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What Does Killing Zombies Teach Us About Being Human?

George Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead

While more recent zombie tales have treated the menace as a medical epidemic, as seen in 28 Days Later and hinted at in The Walking Dead, a critique of consumer culture seems to dominate the genre. Survivors must learn to live without the comforts of the modern world, to survive on the edge, to endure what some might be inclined to describe as a more sustainable existence. Concluding his analysis, Moreman appears to endorse this interpretation of our zombie fascination.

The 1960s’ counter-culture and civil rights movements reacted against authority structures-the government, the military, the church-that were perceived to have lost their legitimacy. Since then, the zombie as a mindless thrall driven by the single-minded pursuit of devouring serves as a warning against rampant consumerism and the insatiable appetite of dog-eat-dog capitalist greed. Faith in authority structures has eroded further since the 1960s, as attested by lower voter turnouts, decreasing affiliation with traditional religions, and the recent Occupy movement.

The popularity of the zombie stems from our similarity to that pitiable creature deprived of its soul, forced to labor for the benefit of unknown masters. Yet, what might also persist is the recognition that this state can be overcome with the individual agency and moral responsibility of the masses, the demos at the heart of true democracy.

Certainly Romero became more explicit with this theme by time he directed Land of the Dead in 2005. Dennis Hopper plays a pitiless land baron squatting in a palatial high-rise along with others among the super-rich, surviving on tributes from bounty found during death-defying excursions into the surrounding wasteland by working-class heroes.

Art often serves as a prism revealing different aspects of humanity depending upon how it is observed. While Moreman and Romero see in the zombie “a pitiable creature deprived of its soul” and “a warning against rampant consumerism and the insatiable appetite of dog-eat-dog capitalist greed,” another way to interpret zombies presents a far more optimistic view.

While the undead may lack a soul, the missing element of greatest consequence to living human survivors proves to be a mind. A few deviant examples like Warm Bodies and Land of the Dead not withstanding, zombies do not think. They lack reason. Zombies represent man deprived of the faculty of higher consciousness, the means by which he maintains dominance over the wild in order to survive and thrive.