Zombies, Environmental Declensionism, and the Fate of Humanity: Symbolism in the Zombie Metaphor, 1968-2013

By Andrew Watson

A presentation delivered at American Society for Environmental History annual conference, April 2013

Zombies have come to occupy a very prominent spot in North American popular culture. This popularity has spilled over into other aspects of everyday life, making zombies a reoccurring metaphor in politics and economics, as well as the natural sciences  and mathematics. As a sub-genre of post-apocalyptic stories, since WWII zombies have reflected society’s concern with crises such as political conflict, social and cultural change, and economic decline. Yet, since the crystallization of the modern zombie in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombies have also contained an under-current of environmental anxiety in addition to political, social and economic anxieties. This presentation traces the rise in the popularity of zombies by correlating the growth in the number of zombie movies produced since 1950 with certain moments or trends of environmental anxiety since WWII. In doing so, it becomes apparent that zombies are historically contingent, and stand-in for specific types of environmental anxieties that shift and evolve to reflect the times. For example, in Romero’s second zombie film Dawn of the Dead (1978), zombies were representative of over-consumption and critiques of consumerism, while in his third film Day of the Dead (1985), they embodied a growing fear of incurable disease. After 9/11, however, in films such as Dany Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and the remake of Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004)  zombies become proxies for a growing anxiety about urban environments, including over-crowding, collapse of the inner core, and disillusionment with the suburban dream. By examining the imagery contained in Romero’s zombie films, as well as several twenty-first century zombie films, this presentation suggests that the popularity of zombies tells us a great deal about how we have coped with environmental anxiety in the past.

Andrew Watson is a PhD candidate in the history department at York University. When not studying zombies, he is completing a PhD on the environmental history of the Muskoka Lakes region in Ontario.

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One thought on “Zombies, Environmental Declensionism, and the Fate of Humanity: Symbolism in the Zombie Metaphor, 1968-2013

  1. Trent DeJong (@Dryb0nz)

    Interesting take on the zombie popularity. I haven’t heard environmental causes, but I have read social and cultural explanations. I think the environmental connection could be related to a deeper philosophical cause for the current popularity. Shakespeare and Dante each had a “zombie” in their work, and there has been some unhappiness since then, but the walking dead didn’t catch on until now. I suggest that the zombie does in contemporary culture what all other narrative monsters have done in the cultures that told those monster stories. They are different because we are. I have posted a summary of my research at: http://www.squidoo.com/the-meaning-of-zombies2. The more academic stuff is at http://trentdejong.com/?p=592.

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