zombie walk
People take part in a “zombie walk” in Mexico City last November. Reuters photo by Bernardo Montoya

There is a zombie invasion under way. It doesn’t involve hordes of ravenous undead running amok, but rather an onslaught of pop culture. From Brad Pitt’s upcoming film “World War Z” and AMC’s hit TV series “The Walking Dead,” to video games and best-selling novels such as Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” and the Jane Austen parody “Pride, Prejudice and Zombies,” the living’s appetite for all things zombie seems to be as insatiable as zombies’ hunger for, well, the living. 

According to a recent MSNBC article, the current zombie-mania fuels a $5.74 billion industry. There’s also a growing number of fan sites such as Zombie Hub, which humorously prides itself as “the net of the living dead,” or the mock online “dating service” Zombie Harmony, that provides the assurance, “the apocalypse doesn’t have to be lonely.” The zombie zeitgeist has spawned an exercise program “ZombieFit,” and a “World Zombie Day” with charity “zombie walks” in more than 50 cities. 

Zombies have even infiltrated American academia, with the University of Idaho recently offering a lecture on “Zombies and International Politics.” 

Deeper meaning?

So what is it about zombies that has, excuse the pun, taken hold of our brains? As a Catholic film critic who has survived numerous encounters with the walking dead, I find the fascination perplexing, and in its gorier extremes, alarming. 

Journalists like Torie Bosch have proposed economic anxieties as a reason, writing in Slate that “zombies are the perfect representation of the fiscal horror show.” 

One could just as easily see shades of our culture of death in the depersonalized violence of many of the movies. 

Others disagree with this zombies-as-social commentary reading, as has been done with George A. Romero’s 1968 cult classic “Night of the Living Dead” and his 1978 follow up “Dawn of the Dead” that ushered in the modern, ultra-violent zombie era. The latter is often seen as a critique of American consumerism. 

“I think it’s a mistake to read the current interest in zombies as tied to present social and psychological trends,” said Catholic author and blogger Jimmy Akin. “Literature invariably incorporates elements of the time in which it was produced. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ for example, has an unmistakable subtext involving race relations. Modern zombie treatments include 9/11 themes. But it’s a mistake to see these as being ‘about’ the incidental subjects they treat. They are ‘about’ the walking dead and how terrifying it would be to encounter them. This is one of those situations where a cigar is just a cigar.” 

Teachable moments

He admitted that even flesh-eating fiends can provide teachable moments to explore aspects of our faith. Here are morsels for Catholics to gnaw on: 

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A scene from George A. Romero’s 1968 cult classic “Night of the Living Dead.” Newscom photo

Man is not meant for the grave: “Zombies are compelling because they take one of our most powerful fears — death — and confront us with it in a particular disturbing way,” Akin noted. 

Steven Greydanus, creator of the Catholic movie review website Decent Films, echoed this in an essay, “Horror, at its best, can be an imaginative way of grappling not only with adversity but with the spectre of our own mortality, and the moral and existential implications of the fact that we will die.” 

As Catholics we believe in a God “of the living, not the dead” (Mt 22:32) and that death was not part of God’s original plan, but the consequence of sin. We affirm with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that, “Life is real! Life is earnest!/ And the grave is not its goal.” 

But for our utterly secular society, zombies perhaps serve as both a modern memento mori, and a subconscious way of expressing existential dread and an inherent rejection of the materialistic notion that death is the true end of our existence. 

Of course, the reanimated corpses of zombie tales are completely incompatible with Christians’ belief in the resurrection of the body. The walking dead are just that — mindless, depersonalized, decomposing automatons. Resurrection implies entering a more transcendently “alive” level of being in which God “will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body” (Phil 3:21). 

Body and soul: In her introduction to “Zombies: An Illustrated History of the Undead,” Jovanka Vuckovic suggests that part of the fascination with zombies is that they raise “universal philosophical questions about identity and the nature of what it is to be human.” 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that man is a “unity of soul and body” and it is through the soul that a “body made of matter becomes a living, human body” (No. 365) endowed with free will. 

Watching a zombie movie, it’s not hard to differentiate who’s a zombie and who’s not.

“They are so compelling because they are so much like us,” Akin told OSV, “yet so unlike us at the same time.” They move but lack that animating principle — what we Catholics call “a soul.” Zombies are effective arguments against the materialistic opinion that humans are simply organic “machines” driven by blind biological appetites and deterministic urges. 

Hardwired toward hope: Though much of zombie fiction is rife with nihilism and a perverse preoccupation with our own extinction, there are also undercurrents of hope that dramatize the resiliency of man in exhibiting self-sacrifice, defending life and rebuilding ordered society. In fact the whole genre belies a preference for order and a fear of it unraveling. 

In zombies, we see reflected both the better and worse angels of ourselves. As New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein opined on NPR, “The true horror, it turns out, isn’t the infected, but the people who put their own welfare over the rights of others. It’s not the flesh-gouging zombies that we have to worry about in those movies. It’s the soul-gouging zombies within.”

Life is a gift: Ironically, the walking dead may help us gain a deeper appreciation for life. As Stephen King writes, “Horror movies do not love death, as some have suggested, they love life … by showing the miseries of the damned [they] help us rediscover the smaller (but never petty) joys of our own lives.” 

Akin noted that horror has another salutary role to play by allowing us to face dangers “in a virtual and safe way.” “We may not confront actual zombies,” he said. “But we may confront real-life horrors, and having grappled with the emotion of horror through play and fiction gives us a helping hand when we have to face real horror.” 

However he added, “horror — like every other type of literature — can be done in ways that are poor, excessive, or morally offensive.” This is particularly true for some of graphically violent zombie movies and video games popular among teenagers. To that point, parents may want to consider the joke: Which room of the house is a zombie’s least favorite? The living room. It’s also happens to be a good place for parents to discuss with children what they are watching and playing! 

David DiCerto is film critic and co-host of “Reel Faith” on NET TV (www.netny.net).