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Modern Life as Zombie: Metaphor and Symbol

With the popularity of the AMC television program The Walking Dead, which unfortunately aired its final episode last night for the first season, there has been a rise in the discussion of zombies in the media. A good example of this comes in the form of a recent article in the New York Times titled “My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.” In the piece the author, Chuck Klosterman, discusses why zombies have such strong cultural appeal. Klosterman recognizes that monsters have long served to express our fears. And like many others, Klosterman recognizes that zombies have been interpreted metaphorically for any number of things, consumerism being one of the more common readings for this creature. But in this piece there is a suggestion that the popularity of zombies may be due to an entirely different metaphor than those commonly discussed by film critics and scholars. Klosterman writes:

“What if contemporary people are less interested in seeing depictions of their unconscious fears and more attracted to allegories of how their day-to-day existence feels? That would explain why so many people watched that first episode of The Walking Dead: They knew they would be able to relate to it.”

The author then goes on to provide a few examples of how his thesis of life as zombie may be connected to various aspects of our routine existence. For whatever reasons, the depiction of the zombie as metaphor or allegory in connection with our day-to-day existence has not received much by way of depictions in film. One prominent exception comes to mind, however, in the magnificent comedy-horror film Shaun of the Dead. This is demonstrated immediately in the film’s opening titles as people are shown working in a grocery store, standing in line presumably waiting to take public transportation to work, and walking in unison down the street. In each instance the people look zombie-like in life as they go through the motions of work and their daily routines. Many of the people depicted in the opening title sequence can be seen later as zombies having taken the next step with their undead state simply completing the zombie-like existence they endured in life. The two major stars of the film, Shaun and his friend Ed, are also caught up in the same trap, but it is only Shaun who is able to recognize his life for what it is and to work through the zombie apocalypse to find a new sense of purpose and identity.

But if modern life is such that our daily existence is similar to that of the zombie then this creature is not only functioning at metaphorical and allegorical levels, but also in symbolic ones. The terms are related, but also have their differences. A search on Google for “zombie as metaphor” brings back a great number of hits, but a search on “zombie as symbol” brings back very little. In fact, the only item of substance I as able to find was an abstract for a paper titled “The Zombie as Sign and Symbol” by James Siburt. Perhaps this indicates that there is room for additional probings of the meanings of zombies in relation to our contemporary social situations.

In my view, if Klosterman is correct that a great many people identify with the zombie because they feel like zombies themselves as they go through their day-to-day lives, then the zombie is not only a metaphor, but also a symbol for ourselves. In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead the human survivors watch with morbid curiosity as the zombies go through the motions of shoppers in a mall, mimicking their former lives. As one of the survivors wonders why, another provides an uncomfortable thought: They are us. If we identify with zombies because they remind us of the daily grind, and as such, symbolize much of the feelings of the human condition in the industrialized world, perhaps zombies are us more than we’d like to acknowledge.

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