Okay, so zombies are floating allegories. They might not be able to symbolize anything, but they aren’t very far off. Although they are most typically associated with death (say whaaaat?), zombies are also a ready stand in for most other conceivable calamities: disease, famine, war, overpopulation, global scarcity, financial crisis, problematic science, and any other threat (credible or not) to society as we know it. Zombie are perfectly suited as allegories for apocalypse and pandemic, and anything else that threatens to render humanity an endangered species. Indeed, the Center for Disease Control bases its whole Zombie Preparedness campaign around this allegorical openness.
|Clean fingernails are always the first thing to go...|
|Big Daddy as everything that frightens|
However, they are also capable of representing less overtly physically threatening concerns as well. Hints of racism, class strife, and geo-political and religious differences all show up repeatedly in zombie fiction, as the zombie itself seems to be an able embodiment of any (racial, ethnic, socioeconomic) Other.
Although I am intrigued by the zombie’s ability to represent a variety of concerns, both at the societal as well as the personal level, from text to text – clearly, the zombies of Night of the Living Dead symbolize different anxieties than Day of the Dead, or even Dawn of the Dead – I am probably more interested in their ability to function differently from person to person within the same text. Sometimes even from diametrically opposed perspectives.
Going back to Night, for example, it seems evident that audience members who align with Ben are likely to see (perhaps unconsciously, but that's a whole ‘nother discussion) the zombies as representative of one type of Other, while those who identify with Mr. Cooper (they are probably less common now than they were in 1968, but they undoubtedly still exist) are likely to read the zombies entirely differently. Although race might be the most obvious difference between the two men, they are also separated by class and age as well. So, where people that side with Ben might view the zombies, including the Cooper family, as representing people still clinging to the troublesome ideologies of the past, the pro-Cooper clan might see the hungry dead as a symbol of the teeming youth of the nation who refuse to do what they're supposed to.
|Team Ben: score one for progress!|
We see something similar at the beginning of 28 Days Later as well. A certain part of the population is going to see the outbreak as the fault of immoral researchers and bad science. Some viewers, though, are certainly likely to see the animal rights activists who won’t listen to reason as responsible for the Rage-fueled apocalypse. There is almost no chance that the “infected” operate the same way allegorically to both views.
But these are just two examples, predicated on extremes. There is a whole swarm of zombie texts that allow for, and indeed invite, a vast multitude of interpretations while constantly problematizing the boundaries of those interpretations. There is never one right reading (if there ever is of any text). Perhaps the perfect post-structural construct, zombies persistently undermine traditional black and white understandings and instead incessantly push everything towards some unsettled liminal space, reveling in the grey.
|Grey Like Me|
Tomorrow: monstrous plurality