The Dead and an Island

Writing critically about zombies is starting to become almost as ubiquitous as the damn things themselves. I recently saw an episode of PBS Idea Channel entitled ‘Why Do We Love Zombies?‘, which explained how the monster in vogue at any point reflects society’s fears – so in paranoid Cold War America you had alien invaders; some, like pod-people, which looked like us and lived among us but weren’t us; and in post-Hiroshima Japan you had the giant radiation-mutated Godzilla levelling cities. The proposal regarding zombies was that the horde symbolises a world beyond human control, and that further they represent a sort of technophobia – zombies are not evil, they are just doing the only thing they know – carrying out their programming if you will – without regard to morality, much like a computer. In many zombie films, survivors rely not on technology or infrastructure to maintain themselves but simple, often handmade machines.

                This is nothing new of course. I studied Robinson Crusoe at university and it and the ‘Robinsonade’ genre it spawned would seem to represent a retreat from technology and infrastructure similar to that which Idea Channel posits in their video. Furthermore the video then states that “The classic zombie apocalypse survival plan is to go to an island where natural resources are plentiful. You get away from the zombies but you also get away from technology and from… everything. You return to a simpler time.” Seeing any similarity?

                But why zombies particularly? Many types of apocalypse could cause this regression to rustic simplicity. KokadaRC, a top commenter on the Idea Channel video at the time I watched it, suggests that once the prevalence of zombies specifically is over a ‘wasteland’ genre might emerge for post-apocalyptic survival works. But for the meantime, as game critic Yahtzee Croshaw puts it: “Honestly at this point you people just won’t be able to cope if civilisation ends any other way, will you? If the fucking Daleks invade or the entire world gets covered in carnivorous jam you’ll have to make papier-mâché zombie facsimiles just to get through the day.”

                The technophobia aspect may be a part of the appeal of the shamblers, but I believe it is not specific enough to zombie apocalypses to be the sole reason. There are other reasons that could contribute, such as the fact that zombies, like Hollywood Nazis, are human shaped and yet morally ok to slaughter, but this is not my theory.

                I lied about Robinson Crusoe earlier. What I was citing was what most people think of when they think about the Robinsonade genre. But I had to write an essay on it, and my research highlighted something. Crusoe is completely reliant on technology. Shortly after he is shipwrecked he finds the site of the wreck and makes multiple dives to retrieve supplies, including iron tools and a number of guns. He is further bolstered later by a hurricane blowing further supplies from the ship back to shore and then again, some years later, by another shipwreck. It is these guns that allow Crusoe to hunt in the early years, before he starts farming goats, and later to defend himself against cannibals and mutineers. Further, while Crusoe may rhapsodize about how much time and effort it takes to make something he could just buy at home (a table, pots) and how much more he appreciates it for his hard work, he would not be able to make these things, nor do much of his farming, without the iron tools that are the culmination of his society’s technology and infrastructure.

                Similarly, though a zombie apocalypse might strip away the iPhones and the bleeding edge of technology many of the standard survivor tools – guns, cars, chainsaws, crossbows, medicine etc. – could not be manufactured by the survivors themselves. Like Crusoe, the apocalypse may represent a level of technological regression but it does not take us all the way back to ‘Man vs nature/undead’. In retrospect I realise this was not really Idea Channel’s argument, and that in fitting so much information into five minutes some subtleties are lost. Both Crusoe and zombie survivors are aided by thousands of years of technological advancement, but it is only the most recent developments the latter is a reaction against.

                Still, I would argue that overpopulation is just as much behind the love of zombies. In the West, many of us are taught that we are special snowflakes, but it’s hard to reconcile this belief with the fact that there are seven billion of us; a number that’s hard to even comprehend. Then, when we leave education at whatever level it hits us hard that there are literally thousands of people who could do the same job as us, some even in different countries – we do not matter. An apocalypse solves this problem twofold: firstly it reduces society to a level where, due to the sheer drop in numbers, every individual matters; secondly, to be a survivor in the first place, whether through luck, providence, or your own preparedness – you are special. So far, so applicable to every type of Armageddon. What gives zombie apocalypses the advantage is that it recasts all those who aren’t us, who aren’t special enough to be us – the other – as shambling grotesqueries we can cathartically obliterate. That’ll teach ‘em for threatening our entitled sense of self!

                Any similarities to Crusoe? Well, at the time it was written the mercantile class was expanding. Previously the nobility had been special and the peasants had been a faceless, unimportant mass. But now there was a new, educated, ‘middle’ class who clearly viewed themselves as special, and this class was growing. At home Robinson was just another merchant’s son. On his island, he is master, ‘governor’ and ‘king’.

                As I have written, I have realised I cannot refute the Idea Channel argument as fully as I first intended. Though still the culmination of thousands of year’s technological advancement, there is a great difference between guns and cars and crossbows – ‘analogue’ technologies quite easy to understand – and the cryptic computer technologies that seem to operate without human agency. Rather, let this article be seen as highlighting an interesting parallel between the first English novel and a current trend in fiction, as well as my thoughts on the source of their popularity.

-Inspiration for this article comes from a top commenter on the aforementioned PBS Idea Channel video, Grahame Turner, who said: “My argument for a while has been that zombies represent our fear of conformity, of becoming part of a faceless horse and creating to be relevant because of looking our individuality. I can definitely see both arguments, even see them both working.” [sic.]

                It has also occurred to me that some of the arguments here are quite similar to and probably inspired by Croshaw’s articles on zombies, both of which are worth reading: