Zombies are nowadays such a common trope in pop culture it’s hard to remember why they ever frightened us in the first place. What’s to fear from fodder we kill in videogames, or from heavies in badly written serialized novels devoured by American teens? We have somehow become culturally desensitized to what the living dead represent for us—the terror of human embodiment.
Zombies appear, physically at least, human. They possess all of our attributes, but they are stripped of reason and emotion, and that is precisely what’s most horrifying about them … or what was terrifying, before overexposure made us stop paying attention.
It wasn’t always this way.
The supernatural metaphor of “the monster” lets us display and come to terms with legitimate human fears—on a 50-foot screen, no less. Werewolves represent masculine aggression. Vampires (before they, too, were defanged) evoked unrestricted carnality.
Zombies? Simpler … and scarier.
The zombie originally suggested we humans are simply moving, eating bodies. They showed us stripped of our souls, thought and rationality.
It’s a deeply horrifying conceit. Yet few of us feel zombie horror anymore. We see waves of zombies on our televisions, and we try to imagine just how we personally would survive a zombie apocalypse. Movies such as Zombieland send our thoughts wandering to zombie survival techniques. Mostly, zombies have morphed into adversaries we must logically outsmart instead of illogically fear.
If we still get the creeps, it’s because zombies present unending force, a display of power in numbers rarely seen away from a battlefield. What frightens us most is not the zombie we see on our TV … but the hundreds or thousands of them. There’s something deeply troubling about a seething mass of flesh. But even the surge of bodies has become so commonplace that, for most of us, the fear of zombies in numbers has dwindled too.
There’s ample room for debating why the zombie, so embedded in our lives, has grown so—forgive the pun—endemic.
Is it just a fad, like hula hoops or pet rocks? The plethora of zombie films in the last 10 years suggests as much. Or do zombies really speak to contemporary life in some novel way?
At first, Zombie by J.R. Angelella, seems to want to provide a theory in the form of fiction. Alas, it quickly becomes clear that the novel would rather use zombies as fleshy window-dressing than really delve into any reasons for their appeal.
The book centers on a young man, Jeremy Barker, who constantly assesses and reassesses his preparation for a zombie apocalypse. He describes his new school as “prime zombie real estate” and, during class, he daydreams that hordes of the undead rip the place apart. He behaves based on “survival codes” cribbed from zombie movies:
Zombie Survival Code #1: Avoid Eye Contact (ZSC #1)
Zombie Survival Code #2: Keep Quiet (ZSC #2)
Zombie Survival Code #3: Forget the Past (ZSC #3)
Zombie Survival Code #4: Lock-and-Load (ZSC #4)
Zombie Survival Code #5: Fight to Survive (ZSC #5)
Jeremy notes that Zombieland inspired these rules, adding, “Big holla to Jesse Eisenberg.” This name-dropping underscores an important aspect of the zombie as a cultural symbol—it’s visual.
Zombies emerged in films over the last 50 years. They have roots in voodoo culture, but unlike vampires, there’s no real canon of zombie literature. Cinema makes sense, since their sheer numbers give them their memorable edge. Seeing a vast expanse of the undead has more visceral impact than reading about it. Zombies are movie monsters, through and through. Zombie plays off the cross-media pollination.
Grafting rules from genre-films onto a teen’s real life holds promise for a reader. But the book fails to tease out what living by said rules would mean. Jeremy almost immediately breaks his codes, without consequence to himself or the zombie-tinged world he has created.
Most teenagers create sets of rules for themselves, attempting to define their personalities in comparison to others and to maintain a sense of stability in the chaos of adolescence. These rules usually break down as time goes on, as naiveté gives rise to maturity. Even so, that breakdown is an important event for young adults. Angelella so willingly creates, then blithely destroys, Jeremy’s rules that one must wonder how much he actually understands the teenage psyche.
Teenagers develop unhealthy obsessions with all kinds of art, and horror movies do play a role in many an adolescent upbringing. Especially often when a child comes out of a troubled home, as Jeremy does, we often find a resonance between the carnage onscreen and the emotional disturbances that run through his or her young life. Young adults lack power. But unlike children, they’re keenly aware of their impotence.
The themes of horror—loss of control, sexual aggression, loneliness—are common to teens. Still, there’s no sense in Zombie as to why Jeremy gravitates towards zombies … instead of, say, vampires or wendigos. He watches a zombie movie every night with his father. Father and son talk zombie survival tactics afterward, but these moments of familial bonding seem instigated by Jeremy rather than his father. We never clearly understand why Jeremy’s rules for life are Zombie Survival Codes, aside from the fact that he likes the genre. Worse, the codes barely hold up past the first few chapters.
On his first day of school, Jeremy makes a friend with an upperclassman, picks a fight with his father and gets caught staring at a girl. By the next day, he’s shouting adoration for said girl at the top of his lungs. So much for avoiding eye contact; so much for keeping quiet. Jeremy’s total willingness to flout his own rules for life suggest they only have a cursory meaning to him. He’s rudderless as a character.
What’s so disappointing is that those codes look pretty good for a wallflower just entering high school. Ninth grade is a scary time. People’s personalities aren’t quite set in. New friends must be made. Older students seem like scary giants with all the social and physical power. So avoiding eye contact, keeping quiet and forgetting the past are pretty good bits of advice for people who don’t want to cause a scene in their first year.
Even Jeremy’s last two codes make a bit of sense in this context. He creates these codes for himself in the wake of his parents’ divorce. It makes sense for a boy to grow more internal in the wake of trauma. But Jeremy ultimately isn’t a quiet boy. Had Angelella allowed Jeremy to discover his extroverted nature over the course of the novel, we’d see some interesting character growth. Instead, Zombie just uses the codes whenever it sees fit, contradicting the whole idea for having personal rules in the first place.
Teenagers will eventually transgress the codes of conduct they set for themselves. That’s a part of growing up. Priorities change, or something happens to skew the world view. Tracing a character from one end of a perspective-changing event to the other suggests a promising arc, but Angelella fumbles this as well. Jeremy experiences life-altering events—in a single night, he has his first kiss and watches his father being mutilated by a cult—but no particular event seems indelible. The book never builds to any one moment. It simply passes by each incident as it moves forward. We feel no real momentum, and thus no point where the Zombie Survival Codes first bend, then break under the pressures of life. (Also, the fact that these pressures range from pretty standard to downright insane—the paternal mutilation scene comes completely out of left field—jars the reading to the point of ridiculousness.)
In fact, much of the book is unnecessarily jarring, starting with Jeremy’s penchant for swearing. Teenagers do have a knack for creating incredible portmanteaus of vulgarity, but the language here gets far out of control. It reads like a 30-year-old man trying to imagine curses from the youth of today. Jeremy’s cursing, like his love for zombies, seems gratuitous rather than an integral part of him, grafted onto the character to make him seem more like a regular kid.
Ultimately, even zombies seem unrelated to the story—they end up simply there for show, as if the author needed to name-drop some sort of easily identifiable pop-culture reference to ground Jeremy in a real, teen world.
If anything, the novel infers that zombies are played out in pop-culture, since they bring no freshness to Jeremy’s teenage trials. Because his obsession is cursory, whatever symbolic power the walking dead might have held … well, dies.
Here we have the problem staggering through the entire novel—everything is superficial, from plotlines to characterization.
Perhaps Zombie accurately reflects its namesake. Our interactions with zombie-as-concept have become equally superficial.
Noah Cruickshank is a freelance writer living in Chicago. His work regularly appears in The A.V Club. You can follow him on Twitter @noahcruickshank