The Walking Dead: Zonbi and Zombie as Metaphor
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The Walking Dead: Zonbi and Zombie as Metaphor
A black man sits in the back of a police car on his way to prison. A few short minutes later, the talkative officer hits a pedestrian in the middle of the highway, sending the car over the edge. The man wakes up, still cuffed, to see the policeman dead, he and his shotgun both outside. As the man makes his way out of the car, he pulls the handcuff keys from the policeman, then struggles away as the corpse lurches towards him, eager to tear off a piece of flesh. This is the beginning of the newest iteration of media sensation The Walking Dead, a Telltale video game based on the TV show which is, in turn, based on the graphic novel. As will be shown in this paper, the zombie as a metaphor is a common trend, but is by no means original; zombies have been used as metaphors since they began.
Zombies are unique in the pantheon of movie monsters. Whereas the ghost, the vampire, the werewolf, and the Frankenstein monster all have European roots, the zombie hails from the West Indian/African plantations in relatively recent times (McAlister, 2012). The stories of Haitian zonbis, that have roots back to the Congo region of Africa, or the South African ditlotlwane, translated to “zombie,” appear alongside sugar cane plantations, trains, and the like, not some ancient castle from a time when pitchforks and torches were the common weapon of the common man. In both Haitian and South African myth, the zombie is a soulless creature, possessed by witchcraft, and used as slave labor by businessmen, typically either in domestic work or on a plantation.
The South African is not technically dead, although his family is led to believe so. The sorcerer takes possession of his soul, then takes over his body, piece by piece (Niehaus, 2005). The stem of a tree is imbued with the image of the new zombie, and the family buries it, believing the young man to be dead (Niehaus, 2005). The sorcerer then cuts out the man’s tongue so that he cannot speak, and hides his horde until he can employ them in his fields at night (Niehaus, 2005). There are a number of stories involving zombie trains, which aligned with the trains that took migrant workers to the production centers, some of which would never be seen again (Niehaus, 2005). The sorcerer/zombie relationship, then, is a metaphor for the white landowner/black laborer relationship and the migrant labor of South Africa and the echoes of the Atlantic slave trade (Niehaus, 2005).
The Haitian zonbi, however, is something much more recognizable to American audiences. Also the victim of witchcraft, the zonbi is raised from the grave to be a laborer. Black Haitians, even today, take astral zonbis as their own slaves, using it as a way to take charge of their cultural heritage of being brought to the West Indies on the slave ships. They use the rituals of buying young boys back from the spirit world to own their history and turn it into something they can control. In this way, the zonbi represents and “mystifies the fear of slavery, collusion with it, and rebellion against it” (McAlister, 2012, p. 457).
George Romero was not the first filmmaker to feature a zombie, but he did bring it to the forefront of American culture. In 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, the zombies have been dissected in a number of ways as metaphors for environmentalism, racism, consumerism, “Cold War paranoia and homosexual repression and mainstream tensions about the counterculture and Vietnam War anxiety and a bunch of other stuff too, depending on who you ask” (Spitznagel, 2010). With his shambling corpses chasing after the living, it is easy to project your own metaphors onto the blank slate that is the American zombie. He is just like every other, anonymous in the crowd. He has no back story, no desires except to eat. They are “human-sized, human-shaped, and have no supernatural attributes” (McAlister, 2012, p. 474). However, according to Romero himself, “Zombies have always just been zombies,” and those who have read farther into them have been spending too much time analyzing, and not enough time enjoying the films (Spitznagel, 2010). Regardless, the most commonly accepted metaphors for Romero zombies are consumerism and racism. The zombies do nothing but eat, and the black man always survives in the end, along with the white woman, leading to a multi-racial world long after the credits roll (McAlister, 2012).
While Romero’s zombies were somewhat religious in nature, the product of Hell overflowing, and the zonbis and South African zombies being a result of witchcraft, the fears of today seem to be overpopulation and pandemic disease. From 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, and Z. A. Recht’s novel trilogy, The Morningstar Strain, zombies are increasingly the victims of some disease that is transmitted through bites. The Walking Dead also started out this way, but during the last parts of season two, it was revealed that all survivors are carriers of the virus and will reanimate upon death, no matter the cause.
The Walking Dead was first a comic book written by Robert Kirkman, and it blossomed into a TV show on AMC which was one of the most watched shows on television (NY Times, 2012). Now Telltale Games wants in on the action as it is releasing episodic chapters of a video game about making the tough decisions. In The Walking Dead, in all its iterations, the zombies are not the main characters, and are not even the ones referred to in the title. Instead, the “walking dead” are those uninfected who are forced day by day to shed a little more of their humanity in their quest for survival. While the central character in both book and TV show is white, Southern policeman Rick Grimes, the player character in the game is black, possibly wrongly convicted Lee. Lee often has to make choices that involve a multi-racial child, Clementine, who saves your life in the beginning, a friendly redneck, and a hotheaded white jerk. Since the game is episodic, and not all episodes have been released, it is unknown whether race will truly play a role in the game as the Romero films would suggest. One thing is for sure, loads of Americans, white and otherwise, will be sitting in front of their big screen TVs, ready to consume the next chapter of The Walking Dead in October.
Diaz, J. (2007, Fall). The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman: Charlie Adlard. MELUS, 32(3). Retrieved July 22, 2012 from JSTOR.
McAlister, E. (2012). Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies. Anthropological Quarterly, 85(2), pp. 457-486. Retrieved July 22, 2012 from EBSCOhost.
Moro, P. & Myers, J. (2010). Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Eighth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Niehaus, I. (2005, Jun.). Witches and Zombies of the South African Lowveld: Discourse, Accusations and Subjective Reality. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 11(2), pp 191-210. Retrieved July 22, 2012 from JSTOR.
NY Times. (2012). Basic Cable’s Most-Watched Drama Series…. TV Week. Retrieved July 22, 2012 from http://www.tvweek.com/blogs/tvbizwire/2012/03/basic-cables-most-watched-dram.php
Spitznagel, E. (2010, May 27). George A. Romero: “Who Says Zombies Eat Brains?” Vanity Fair. Retrieved July 22, 2012 from http://www.vanityfair.com/online/oscars/2010/05/george-romero
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