Dawn of the Dead (1978): Zombies and Human Nature

Curator's Note

Here we have the essence of George Romero’s zombies.It comes down to two aspects: 1) zombies are merely people;2) zombie-ism – which, given proposition #1,is unadorned human nature – is always to want.

Up until the first clip (either in this film, or in its predecessor Night of the Living Dead [1968]) zombies have only been seen as relentless hunters, bent on eating living people. Now we see that they congregate in places they knew in their former lives, places and things they still desire, even after they have lost the ability to reason and choose (cf. the damned in Dante’s Inferno). Steve’s evaluation is absolutely correct – “This was an important place in their lives” – and that place is not home or work or church or theater, but a mall.
The connection with hell is made explicit in the middle clip, with the movie’s tagline, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” More important, however, is Peter’s shorter explanation, “They’re us!” Zombies are the most human and mundane of monsters, with no real powers. Their monstrosity is simply that of a stripped-down human nature – appetite without reason, restraint, or purpose.
The final part of the clip shows Romero’s only hint at hope or redemption (besides Night and Diary of the Dead [2007], all his zombie films end similarly), with the two escaping from the consumerist prison of never-ending, unquenchable appetites. Whether this will end in death (and the original script called for the two to commit suicide), or in some new, better life, is left entirely open. But note the relinquishing of the rifle by Peter to a zombie (with an identical gesture at the end of Day of the Dead [1985]), perhaps signifying an abandonment of violence on his part. And the choice of the two survivors – a white woman and a black man, both of whom have shown themselves to be less foolishly possessive than the other two protagonists – may leave some cause to hope their life together will be better than the racist, sexist, materialist world they have left behind.


I've noticed that, since 2001, zombie stories have mutated.  The Romero zombie now has competition in the zombie imaginary.  The new zombies, heralded perhaps by 28 Days Later (2001), are no longer just the placid, stumbling fools of Romero's "living dead" series, consuming anything they can surround.  Now zombies are angry.


In Romero's living dead stories, some zombies are angry -- but they generally seem to have a reason.  Or, at the very least, anger isn't a universal characteristic of Romero's zombies.  In Night of the Living Dead, the little girl, Karen, doesn't just bite her mother, she overkills her with a trowel.  In the graphic novel, Night of the Living Dead: Just a Girl, the authors explore why Karen might have been angry, even in death; they imagine her as an abused and molested step-daughter.  In Day of the Dead, Bud the undead soldier-in-training, has moments of anger at abuses he sees; but he isn't angry all the time.  In Land of the Dead, Big Daddy's clearly angry -- but the cause of his anger seems equally clear: humans are raiding Uniontown and killing its zombie citizens.  But Romero's zombies aren't uniformly enraged.


However, Romero's zombies are no longer the only or even the main zombie game in town.  The post-9/11 zombie, outside Romero's imaginary, is pissed.  Wrathful.  Despite Romero's protests that "zombies don't run," the new post-9/11 zombies do run, they scream, they brutalize -- and their biting seems to me to be less about consuming and more about polluting or transforming others.


I appreciated your analysis of Romero's zombies in your book, Gospels of the Living Dead.  What do you think about the new zombies, which are not content to merely stumble about consuming and fighting, like those bound in Dante's purgatory?  If there are "new zombies" to Romero's "old zombies" (and the "old old" Haitian zombies of US film), why do they hate us?


I believe that this shift toward imagining zombies as motivated by rage is significant to the conversation about Orientalism.


In September 1990, just after the US invaded Iraq for Gulf War I, The Atlantic Monthly published Bernard Lewis’s article, The Roots of Muslim Rage.  In it, Lewis proposed that Islamic Fundamentalists hate the US, as the leader of the Western world, not because of Western sexism, racism, or imperialism – instead, they hate the US because they do not value the Separation of Church and State. 


Lewis suggested that Muslims mistakenly believe themselves to be superior to Western culture – and are enraged and humiliated that the West has forced them to recognize their inferiority, through military, economic, and cultural domination.  Having claimed to debunk other explanations, Lewis asserted that Islamic Fundamentalists believe, "What is truly evil and unacceptable is the domination of infidels over true believers.”  (Or, as Ann Coulter put it, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.”)  Lewis characterized the relationship between Islamic Fundamentalism (which he leaves undefined) and the West as a “clash of civilizations” – with Islam in a war against secularism and modernism. 


In 1993, Samuel Huntington took up this idea in an article called, The Clash of Civilizations?, in which he argued that Islamic and Confucian (that is, Chinese) civilizations would become the West’s new enemies, taking the place of its Cold War enemies.  Huntington would expand on the article in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.  In it, Huntington repurposed Lewis’s mention of the Christian “Reconquista” of Muslim parts of Europe, warning that Mexicans threatened a “reconquista” of U.S. territory via immigration.  Thus, fears about Muslims and fears about Mexicans may be linked, in part, through fear of a “reconquista,” a reconquering of lands that the White West has claimed for itself.  (George Romero has raised – and critiqued – the idea of Latino immigration and zombies-as-Latinos, in at least two of his films.)


Lewis concluded The Roots of Muslim Rage with a quote from former U.S. President John Tyler.  Endorsing the separation of church and state, Tyler said, “The body may be oppressed and manacled and yet survive; but if the mind of man be fettered, its energies and faculties perish, and what remains is of the earth, earthly.” Lewis implies that, without separation of church and state, Muslims will lose their mental faculties, leaving only a mindless, enraged, earthly shell.


This Orientalist characterization of Muslims is not so different, then, from the characterization of modern zombies.  The modern zombie expresses Orientalist fears of violent “Islamic” (and perhaps soon, “Confucian”) opposition to modernity and secularism.

I think zombies are resilient as a monster and a metaphor, because they can take on new meanings and implications. So fast or angry zombies don't really surprise or dismay me, as they do some fans.

But, I have to say, I don't find the zombie as xenophobic (esp anti-muslim) fantasy all that convincing in most cases. At the very most, it might be a layer put on top of the basic fear and implication of zombies. Because if nothing else, zombies are by definition your neighbors and your family, and now they're trying to kill you. And - you have to kill them, which might actually be fun in some cases (I'd note the rooftop shooting in the Dawn remake, and now Zombieland makes a whole movie of that glee at slaughtering them). Why would your zombified neighbors and family be angry at you? They're jealous of you're being alive, probably, and maybe they remember (or imagine) every rotten thing you did to them. Or they were angry in life, but kept it under control (don't we all?) but now in death they have no such restraints. I see it as a much more basic, human reaction, more than a commentary on a current situation (though the current situation can easily be nodded to, as with the "Green Zone" in 28 Weeks Later, or the obvious Bush parody in Land).

Kim Paffenroth, Author of Dying to Live and other zombie fiction and nonfiction

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.