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Excerpt from Dreams

Zombies (p. 362)

From chapter "Zombies"

What are zombies?

My early knowledge of zombies primarily came from movies like White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie. These encounters seemed to affect me little more than to make me afraid to walk through thickets at night (although I kept telling myself that these movies were set on tropical islands, and that with the exception of late-night statements from such unreliable sources as my older siblings there were no confirmed sightings of zombies in Colorado). But later I came to see these movies as tales of white supremacy, conquest, empire, Christianity, civilization, and slavery. Lately I’ve been reading a very interesting collection of essays called Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah, and the Caribbean. In the essay Voudoun, or the Voice of the Gods, Joan Dayan writes, “Born out of the experience of slavery and the sea passage from Africa to the New World, the zombi tells the story of colonization: the reduction of human into thing for the ends of capital. For the Haitian no fate is to be more feared. In a contemporary Caribbean of development American style, the zombi phenomenon obviously goes beyond the machinations of the local boco. As [René] Depestre puts it, ‘This fantastic process of reification and assimilation means the total loss of my identity, the psychological annihilation of my being, my zombification.’ And Laënnec Hurbon explains how the zombi stories produce and capitalize on an internalization of slavery and passivity, making the victims of an oppressive economic and social system the cause: ‘The phantasm of the zombi . . . does nothing but attest to the fulfillment of a system that moves the victim to internalize his condition.’” René Depestre also stated, “It is not by chance that there exists in Haiti the myth of the zombi, that is, of the living dead, the man whose mind and soul have been stolen and who has been left only the ability to work. The history of colonization is the process of man’s general zombification.”

My second source for learning about zombies was the series of films starting with Night of the Living Dead, then continuing through Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and so on, although I have to admit that I bailed out long before Teatime of the Living Dead, Part Three (I also have to admit that I do still occasionally watch congressional hearings, which are some of the most horrifying zombie flicks ever made). It was clear to me even when I watched these films in my teens and early twenties that they could easily be seen as extraordinary commentaries on modern life (wait: do you mean to tell me that these were fiction, and not documentaries?). How brain-dead would someone have to be to not see the meaning of Dawn of the Dead being set in a mall: even after they’ve been zombified, people return to their place of worship.

In the last few days I’ve been thinking about this particular evolution of the portrayal of zombies and zombification, and although there have been an extraordinary number of academic studies portraying zombies through every type of lens from Marxism to Christianity to anarchism to pop culture to consumerism (a Google search for the terms “zombies,” “film,” and “academic” reveals 14,600,000 hits— way more even than for “Richard Dawkins”!), I think the pattern I’m seeing, from passive victim to ravenous monster, is real. As one analysis puts it, and I quote this at length because it feels so right, “Modern zombies, as portrayed in books, films, games, and haunted attractions, are quite different from both voodoo zombies and those of folklore. Modern zombies are typically depicted in popular culture as mindless, unfeeling monsters with a hunger for human brains and flesh, a prototype established in the seminal [sic] 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Typically, these creatures can sustain damage far beyond that of a normal, living human. Generally these can only be killed by a wound to the head, such as a headshot, and can pass whatever syndrome that causes their condition onto others.

“Usually, zombies are not depicted as thralls to masters, as in the film White Zombie or the spirit-cult myths. Rather, modern zombies are depicted in mobs and waves, seeking either flesh to eat or people to kill or infect, and are typically rendered to exhibit signs of physical decomposition such as rotting flesh, discolored eyes, and open wounds, and moving with a slow, shambling gait. They are generally incapable of communication and show no signs of personality or rationality, though George Romero’s zombies appear capable of learning and very basic levels of speech as seen in the films Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead.

“Modern zombies are closely tied to the idea of a zombie apocalypse, the collapse of civilization caused by a vast plague of undead. The ideas are now so strongly linked that zombies are rarely depicted within any other context.”

This part especially made me think of my dream from the frogs about modern humans being flesh-eating zombies: “They are generally incapable of communication and show no signs of personality or rationality . . .” Remember that the primary difference between indigenous and Western ways of being is that indigenous peoples perceive the universe as composed of beings with whom we should enter into relationships, and civilized people perceive the universe as composed of objects to exploit, as dumb matter. Recall what I wrote in A Language Older Than Words: “The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to our domination of them. Religion, science, philosophy, politics, education, psychology, medicine, literature, linguistics, and art have all been pressed into service as tools to rationalize the silencing and degradation of women, children, other races, other cultures, the natural world and its members, our emotions, our consciences, our experiences, and our cultural and personal histories.” How much less capable of communication can one be than to actively deny the subjectivity of all others?

They also show no signs of personality. This culture reduces all cultures to one. This culture is based on standardization. It systematically destroys diversity. And because it destroys nature and destroys diversity, it destroys all real possibility of personality. As Vine Deloria said to me, “I teach at the University of Colorado, and so many of the students are convinced that they are free because they act just like each other. They all do the same things. They think alike. They’re almost like a herd, or like they’ve all been cloned. They’re enslaved to a certain way of life. Once you’ve traded away spiritual insight for material comfort, it is extremely difficult to ever get back to any sense of authenticity. You see these poor kids going out hiking in the mountains, trying to commune with nature, and yet you can’t commune with nature just taking a walk. You have to actually live it. And these young people have no way of critiquing the society that is enslaving them, because the only experiences they’re really going to have are the occasional weekend hikes. They may see beautiful vistas, and they may get a sense of this other aesthetic, but they’re not going to get to the metaphysical sense of who they really are.” And as far as showing signs of “rationality,” how rational is it to destroy the planet you live on?

I could easily show line by line how the description of zombies fits modern humans, but by now you should be able to do that by yourself.

What’s interesting here, though, is how this transformation in the representation of zombies follows the process of the internalization of colonialism, or if you prefer, the progression of the wétiko disease, both on personal and societal levels. In the early films, and in voudoun (voodoo) and other religions (where zombies and zombification play very minor roles), it is not the zombies themselves who are to be most feared, but rather their masters, and also the process of zombification. Zombies are relatively rare, and the fear is that one may lose oneself, one’s identity, one’s volition, one’s mind, one’s soul, that one may be enslaved. This mimics and represents the fears of free women and men at the edge of empire, those who have yet to be conquered (and ultimately to become conquerors), yet to be metabolized, yet to be assimilated. They fear and loathe those identifiable wétikos who destroy the souls of others, who force others to jump through hoops on command.

By the late twentieth century, however, zombies are no longer presented as having been pacified and made mindless by some evil slavemaster, but rather are presented as flesh-eating (though still mindless) monsters who are not only to be feared for their insatiability and ferocity, but because their sickness is highly contagious. No longer is there much talk of a master, or for that matter a comprehensible cause.

The zombies just are, and they are insatiable.

This transformation in our perception of zombie behavior, and in our perception of danger, matches this culture’s development. In the transition of mostly nationally based capitalism to global imperialism, the individual “masters” become less influential and the system itself becomes self-perpetuating. As that happens, people in economic centers go beyond being victims of the machine to becoming integrated into it. This is intentional on the part of the masters not only because it shields them and deflects opposition, but also because it creates entire “mobs” or “waves” of mindless monsters to propagate (and make self-perpetuating) the process of zombification.

In The Culture of Make Believe I put it this way: “If we count this culture as originating (in ‘conquest abroad and repression at home,’ as Stanley Diamond put it) in the Near East and metastasizing from there into the Mediterranean, from there to Europe, and from there across the globe, then we could elucidate the conquest that has run before its frontier like a pressure wave before the bow of a ship—taming or taking out the Dacians, Thracians, Gauls, Picts, Celts, and so on—and likewise the repression that expands outward to fill that frontier, insofar as possible silencing or ignoring all voices of dissent, and expanding inward—psychologically—to, even more importantly, silence those interior voices of dissent, too, to capture our motivations, thoughts, dreams, desires, and to make repression for the most part perfectly transparent to us, until we no longer perceive ourselves as being repressed at all, and until we can serenely, ‘tranquilly, legally, philanthropically,’ oppress all those we feel ourselves entitled to exploit, and all those who remind us of our own repression.”

In other words, you could easily say that this evolving portrayal of zombies tells the story, dreamlike, of the progression of civilization, of the metabolization of ever-greater numbers of humans into wétikos, into flesh-eating zombies, until zombification is normalized to the point that few people can anymore even guess at a cause (as opposed to earlier, when zombification wasn’t so normalized, and people could still discern the causes and causers of zombification). It tells the story, dreamlike, of the zombification of so much of the human population that it leads to a “zombie apocalypse,” only it is not merely civilization that these zombies destroy, but rather life on this planet.