‘love changes everything!’. “Love is all you need.”

This curing of the zombie disease may also be an allegory for long-standing illnesses like AIDS and a fear of the aging process, the elderly and associated disorders like dementia. Our search for a cure for mortality is never-ending but life extension doesn’t necessarily mean quality of life or we wouldn’t be campaigning for euthanasia, or at the very least, the right to die.

Until recently, zombie fiction was a very masculine sub-genre regarding directors, authors and characters. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Max Brooks‘s various books, etc. dominated until about 2008 when women started adding their voices. Rhiannon Frater’s excellent As the World Dies trilogy (2008) is the earliest female written zombie fiction with a female lead that I can think of that pioneered this trend.

Much of what’s out there right now only deals with the zombipocalyse as it happens and the fight for survival rather than tackling what comes after, i.e. rebuilding. That’s why In the Flesh seems so fresh and original. In a sub-genre that’s flooded with relatively similar stories there’s a need for fresh perspectives to sustain interest from readers and viewers.

Recommended Reading

I’ll leave you with a zombie song Laurie bravely sang that I’d never heard before.


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