Zombies have once again become popular, taking over from vampires in mainstream culture. The question remains why zombies have become a fixture of television and in real life with “zombie walks,” but according to Sarah Lauro, English professor at Clemson University and zombie expert, zombies have become popular because we are dissatisfied with the government or society.
Lauro is currently writing a book, “Rise Up: Living Death, Slavery, and Rebellion,” exploring the nature of zombies with society as well as the recent “zombie walk” fad and has published previous scholarly works on the subject. According to Lauro, people dress up as zombies, “To make visible their dissatisfaction with a government they feel isn’t listening to them or an economic system that makes them brain-dead consumers; some do it as a kind of exercise of community, just to show how the collective can be organized and made to participate in an event without any ties to commercialism; many have no idea why they do it, but some play dead, one supposes, just to feel alive.”
Zombies have their origins in American culture beginning in the 1930s, with the occupation of Haiti, notes Lauro. Tales of voodoo, of the dead rising from their coffins and of witch doctors fascinated the public, but many of the qualities associated with zombies, such as cannibalism, came much later. Later on, the concept of a zombie became a cultural symbol.
A dehumanized individual powerless and without control of one’s actions can be used to explore the dangers of science, of emerging technology, the fear of rapid change and other societal harms. George Romero, nicknamed the “Godfather of zombies,” and his “Night of the Living Dead” and other zombie films were less about horror and more about the exploration of capitalism. In Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” this was made clear as the survivors of the zombie apocalypse locked themselves inside a shopping mall as they tried to ward off the hordes of undead.
For Lauro, any zombie interaction is filled with context. Zombie in Haitian culture, for example, tie in with slavery. In her essay “For the Ethical Treatment of Zombies,” published in Icognitum Hactenus, Lauro notes, “A game of zombie tag played on a college campus is laden with all kinds of latent content: the race fear that characterized the first wave of zombie cinema (in films like "White Zombie," 1932, and "I Walked with a Zombie," 1943); commentaries on the social death of slaves, whose misery was first translated into the Haitian myth of zombies, and those who are still socially disenfranchised in our society, like prisoners, say, or the homeless.”
What is interesting is how the zombie is the victim, which is often forgotten about when someone watches “The Walking Dead” or “28 Days Later.” Lauro notes how other modern zombies are the victims of society; in Romero’s case it is capitalism, and in other instances it could be a reflection of how individuals view their government, especially in the wake of issues such as immigration, gay marriage and unemployment.
Lauro's zombie expertise has gotten national attention, and on Twitter the professor had some fun with it. Following an interview with Fox News, she said, "Just told Fox News Radio that zombies are about the gross wealth inequality in our society. Betting that stays on the cutting room floor."