The Normal Zombie

Essay by Christian Martius

George A. Romero’s conception of the reanimated corpse with a ravenous hunger for human flesh, first introduced in Night of the Living Dead in 1968, has become a zombie template in contemporary popular culture. The voodoo undead or the diseased living have been called zombies, in modern fictional narratives, but Romero’s creation, complete with the shuffling gait, the ruined body, the blank expression and the pained moan has endured for nearly half a century. Back in the late 60s the zombie was created as an abnormal bodily spectacle and it is this spectacle you see (more often than not) recurring today in the cinema, on the television and stumbling past you at your local zombie walk.

The zombie is abnormal, first because Romero’s zombie does not exist in the normal “real” world and secondly because it is a figure that represents something that transgresses the norm of being either living or dead by being undead (dead but animated). The zombie is a liminal being, a creature that exists on the boundary of life and death by never completely being either dead or alive. Furthermore, the zombie is an abnormal spectacle because the normal body (considering that the common usage of the word “normal” developed during the Industrial Revolution) is often conceived as the human form that is productive, useful, healthy and able in contemporary society. None of these adjectives can be applied to the zombie.

The zombie, then, symbolically represents our own fears of abnormality by existing as a being that carries the signs of the less productive, useful, healthy and able body all humans normally inherit, given a long enough life span. Therefore, the abnormal spectacle of the undead zombie body (the gait, the moan and the ruin) resonates with what is often conceived of as the so-called abnormal living human body, which is also less productive, useful, healthy and able (that may display a similar gait, moan and ruin). However, what makes Romero’s creation so enduring is that the so-called bodily abnormalities that the zombie delivers, the embodied signs typically associated with the approach of death or the effects of damage on the living, are in fact normal, if normal is understood as a usual or common biological or physical occurrence.

So, like the zombie itself we are also liminal beings, halfway between our own animation and extinction, not sick but not completely well, able in some regards and less able in others. Our so-called abnormal bodies are our normal bodies. Therefore, the bodily spectacle of the zombie does not represent bodily abnormalities but instead bodily normalities that we often consider to be abnormal in our contemporary culture. For as long as we consider the normal mortal body to be abnormal because it will eventually become less productive, useful, healthy and able than society requires, then George A. Romero’s zombie will continue to live (but also be dead) and the abnormal and normal will continue to haunt each other, much like death haunts the living.