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The Romero Zombie: Society's New Fury

Heather Elise Hamilton

A great deal of academic literature has been written on the unique sociological implications of the Romero zombie. As a representation of the shortcomings of first world consumerism, the Romero zombie is a unique symbol of the social decay created by extreme greed. This study does not propose to contradict the exceptional work that has come before, but rather to add to it the idea that the Romero zombie is also a manifestation of the ‘survivor guilt’ of wealthy consumers.

We must begin with the fact that society has always created entities to represent shared concerns. Human beings have always developed elaborate stories to explain things about themselves that they don’t understand or do not know how to express. Monsters have typically been archetypal manifestations of deep-seated insecurities shared by a culture, or the manifestations of a forbidden impulse run amok. It is now common knowledge that there is a sociological connection between the vampire and sublimated sexuality. The werewolf represents our animalistic urges and actions that we fight to suppress in a civilized society. Monsters are and have been profoundly psychological and socially relevant. They are the projections society uses to explain, warn or instruct.

The ancient Greeks saw guilt as a monster called a Fury. The Furies were hungry, filthy, and pursued their victims with single minded tenacity. The violence that the emotion of guilt exacts on the psyche was represented by the violence the Fury exacted on the body of the guilty Greek, as it clawed and bit and tore at him. The zombie is our equivalent of the ancient Fury. Diseased, starved, single minded, it comes to tear and scratch at the comfortable bourgeoisie. Today we use the idiom ‘consumed by guilt’. The zombies, our Furies, are out to consume us, and we aren’t sure we don’t deserve it.

The Greek ‘Fury’, of course, was a hag-like creature who was inexorably drawn to the remorseful perpetrators of crime. Uninterested in callous, dispassionate criminals, the Furies would pursue those sinners who felt guilt, punishing the basically good for their lapse in virtue. Perhaps the most famous example of a good man punished by the Furies is Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, who famously killed his mother in order to avenge his father. A virtuous man, Orestes felt himself obligated to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, because she in turn had murdered his father. Despite the ‘justness’ of his act (the Greeks held vengeance in a high regard and ultimately even the gods supported Orestes’ decision), he was followed by the Furies, who clawed at him and tried to tear him apart in punishment for his matricide. He was ‘torn’ and ‘consumed’ by guilt. His actions were ‘eating’ at him.

The symbolism here is obvious, and its connection to our contemporary mythos even more so. We, like the Greeks, have created a symbol to represent the gnawing feeling of social guilt. The middle and upper classes, en masse, have latched on to the starved, diseased, pathetic and terrifying zombie to represent its unsettling and guilty emotions about the desperate poverty and disease of the rest of the world. The bourgeoisie is aware of the desperate conditions of millions of humans and reaches out as best it can, but is ultimately trapped in its own concerns and therefore unable to actually extend the effort to truly improve to lives of others. As social organisms, the awareness of the desperate straits of others is unsettling, however, not enough to stir us from the challenges of our own lives and take aggressive action to end hunger, disease, or violence. Therefore, the average consumer is, to some degree, haunted by the spectre of all that human suffering. The media shows images of the dead, decayed, starved, diseased, and war torn. Those images remain in our cultural subconscious, and they eat at us. In the Romero canon, they become zombies.

Wallace Shawn’s perfectly named play Fury provides a searing example of this guilt and grief. It follows the mental anguish of a wealthy Westerner who visits an impoverished country. Faced with the obvious pain and desperation all around him, he asks himself why he doesn’t just give all his wealth and security to the starving mother on the street corner. Is she not deserving of a safe life as much as him? More than him? Why doesn’t he just trade places with her? Instead, he goes back to his fine hotel and eats a fine meal. He sleeps in fine linens and loathes himself for the finery. He is pursued by the Fury of his own inaction, but is unable to redeem himself. He is somewhat trapped in idleness by his own fear, but still a victim to self loathing, grief and guilt. This brutal and scathing examination of the basically good person facing overwhelming human suffering describes perfectly the social and emotional context that birthed the Romero zombie.

A stumbling, pathetic creature, a Romero zombie is not individually frightening so much as visceral, pitiful, comic and horrific. Like the victim of a horrible disease it induces both pity and revulsion, not panic. It is only when the individual zombie becomes a mob that it turns terrifying. One victim of starvation or disease is deserving of sympathy, but a mob of the contagious or needy invokes blind panic and desperate acts of self-preservation. Real life people are able to extend only so much compassion before their fear takes over. Most people can face danger in order to extend help to a few desperate people, but when faced with a magnitude of sufferers they turn away. Since most people are fundamentally good, there is a deep seated feeling of unease that comes from this. The knowledge that they could do more if they really set out to do more haunts them, and the guilt they experience makes them manufacture zombies.

The zombie represents our worst archetypal fears, and the greatest and oldest threats to human kind: disease, violence, starvation, and (naturally) death. They are contagious with a horrible sickness, and their bite will make us as sick as them. Proximity to them means risking horrible death by contagion, and this is one of the oldest fears of human kind. We are still terrified of contagion, as can be seen in the recent uproars surrounding swine and bird flu. The zombie is also starving. Desperate for food, it will do anything it can to ease its hunger pains, including cause harm to itself. Starvation is another of human kind’s oldest fears, and one of the greatest killers of all times. Violence is a way of ‘life’ for the zombie, and frequently the zombie bears signs of this age old human fear. Importantly, the zombie is dead. Unlike a living monster who has something to lose, the zombie is dead already. This makes it representative of what must certainly be the greatest human fear of all: nonnegotiable, unemotional, relentless and egalitarian death.

The importance of these qualities can not be emphasised enough. It is hugely significant that the zombie is symbolic of all the greatest killers of humankind. The zombie itself becomes a victim of all these horrors, as well as a perpetrator. This mixes our horror with pity, and resonates with the part of the consumer’s mind that is horror and guilt struck about the pervasively difficult circumstances of most humans on earth.

The Romero zombie is not an individual entity. It is part of a mob, and this makes it relatively unique in the Western monster canon. Certainly their have been monster legions in the corpus of Western nightmares, but the monsters that stick with us the most tend to be solitary: Grendel, the boogey man, Dracula, etc. Significantly, these monsters are rarely lacking in an identity. The witch has a name, the vampire has a castle with a home address, the werewolf has his day to day life. These monsters are individuals that their victims, to some degree, know. They are usually solitary figures requiring a solitary hero to defeat them. They have backgrounds, personalities, and can be thought about as individual monstrosities. This is significant. Their very individuality allows us to identify with them. This fact goes deeper than the mere romanticism of the tortured being. It also allows us to consider the evils of our own dark impulses, and to see the violence that might come about if we were to give into them. These are monsters because of their exaggerated human impulse, and we must be able to identify with them if we are to learn from their example.

The Romero zombie is nothing like these individual monsters. Instead, it is relatively harmless on its own, but horrifying in the mob. The zombie has no identity, other than perhaps some scraps of clothing hinting at a past life. The zombie’s lack of individuality suggests that it is not individual human impulse that it represents (like Dracula or Grendel). Rather, its horror lies in the sheer fact of its multitude. They are the stinking mass of humanity, tragically faceless in the crowd, all consumed by an unfulfilled need. This, then, is another connection to the Greek Fury. They represent our sublimated awareness of our failure to satisfactorily aid the less fortunate, and they have come to eat us because we are being gnawed at by guilt. They are the starving human masses, the mob of the diseased, all contagious, all suffering, come to exact on the healthy some subliminal karmic balance. They are our guilty consciences, coming to eat at us.

Unlike many other Western legends the zombie story has no noble Beowulf to slay the monster and redeem society. One does not see the evil zombie attacking a virtuous hero. Instead, one sees the starving, pitiful, horrific zombie attacking a usually unlovable group of humans. Romero’s survivors are frequently more monstrous than the monsters themselves. While there are, of course, critical exceptions to this, the exceptions prove the rule. Romero’s survivors are largely unlovely and unlikable, and while we fear for them, we also don’t mourn their deaths. Instead of a cathartic purgation of pity and fear, then, we merely experience fear and unsettling identification. We, the viewer, must identify with the humans (the only other option being the mob of zombies), but we loathe most of them and feel that they deserve their fate. This, then, because we are forced to identify with them, leads us to consider our own social ills. Are we as unlovable as the human protagonists? Do we deserve to be punished for our own selfishness and distraction? The Romero zombie, although horrible, is strangely sympathetic. We do not love the faceless mob of monsters, to be sure, but somehow we pity them to the point of feeling ambivalent about many of the human survivors. We feel that the humans have it coming, and that the zombies are, perhaps, cleansing the world of a flawed and broken society. Therefore, like the Furies, the Romero zombie manifests the guilty conscience of society, contemplating whether or not the world would be better off without it. The zombie, the Fury, has come to punish and cleanse.

The third connection between the Romero zombie and the Greek Fury is their strange vulnerability. For all their horror and violence they are needy, somewhat comic and outraged. The Fury, while terrible, is also a plaintiff. She is the horrified representative of someone wronged. In the Orestia, the furies plead with the gods to give them Orestes, begging the case of the murdered Clytemnestra. They wants to torture Orestes, but not because of some sadistic whim. They demand justice and retribution, and their supplication makes them vulnerable. We fear them, but we also feel for them. Their cause, while grotesque, is also just. They represent a wronged woman and are determined to exact vengeance. It is important to note that the Furies are female. Greek society viewed femininity as out of control, dangerous, wild, and inferior. It would be an unlovely agenda to argue in defence of a woman who killed a great man like Agamemnon. Indeed, the Gods ultimately find in favour of Orestes, stating that the father is the only true parent, thus it was right of him to commit matricide in vengeance of his father. The Furies were bravely demanding justice from the gods for a powerless member of society, and this puts them in a vulnerable, if noble, position.

The zombies, while terrifying, are also vulnerable. Individually, they are the weakest monsters around, easily dispatchable with a baseball bat. They are pathetically hungry, slow moving, mindless, and desperate. They are to be pitied. One of the most memorable zombies in Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead is the nude girl, staggering through the night. Starving and naked, she stumbles with horrifying intensity towards the living. She is scary, yes, but her nakedness and vulnerability are also apparent. No powerful named monster she, but rather a nameless and pathetic shambling thing, exposed in her nakedness and unable to feel shame. She shows us the zombie as a human reduced by contagion, disease, hunger and violence: single minded, frightening, and pitiable.

It is important to this argument that the zombies be vulnerable. If they were powerful beasts we would find their destruction heroic. We would delight in the warriors who killed them and celebrate their deaths. Instead, we feel relief and perhaps catharsis at the violence of their destruction, but recognise that they are pitiable creatures. No single hero emerges from the Romero canon who triumphs over evil. In fact, there is no true evil in the Romero mythos, other than the minds of some of the opportunists among the human survivors. The zombie is the pathetic mob of the innocently diseased, and they are terrifying in their contagion and pitiable in their powerlessness. They are the mass of the neglected dead, come to claw at the living and, perhaps, make them consider how it came to be that they were abandoned and left to die. Their vulnerability and expressionless recriminations cause us guilt, pain and horror, therefore they are our Furies.

All societies tell stories to address sublimated social concerns. The zombie, hugely popular in this century, must represent some vast issue haunting the conscience of the affluent consumer. Pitiable, horrific and the vulnerable sufferer of all human’s greatest fears, the Romero zombie is both horrible and sympathetic. Romero survivors are unlovable and selfish and the viewer is often left thinking that they do not deserve their survival, but instead deserve to be consumed by the monsters. Like the ancient Greek Fury, the zombie is the mythical beast that we have invented to make manifest our guilt at the wants of others.

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