Defining 'Zombie' Without Saying a Word

Curator's Note

George Romero’s influence on the zombie genre is unquestioned. His films have defined the default characteristics, behaviors, and look of these undead creatures to the point that any exception or deviation simply proves the rules established by Romero (the linked video provides a comprehensive look at these rules and their evolution). When they run, such as in 28 Days Later (2003), or talk, such as in Return of Living Dead (1985), they are still variations of Romero’s zombies. All of this without ever calling them zombies in the film that codified it all, Night of the Living Dead (1968). Calling them “ghouls,” Romero was influenced by everything from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954) to the film Invisible Invaders (1959), and it was only when the Italian Argento brothers secured European rights to the Night sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) and rebranded it Zombi to promote the spiritual sequel Zombi 2 (1979) that the Romero characters began to be associated with the word.

My previous research explored the zombie’s evolution leading to a perfectly empty signifier that all manner of political and social allegory can be poured into (2013). Because of its relatively unknown and mysterious non-Western origin, as well as the no singular source of origin (such as Dracula is for the vampire) the zombie functions as a universally malleable “utility tool” that provides diverse satirical social commentary. The deviations themselves become places where the allegory can shift, because the elasticity of the Romero zombie springs back to its shambling core when the next version emerges. There are true successors of everything Romero, such as The Walking Dead (2010-present), which not only contains creatures that resemble Night’s ghoul creatures but also never mentions the “z” word either (primarily calling them “walkers”). This would imply that the Romero movies do not exist in this narrative universe, or characters would surely call them zombies, and points to the universal empty signifier that the zombie represents as it does not even need to be named to serve as an near infinitely malleable allegory.

As the zombie horror subgenre progresses and evolves there will undoubtedly be countless variations and deviations from Night’s ghouls, but Romero’s ability to codify and cement long lasting characteristics of these undead creatures is an impressive legacy for a creature that doesn’t speak and an origin film that never says its own name.


Hi Ryan. Thanks for your post. I agree with your point that "there will undoubtedly be countless variations and deviations from Night’s ghouls." However Romero's revitalization of the zombie came at a powerful cultural turning point in 1968, and many of the characteristics he ascribed to them have obvious resonances with the culture of the US at that tumultuous time. Many traits of the zombies since then have endured - their apparent mindlessness, their propensity for violence, etc. I think one of the biggest recurring traits is that the zombie, since Romero re-conceived it, has to be a social mass. Something that is a large, unfolding, growing structure without a unique singular identity. Zombies after all tend to be portrayed as frightening, unstoppable crowds. Is this an aspect where the genre may look to change? As our society gets increasingly technologically and economically atomized, do we need a new conception of the zombie that is similarly atomized rather than mass-ified? I am not an expert in recent zombie trends - sadly - but I would be curious what new directions seem to be for this venerable movie monster!

I definitely agree that one of the most consistent traits of the Romero ghoul/zombie is the real danger only in the unstoppable mass (its one of those Romero legacies that the genre always seems to "snap back" to even after successful deviations). There are certainly some examples where the danger is comparatively atomized, to reflect similar societal concerns. I have write at length about the most notable example, 28 Days Later, where the "infected" trace their cinematic ancestry to the Romero ghoul/zombie, but are remarkably quick and pose a serious threat even on an individual level. See this clip where there only two but their speed and power make for formidable foes -

Thanks for the astute post, Ryan--I find it a compelling account for thinking through the zombie's iterations over time. I'm curious if you think there's any characteristic of this empty signifier set in stone, or perhaps even definitive of the kind of allegorical malleability the zombie exudes. For example, do you think zombies, post-Romero, will likely stay flesh-eaters/biters (falling back on that same core)? Or perhaps does the zombie's initial mindlessness--even if pushed beyond expectation like in Day of the Dead--contribute in its function as a "utility tool"? I'd like to know what you find the important outlines (if any) of this signifier to be.

That's an interesting question. I almost feel like the Romero core is what will be retreated back to after any deviation. So if we could figure out something like top 10 Romero zombie characteristics (e.g, slow, flesh-eating, damage to the brain kills, etc.), then after a new film experiments and changes #6 and #9 the next film will revert those two back to Romero-style and try to change #3 and #7. 28 Days Later changed a lot and was influential, but next film up likely reversed most of those changes in favor of the Romero core. I'm struggling to think of any significant changes to zombie characteristics that have been solidified and long-lasting post-Romero. What do you think?

I like your idea that there’s a set of characteristics put in place by Romero’s ghoul and that we see deviations in only a few those characteristics at a time. As a revolving set, it’s easier to see how the zombie can operate as an empty signifier. I am tempted, though, to think of the zombie’s mostly-consistent mindlessness (and lack of speech) as key to its malleability as signifier—with only one central, defining desire (consumption) it seems easier to transfer the zombie into other contexts and flexibly interact with other ideas.

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