Love Your Zombie in Horror, Ethics, Excess and Paradise

Fred Botting

Fred Botting

Love, though rare in popular zombie fictions and films, is found in the mindless intoxications of romance, mixed with Vodun potion and ritual, in ‘White Zombie’ (Victor Halperin, 1932) and ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ (Jacques Tourneur, 1943).

More recently, in ‘Breathers’, intense feelings and physical passions are evoked — and vigorously enjoyed — by a couple of zombies; in ‘Way of the Barefoot Zombie’, love is sealed, in sickening sentimental and visual terms, through reference to’ Zombie Flesh Eaters’: “yours are the hands that pulled my eye onto the splinter of love and embedded it in my brain. Yours are the teeth that gnaw on my guts every time I think about life without you”.

Elsewhere, love’s tragic dimensions have been explored in unusual uses of the zombie trope as a figure for the persistence of love after death, embodied returns manifesting spiritual loss (Keene 171; Lindqvist 90–5).

Erotic attachments are rare too: zombies are not the most prepossessing objects of desire, passion and sexual gratification: the film ‘Zombie Diaries’ offers a strong and disturbing hint of sex slavery; zombie prostitution shows the sexual service industry as literally draining bodies of sentience and feeling, numbed to repeated use, devoid of consciousness or emotion (Martin 282).

Zombie eroticism is given a more perverse and pathetic twist in Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘Zombie’. It remains hard to love your zombie: “eating brains, my friend, is not sexy” (Golden vii).

Love your vampire, however, is impossible to avoid. For several decades, vampires have promoted safely appealing erotic, aesthetic and emotional characteristics; they have evoked desire, love and admiration for their decadent rebellion and finely tuned sensibilities.

Thoroughly romanticised — even to the point of being able to charm a Southern Grandma — they offer general identificatory fulfilment (especially adolescent) across classes, races, and object-choices, in acceptable defiance of norms and limits and homogenising any residual frisson of otherness.

Posthuman becomings deploy the vampire as a metaphor for new social, species and sexual affinities (Haraway 56–70); for new, networked and machinic connections dissolving human identity in fluid and liminal interrelations (Stone 46–51; Deleuze and Guattari 249).

Vampiric characteristics coordinate well with the imperatives of the new economic order: consuming, self-transforming, supernaturally skilled, physically and mortally free, they incarnate the flexibility, performance optimisation and impermanence of new modes of labour, corporate employment and creative industry (Latham 15–19).

In this (fantasy) framework of new times and global economic restructurings, zombies — occluded, outcast, overlooked — constitute the other side of the new global economy. For they are the dead weight of industrial society made redundant by outsourcing, consumer services and financial speculation, the dejecta and leftovers of a productive system turned into a useless, unserviceable lumpenproletariat (Beard 30; Shaviro 285). One loves one’s vampire at the expense of one’s zombie.

Love your zombie is a paradoxical injunction, lumbering against the pace of the times. Yet it questions simple, even facile, forms of identification, eschewing recognition or imitation and refusing easy outlets for narcissism, fantasy or self-discovery. Closer to the love that evokes (self-)hatred, shatters mirrors and mutilates, through excess, any basis of imagined plenitude, zombie identification still draws out some kind of recognition: “they are us.” Suppurating with signs of vile humanity, their proximity is hard to disavow.

Yet — almost as an incantation in every fiction or film — disavowal is repeatedly called for in every encounter: “forget that the walking corpse before you was once a brother, husband, friend,” the warnings declaim, because to remember or sympathise, even for a second, is to be vulnerable to the same bloody reduction. The very proximity of the zombie to the humanity that it simultaneously is and is not remains a most disarming feature, an intimacy founded and foundering on recognition-repulsion, on abject inevitability, visibly human yet palpably not.

Zombies are the most human offiction’s monsters: without (super)heroic features or capabilities, undeath aside, they are neither individuals nor living beings, possess little conversation, have severely limited table manners or witty repartee, little fashion sense, no personal hygiene or intelligent opinions on matters of culture. Without higher brain functions, speech, self-consciousness or sensitivity, they rot, chew, stink, occasionally groan, and lumber en masse towards their next meal of flesh and innards.

Decomposing, often broken bodies, ripped grey skin, a stench of decay and vile-smelling rags, they offer inescapable reminders of the fate of all human flesh, thrusting death’s corruption in the face of a species that, contemporarily, does its best to look away. The most human of monsters, zombies are also least, foregrounding how deep self-consuming humanity can — and will — sink.

This zombie — repulsive, inhuman, abject — is the thing one is asked to love, provoking negative and nauseating horror beyond any image humanity might hold up to itself, life’s unbearable excess and intolerable deficiency, death-in-life living on. Zombie excess, more and less than life, body, person, forms the obscure object around which questions of ethics can be asked, questions of otherness, expenditure and love, questions of self, destruction and desire.

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