4 Reasons Zombies Won’t Die

Zombie movies are to the multiplex what Ecclesiastes is to the Bible. 

What zombies tell us, or would if they were a little more articulate, is that the same fate awaits us all. Wisdom, folly, wealth, family, pleasure, power, food, creative endeavor. All is exposed as a threadbare, moth-eaten veil; a laughable attempt to hide the ugliness of the bride lurching up the aisle toward us. No other popular genre does nihilism quite so well.

Zombies 101

Zombies are reanimated corpses. Typically slow-moving, incapable of speech or self-awareness, they have no reason to live—except to chomp down on the flesh of the living, thus infecting them, and adding them to their mournful ranks.

The word zombi was introduced to American audiences with the 1929 novel The Magic Island. But zombies really stumbled into the cultural consciousness in 1968 when director George Romero released the monochrome Night of the Living Dead. And since then, true to form, they’ve refused to die.

Just as zombies themselves seem to multiply without end, so have their appearances in popular culture over the past 45 years. Along with your standard zombie horror-thriller (Dawn of the Dead, Rec, 28 Days Later, World War Z), there are zombie romances (Warm Bodies), zombie comedies (Shaun of the Dead), zombie comic books and TV series (The Walking Dead), parodic zombie fiction (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and zombie games (Resident Evil, Judge Dredd vs Zombies, Plants vs Zombies, Zombie Highway, Zombie Gunship, Pro Zombie Soccer . . . I could go on, but ironically enough I’m losing the will to live).

So why won’t the undead leave us alone?

1. Zombies show us what we can easily become.

George Romero realized that the genre offers a pungent metaphor for the way human beings can easily seem less than human. Zombie films expose the maggoty underside of human nature, whether through materialism (the zombies’ witless obsession with the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead), individualism (the survivors’ often fatal mistrust of one another), or simply by showing what happens when we become part of a mob.

One of the most chilling lines in Dawn of the Dead comes when one horrified character says to another, “What the hell are they?” “They’re us,” comes the blank response. “That’s all.”

Next time you see an iPhone-fixated pedestrian ambling into a lamppost, remember: they’re us.

2. Zombies suggest we’re more than meat.

Despite the familiar naturalistic assertion that humans are merely machines made of meat, zombies offer an (unknowing?) critique.

Zombies present to our appalled eyes an estimation of what human beings ought to be like, were we merely the product of naturalistic forces. They are pitiful, shambling creatures, driven by blind instinct, without any capacity for joy or love, reason or compassion, self-control or courage, and without any longing for the transcendent. Unsurprisingly, no zombie has ever written a Petrarchan sonnet or composed an operetta—not even a bad one.

In short, and for want of a less contentious word, zombies clearly have no soul. All of which suggests a question for the naturalist: from where do we get ours? 

3. Zombies remind us of where we’re all headed.

We like to think we’re nothing like them. But the psychological horror of the zombie is rooted in the creeping realization that we, too, are the walking dead. We all bear the family likeness of Adam, as sure a promise of oncoming death as a bite mark from one of the zombie horde. As the poet Philip Larkin expressed it, “Life is slow dying.”

That’s why zombie purists insist that zombies should move slowly. To portray them as tearing around like 5-year-olds on tartrazine (as they do, for instance, in Zach Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead) dilutes what zombies represent: the slow but inevitable approach of death. They don’t need to move fast, because they know they’ll get you in the end.

“Are they slow-moving, chief?” asks a reporter in Night of the Living Dead. “Yeah,” a police officer says wearily, “they’re dead.”

4. Zombies hint that there is death after death.

Life after death is, for most, a pleasant possibility—and one that is easy to unthinkingly assume. But zombie movies trouble us with the thought that what actually awaits is a living death after death.

In more recent films, the zombie apocalypse is sometimes explained as the result of a deadly virus. But in others, there is a spiritual explanation. In Dawn of the Dead, for example, one character says, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” There is uneasy awareness that death (and a living death beyond death) is the only just response of a good Creator who must condemn evil.

However far-fetched zombies may be, fear of death and what lies beyond it are real—and justified. We’re destined to die once, and after that face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). According to the same writer, fear of death holds humanity in slavery. Zombie movies (and books and comics and games) attempt to quarantine that fear, isolate it, and turn it into something we can control or fight or even mock. But it’s a flimsy barricade.

In a sermon on Revelation 6:8, 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon captured that oppressive fear of onrushing judgment followed by a living death:

Yes, death is after me and thee. Ah, run! run! run! but run as thou wilt, the rider on the white horse shall overtake thee. If thou canst escape him 70 years, he will overtake thee at last. Death is riding! Here his horse comes—I hear his snortings, I feel his hot breath; he comes! he comes! and thou must die! But, wicked man, what comes afterwards? Will it be heaven or hell? O, if it be hell that is after thee, where art thou when thou art cast away from God? Ah, I pray God deliver you from hell; he is coming after you, sure enough; and if you have no hiding-place, woe unto you.

I wouldn’t encourage you to seek out zombie movies. They’re graphic, sickening, and the lack of hope is infectious. But perhaps, in God’s grace, the cultural fascination with zombies will draw some toward our only hope: hiding in the One who has already gone through death, and been declared its victor.

Whatever apocalypse awaits, there is shelter, there is rest. As Spurgeon says, “See you that cleft in the rock, see that cross, see that blood. There is security. And only there.”

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  • Jon

    That was great! Loved it Mr. Cooper! “Next time you see an iPhone-fixated pedestrian ambling into a lamppost, remember: they’re us.”

  • Dean P

    “Next time you see an iPhone-fixated pedestrian ambling into a lamppost, remember: they’re us.”

    Truth is stranger than fiction.

    • Cooper

      I loved that line too!

  • http://trentdejong.com Trent DeJong (@Dryb0nz)

    As a big fan of “monster narratives” I was glad to see this topic addressed in this forum. Studying our monsters tells us a lot about our culture because they challenge our identity by attacking the weak spots in the boundaries between the self and the other.

    Monsters change because our identity changes. When we change, our monsters change. This is why the zombies are everywhere these days. This popularity suggests that these lurching and drooling corpses are testing our collective identities at points where we are a little uncertain.

    Your four points are weak points in the modern secular idenity. I think you correctly identify the challenge the zombie monster presents to this idenity.

    I teach in a Christian school and find the zombies are a great hook many of these types of philosophical questions.

    If you are interested in more philosophical zombie material, I have written on it. (My first post in a series is at: http://trentdejong.com/zombies-are-the-monsters-for-our-time-monsters-and-identity/) I have a much lighter version at http://www.squidoo.com/the-meaning-of-zombies2.

    • http://www.barrycooper.com Barry Cooper

      Thanks Trent. I’m sure you’ve come across it, but Kim Paffenroth has also published a gospel-related take on zombies, called Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth.

      • http://trentdejong.com Trent DeJong (@Dryb0nz)

        Yes, this was a great resource.

        Have you noticed that once you study zombies for a while, you start seeing zombies everywhere? T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” Jospeh Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” Cormac MacCarthy’s “The Road” … The list goes on and on.

        • D Haynes

          Oh, please add I Am Legend to your list, Trent! I was amazed by the seemingly explicit gospel statements bound up in the film. (“The cure is in the blood…” Just as the Christ figure sacrifices his life for all humanity.). And the title? I haven’t quite made sense of — except that it refers to The I AM…?

  • Cooper

    I think my fascination with zombies and monster make up blossomed around the time I dedicated my life to living for God. Something about the living dead drew me in. It was then I realized that was all my friends and family. Sure they were walking but they were not really alive. They didn’t have new life. it doesn’t make sense for something to be dead and alive at the same time but that is what I had been. I have a hard time getting older Christians to not condemn my fascination with these monsters and articles like these help. The monsters we love reflect realities of our world. Thank you.

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  • T Miles

    I struggle with this. ‘But perhaps, in God’s grace, the cultural fascination with Zombies might draw some toward the only hope’ makes about as much sense as saying ‘in God’s grace, the cultural fascination with porn…’ or ‘the Hindu cultural fascination with grotesque images of decapitated and disembowelled gods’…

    I understand why you’ve written this article and attempted the illustration of Zombies, the new film will be watched by many…but I really think you’re clutching at straws with this one. I’d think it would be a struggle to use Zombies as an illustration in a church service, so why use it as one on a theological website??

    • http://www.barrycooper.com Barry Cooper

      T, thanks so much for your comment.

      On your first point. Doesn’t God lead people to himself by all kinds of unexpected routes? (That doesn’t validate the means by which they come, of course.)

      On the second point, I’m not seeking to use zombies as an illustration of the gospel. I’m assuming that because makers of zombie films are made in God’s image, and are recipients of what we’d call “common grace”, they often speak better than they know. The films therefore offer insights into the concerns of our culture – and suggest ways we can speak to those concerns in a Christ-centered way.

      • TJ Miles

        Yes he does lead people to himself through all kinds of unexpected routes, I can’t argue with that. He, after all, works ‘all things’ for the good… I’m still wrestling with this though because Zombie films, and indeed all Horror is so evil in nature. I remember seeing Dawn of the Dead as a very backslidden believer with a bunch of friends aged 16 (I’m now 36), whilst smoking a Bong… as I watched that film, I was struck so vividly by the evil (probably intensified by the Cannabis effects) that I had to get up and walk out of the friends house we were all in, I walked straight to a train station and home. My point? It was evil, pure evil. I know you’ve raised that in your article, you’re not encouraging us to see these films, but naturally as a result of this, won’t some Christians be tempted to?

        I also think you’re reading into Zombie flicks too much. It’s obvious from the recent rise in popularity of vampire, zombie, and gritty horror films that our culture in general is fascinated by them. But they are with porn too, does porn offer an insight into the concerns of our culture? Yes, of course it does, because it’s sinful! But does that mean we need to dissect porn and its appeal with an article like this? Perhaps, it needs to be addressed at some level, but we have to be careful to encourage believers to think of good and noble things:

        Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

        • http://trentdejong.com Trent DeJong (@Dryb0nz)

          There are many ways that Christians interact with culture, and there is more than one way to read Philipians 4:8. How you read this passage has a lot to do with how you view the world.

          From the perspective of my Christian philosophical tradition, there is nothing that is purely evil. There is also nothing that is purely good–except God. We believe that this is what we learn in the first few chapters of Genesis.

          When you read Phil. 4:8 from this perspective, you may have a different take on zombies.

          I’m not necessarily saying that zombies are “good” in themeselves, but they are useful to understand culture, and as a part of a Christian apologetic.

          More at: (http://trentdejong.com/dog-poop-in-the-brownies-how-to-read-philippians-48/)

          • TJ Miles

            Hi Trent. I’d be interested to know what Christian tradition you’re from. I’m reformed in my theology and I’ve never come across the ‘there is nothing that is purely evil’ teaching as of yet.

            I’ve read your article on poop and brownies and whilst I disagree with your youth leader about ridding ourselves of all secular music I also disagree with you.

            It was legalistic of your youth leader to say that, creating an extra-biblical rule (by commanding everyone).

            However, if he had said “a lot of secular music (and media) contains things that might cause you to be tempted, focus on ungodly things…so be wise in what you read, listen to and watch” then I’d agree with that.

            You see, Zombie films and Pink Floyd’s ‘the Wall’, and Iron Maiden’s ‘bring me your daughter to the slaughter’ all contain elements of good (genius in the melody etc), but it’s obvious that there is far more bad than there is good. Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial. I remember as a suicidal 16yr old, broken-hearted, depressed, lonely, taking drugs and listening to the Wall, it was pure medicine for my misery. It gave me comfort, but only in a horrible, dark way. It epitomized my pain and it certainly did not draw me to pray or be closer to God. Now, that’s not the experience of everyone who listens to the Wall or Dark Side or similar things, but if you research enough the artists and writers who create this kind of media it’s not hard to find their agendas to be mostly evil (in comparison to God’s goodness)(Do some research on Dark Side or the Wall and you’ll see what Gilmour and Waters were trying to achieve, not to mention the drug (occultic) influence as they were making the records.

            In fact, if ‘every inclination of the heart is evil from childhood (Gen 8), and we are evil (Jesus said we are), then unless the artist or writer has God inspiring them, will not the media be almost wholly evil? If nothing is good except for God, then how can there be any good apart from God?

            In the UK the speed limit is 60mph on country lanes. In the day it’s a lot of fun driving this speed down some of them… but at night, it’s extremely dangerous. It’s not illegal, it’s not unlawful, but it’s very very unwise to drive at 60mph down winding country lanes at nighttime…. in the same way, it’s unwise for us as Christians to put things before our eyes that might cause us harm.

            Psalm 101:3 “I will set no unclean thing before my eyes.”

            I would be very careful when you say things like:

            I’m not necessarily saying that zombies are “good” in themeselves, but they are useful to understand culture, and as a part of a Christian apologetic.

            I could just change the word ‘zombie’ to ‘porn’ and hey presto, I now have an excuse to watch porn.

            Also with regard to this subject and the occult, Duet 18:12 is worth a read. Things that God hates.

            • http://trentdejong.com Trent DeJong (@Dryb0nz)

              Hello TJ, I too am from the reformed tradition and this is where I am getting my assertion that there is nothing that is completely evil. For something to be completely evil, Satan would have had to have the power to create. But the demonic (this is from Lewis too, i am just thinking)can do no more than distort what was created good by God. This is my point in the “dog poop in the brownies” post. I don’t beleive there are two simple categories: good and evil, into which we can divide creation (and I include culture within creation).

              I completely agree with you that some things are so distorted by evil (pornography for instance, or Kraft Dinner [sorry, that’s another post])that we should avoid them altogether them.

              I don’t encourage anyone to watch zombie movies–most are completely not worth your time, and the “good ones” are problematic because of the violent content. I personally don’t really find them entertaining, but I do find them fascinating philosophically (and as a beginning of a Chrsitain apologetic). I don’t see a problem with everyone understanding the zombie and the genre, actually, I would argue that this would be a very good thing, so Cooper’s article is great. It is not an encouragement to view zombie narratives, but to understand them.

              For everyone (especially Christians) to understand them, some folk will need to study them and write about them, and that means viewing them. Barry Cooper, Kim Paffenroth, etc. are doing this from a Christian perspective.

              I really don’t think we are in disagreement here. I have a long list of qualifiers that I didn’t include in my response to your Phil 4:8 post. I agree there is much to avoid in popular culture, and zombies and The Wall are to be encountered with caution by some, and generally avoided by others. If you do watch/listen to such things, you certainly must be informed about what is behind them.

              I was cautioning, from my theological tradition, that to divide the world up into two simple categories: good and evil, is not an option. The task of the Christian is to do the hard work of navigating culture, with the purpose of working in Christ to redeem Creation for God’s glory–and to spread his good news.

              I did actually share the gospel with friends using my familiarity with Pink Floyd’s The Wall as a starting point, this was back in the early 80s. I now use zombies the same way.

      • TJ Miles

        Sorry, doesn’t the Zombie genre of Horror fall under the same category as the rest of Horror films–the occult?

    • http://trentdejong.com Trent DeJong (@Dryb0nz)

      I consider it an excellent starting point for a conversation about what a human being is. The philosophy of our age, at least on the popular level, has reduced mankind to purely physical/material entity. Christianity has a very different understanding of a human being–created in God’s image.

      The zombie is what we are, if phiosophical materialism is true (Romero also suggested in Dawn of the Dead, that the zombie is what we are if materialism is true. So when society asks (through the zombie)is this what we really are? The answer is clearly, “NO.”

      So if we are more than flesh and bone, what are we and where does that come from. If the Christian is anywhere within earshot, she will provide the answer.

      Given this, I think the only reason we wouldn’t use this in a church service is because we already have it in Ezekiel 37.

      (I’ve more of this at trentdejong.com if you’d like more on this topic)

  • David

    Playing the Zombie masterpiece The Last of Us has instilled in me a deeper hatred for sin and death. The contrast of death next to the indications of former life (especially anything in a category of innocence, like a toy store or daycare) helps me to become disillusioned. The lie about sin is that it’s related to death only indirectly and on this side of judgement it is confusingly in cohabitation with common grace, making discernment a crucial weapon in the fight of faith.

    This, like all apologetics, is beneficial for the Christian, but overall I agree with T Miles. If God uses it evangelistically, he uses it in spite of itself … like … a talking donkey … or Charles Finney.

  • http://www.humblewonderful.com Tony C.

    The importance of George Romero’s work goes much deeper than the understanding of zombies as a “real category”. Zombies in Romeros work are a reduction of other people to the state of non-person/undead.

    Zombies can be how the developing world is seen to western eyes. And also how the western world is seen to outsiders. Zombies can be how atheists are viewed by theists and theists viewed by atheists in those sorts of debates.
    Zombies can be how old people stereotype the young and the young stereotype the old.

    Zombies can be in some stories representations of what we create conceptually whenever we forget the genuine depth of others humanity.

    This isn’t to entirely discount your analysis but to add a layer.

    • http://www.barrycooper.com Barry Cooper

      This is really helpful, Tony, thank you.

  • http://simoncamilleri.com Simon Camilleri

    Nice analysis.
    Zombie films and indeed most early science fiction and monster films were social commentary clothed in entertainment.
    They could almost be considered the world’s version of modern day parables.

  • Andy

    What a great subject. :)

  • http://fivesolasreformation.com/ Nicholas J. Gausling

    I didn’t expect to ever see a teaching that used Charles Spurgeon and zombies together. But you know, it’s true that film (or art in general) reflects things about ultimate reality. In fact, I just wrote a post along those lines a few days ago on my own website: http://fivesolasreformation.com/2013/06/20/christ-jesus-only-true-hero/

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