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Zombies have never been my favorite supernatural creatures. I find them kind of depressing — the way their flesh hangs off their rotting bodies, their lack of agency and intelligence, how they’re usually killed in such graphically violent ways. But since I teach seminars about the supernatural and am writing a book about supernatural creatures in contemporary art, film, and television, I’ve been thinking about zombies in a lot more depth lately. I’ve gained a new appreciation of how, despite their lack of intelligible speech, zombies have a surprising amount to say about how we live in our current era and how we worry about what’s coming next for humanity.
In Canadian artist Kim Dorland’s 2013 painting “Zombies (The Parents),” two figures stagger through a blood red forest. The color of their skin and the halos that surround their lumbering bodies echo the pulsating red of the trees. This repetition suggests not only the endless blood lust of the zombies but also their connection to nature. Rather than being shown as part of a larger horde, they are depicted as individuals — parents, no less. This casts them in a sympathetic light; I immediately think about what their lives were like before they were turned and ponder whether any of their humanity remains intact. Am I being pursued by my own parents? Should I kill them or let them be? Or perhaps these zombies are the first woman and man to become infected by the virus, a kind of zombie Adam and Eve.
Dorland’s painting reflects a larger trend in recent years, of representing supernatural creatures not simply as scary monsters but as complex characters with whom we’re meant to empathise. Given this tendency to humanize the supernatural, it’s not surprising that zombies are taking new form in films and artworks. The Canadian film Fido (2006); American films Warm Bodies (2013), directed by Jonathan Levine, and George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005); the BBC TV series In the Flesh (2013–14); Bruce La Bruce’s Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008); and the French TV series Les Revenants (ongoing) all provide versions of the sympathetic zombie, which I find to be a far more interesting character — I guess I prefer a little humanity in my monsters. Rather than being mindless, shambling, dangerous, flesh-eating monsters that we need to escape from, the zombies in these films and TV shows are tragic figures we identify with, a treatment that echoes Dorland’s take. The female in the foreground of Dorland’s “Zombies” (2013) is especially human. The way she hugs herself and looks down at the ground as she moves through the forest makes her appear more lost and vulnerable than anything else. We feel sympathetic because she looks so forlorn and alienated.
Kira Shaimanova, another Canadian artist, gives us a humorous look at the sympathetic zombie. On her website, Shaimanova describes her 2010 series of photographs of sculpted dolls, titled Chivalry is Undead, in this way: “While chivalry is dead in the present day, it is very much alive for the undead. Zombie gentlemen demonstrate chivalrous acts and behaviours in contemporary settings using unconventional methods.” In “Mop-Head,” a zombie cleans the floor with his disembodied head. It lovingly stares up at the woman, who now has time to relax and enjoy a good book.
In this series, zombies are romantic figures, helpful paramours who are thoroughly domesticated. They snuggle on the couch, offer up a bouquet of dismembered hands, do household chores, even take down a mugger when the situation arises. The dangers of the zombie and its capacity to kill and infect are tamed through these gallant acts; the threat of the zombie as a harbinger of disease and death is rendered null and void. Any of the fears that the zombie might have embodied are crushed under the weight of love and domesticity. In the process, Shaimanova implies that chivalry in contemporary society is as fantastical as supernatural beings.
The craze of zombie walks, wherein participants dress up like the undead and parade in orderly masses, is another realm where the sympathetic zombie comes out to play. By pretending to be zombies in a celebratory and inevitably humorous fashion, participants contain and displace their fears and render the creatures harmless. “Horror Make-Up,” a 2006 performance by artist Jillian McDonald, reflects just how much these characters have infiltrated and become normalized within our urban spaces.
I transform myself from normal to zombie in the midst of a daily subway commute. Instead of improving my features, like the woman who steadily applies makeup en route to work or play, I become gruesome. This work takes cues from the legion of women who perform beauty rituals on the subway in a curious private zone where they seem unaware of anything outside their activity, and the rising cult of zombies in popular culture, where zombie gatherings and zombie lore flourish. Locating the audience physically in the subway performance space positions them as both voyeurs and potential victims.
Instead of using make-up to create a conventionally attractive appearance, the artist becomes an ugly, horrific creature, but a harmless one. What is striking about this performance is how little attention her fellow subway riders pay to the transformation.
I could make all kinds of claims to explain why Canadian artists (yes, McDonald is Canadian, too) in particular are drawn to the humanistic zombie — something about how Canadians are less violent than Americans, or we have some kind of special reserve of empathy. But there’s no real telling why. There is one element in both Dorland’s and McDonald’s representation of zombies that’s considered a prevalent trope in Canadian art: a strong emphasis on natural landscapes. In Dorland’s “Zombies (The Parents),” the bleakness of the landscape and the parallels between the figures and the forest make the zombies appear more forlorn. In Mcdonald’s 2011 video “A Prairie Horror,” she depicts zombies in a more traditional role, as monstrous aggressors, but the landscape is also a distinct character that propels the narrative. The video was filmed in rural Manitoba, and the fear of being chased by zombies is enhanced by the remote, flat, somewhat barren landscape that offers no safe place to hide.
What might account for the extreme popularity of zombies in recent years? I think the body of the zombie is a vessel for the displacement of a number of contemporary fears: contagion and disease (witness the hysteria over the current Ebola crisis), aging and mortality, environmental disasters and apocalypse. We are both comforted and entertained by the control inherent in stories about the destruction of zombies and the potential of eliminating them entirely; these narratives mitigate our concerns about a real, unstoppable plague that might present itself in the future. The sympathetic zombie calms our fears of global pandemics and societal collapse by showing that unruly, dangerous creatures can be contained and controlled, maybe even cured. They make us think about our humanity and what the future might hold in a new way.