The Rise of “Zombie Walks”: Is the human race finally embracing its true identity?

So have you heard of zombie walks, ladies and gentlemen? I’m talking about those increasingly ubiquitous events where groups of respectable everyday folk get in touch with their inner zombie by dressing up in costumes and makeup as the named monster in its modern mass entertainment incarnation — that is, as reanimated, flesh-eating corpses who shamble, moan, and sometimes shout “Brains!” — and shuffle en masse through public places either for fun or to raise money for a charity.

I had personally heard of these events somewhere — they got their start circa 2000, so there’s a history to them — and stored the memory in the back of my head, but hadn’t thought much about them until a friend and fellow zombie enthusiast (Paul Salvaggio of Backbone Media) sent me a link to the following video of a recent zombie walk in Moncton, Canada, that raised money for the local SPCA:

I watched in awe as a group — horde? — of not just adults but young children stumbled down the city streets in full zombie regalia, complete with blood stains on their mouths and clothing. And my thoughts rapidly ramped up to warp speed. In no particular order:

– Parents are having their children do this? They’re dressing up little Johnny and Jenny as flesh-eating, blood-spattered ghouls that have risen from the grave to shuffle around in search of human flesh to eat? Glory be! Lawdy! Holy crap! Or some other appropriate exclamation. The societal, familial, and general cultural implications are staggering.

A scene from the zombie walk in Paris, France on October 31, 2009

– The transformation of everyday life in contemporary first-world countries by the all-pervasiveness of mass entertainment has never been more blatant in a slap-you-upside-the-head sort of way. The idea of zombies as these cannibalistic flesh-eating machines was invented by George Romero in 1968. He launched it with Night of the Living Dead, thereby eclipsing the former and more historically derived image of the zombie as a sad worker drone controlled by rich and evil plantation owners.Β  A drive-in horror movie — one with profound value and meaning beyond such a schlocky pedigree, to be sure — so revolutionized mass culture over a mere four decades via its various tangents of influence that it gave rise to a mass imitative behavioral phenomenon. It caused, or was part of, a mass stirring in the collective subconscious that mysteriously gave rise to an inexplicable but undeniable motivation to do what these zombie walkers are doing. Ye gods.

– Romero’s zombie movies were full of social and cultural criticism. Dawn, for instance, was and is an explicit satire on the American-style uber-consumerism that was newly minted when Romero wrote and directed the movie in the 1970s. The zombies in that film congregated at a shopping mall because that place “was important to them” in life. In their sad afterlives they wandered forlornly around that consumerist paradise in a kind of Dante-esque scenario of ironic punishment, stuck in a limbo where they could vaguely remember their past pleasures but were barred from enjoying them. Now, in today’s zombie walks, people are gleefully identifying with this monster. You can tell they’re Romero’s zombies, at least in the Moncton zombie walk, because they shuffle and moan like his zombies do, instead of running and snarling like the swift, feral zombies in 2004’s Dawn remake, or 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, or 2002’s 28 Days Later, or 2009’s Zombieland.

– The zombie walkers are partaking of a generalized zombie mythos, as evidenced by the fact that even though they’re Romero-esque zombies, they sometimes shout “Brains!” — an act that comes directly from the alternate zombie universe of the Return of the Living Dead franchise. And thanks to the pervasive mass entertainment culture, they can count on the fact that many or most observers will know exactly what they’re getting at.

Another scene from the 2009 Paris zombie walk

– The zombie walkers are perhaps engaging in an awesomely delicious display of existential self-parody. America’s national capitulation to consumer capitalism as its guiding ethos, and its exporting of this ethos to the rest of the globe, has confirmed and fulfilled the worst cultural and societal fears expressed in Romero’s zombie movies. Dressing up to play zombie in our fully zombified economic, political, and social order is akin to letting the cat out of the bag. It’s like being the kid in the story who shouts that the emperor is wearing no clothes — except the kid doesn’t notice that he’s naked himself. These people are gaily identifying with the symbol of our national spiritual demise, and the tenor of the times just makes it natural, what with the zombie meme having gone not just viral but universal.

– On a slightly different note, in The Conspiracy against the Human Race, published just this month, Thomas Ligotti discusses the idea that human beings are self-conscious nothings, avatars of a blind and rapacious force that governs reality and, in the case of our unfortunate species, has produced organisms that are endowed with self-awareness, thus placing us in a horrific existential plight because we’re conscious of our situation in a way that no other organism is. If the modern-day zombie, as theorized by Richard Liberty’s “Frankenstein” character in 1985’s Day of the Dead, is nothing but a human being operating at its most primal level, with all of the higher faculties deadened and nothing but blind appetite remaining operational, then being one of these things might not be so bad after all, since zombie-hood is by definition life without self-consciousness, continued existence without the burden of selfhood. A zombie is a former self-conscious nothing that’s now just a nothing, but it’s still animate. Bliss, perhaps?

I doubt any of the zombie walkers are thinking about these things. But then, they don’t have to, because they’re too busy having fun in the grip of that astonishing uprush from the basement of the collective mind.

Photos courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/philippeleroyer/

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on April 9, 2010, in Society & Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I think the idea of self parody is exactly what makes these events so attractive to people.

    Well, it’s why they appeal to me anyway.

  2. Thanks for touching on this topic, Matt. I think there’s something fascinating here on a number of levels and from a variety of perspectives, whether cultural studies, identity theory, religious studies, pop culture, etc. Why do we so identify with the zombie which vies with the vampire for Western culture’s favorite monstrous icon? And why go so far as to share in this identification via a zombie walk, an even I’ve commented on and even considered participating in in my own state. I think there’s a PhD dissertation here for a creative academic, and an educational institution willing to get behind the research.

  3. Grumpy: You may well be right. About both them and yourself. πŸ˜‰

    John: You have a knack for spotting dissertation and degree opportunities. Well said.

  4. He Matt,
    Good topic: since I saw my first zombie movie, which was The Return of the Living Dead, I somehow started to collect these movies. This went on until I realised that poeple around me were acting like zombies. Sad, bitter and doing the things they themselves don’t want to do. Leading an unhappy life! It was than I dropped collecting or watching. I realised that it wasn’t the mere thrill or excitement of watching a horror movie. Now we see that people hold parades and act out the lives they live inside: a life that is unhappy and controlled by things or people (viruses that keep them alive, evnthough they maybe wouldn’t want to live).
    Plus, I think it was 1954 Richard Matheson who wrote the first zombie novel(I am legend). I know this because I got the black-white movie (1962)…
    Nevertheless, yet we see again a revolution, a la The French Revolution 1789 against the opression against ouw own will to do or be anyone we want to be. It is just an amazing process.

  5. What does the ghouls have to do with zombies??????

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