Johann Hari: 2010 – the year a zombie army came for our brains

The city of Minneapolis has just agreed to pay $160, 000 in compensation to a group of zombies who were prevented from marching

Share
Related Topics

A month ago, I was walking through central London – along Shaftesbury Avenue – when suddenly I found myself surrounded by the massed ranks of the Undead. Hundreds of limping blood-flecked zombies were stumbling through the streets, staring into the middle distance, groaning: "Brains. Brains. Feed me brains."

In the year 2010, this stinking creature has risen with a groan and a shriek from our collective subconscious. From Brisbane to Chicago to Rome, there has been a surge of "zombie walks" – flashmobs of up to 8,000 people at a time dressed as zombies like this, begging for flesh. They dominate the cinema screens, with over 50 zombie flicks released. They are best-selling video games like the Left 4 Dead series. They are the stars of the top-rated US TV show The Walking Dead. They have limped up the best-seller lists, with mash-up classics like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (Opening line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.")

Indeed, the city of Minneapolis just agreed to pay $160,000 in compensation for a group of zombies who were prevented from marching – a great blow for zombie rights, marking the end of their comeback year. Why now? Why would a global recession be matched by the global procession of zombies? Obviously humans have always sought the rush of a scary story – but I do think if you look at the monsters which a culture summons from the dark and from its own imagination at any given time, you can learn something about its subtler anxieties. So buy me a one-way ticket to Pseud's Corner: I want to talk about the sociology of the Undead, baby.

The idea of these mutants has been mutating for a long time. The notion of dead people who rise again and hunger for human flesh is found as long ago as the Epic of Gilgamesh, originating in 2500BC. But we get the word "zombie" from Haiti, where the local voodoo religion says sorcerers can raise the dead and turn them into a slave army. (There is still a law on the Haitian statute books banning zombie outbreaks.) The first Hollywood movies about zombies, from the 1930s, stuck to this idea of them as doing the bidding of a dark magician.

The modern zombie was only born in 1968, and its father is George A Romero, who wrote and directed the masterpiece Night of the Living Dead that year. He stripped away the magician-controller. His zombies are simply mindless hunks of rotting flesh, shuffling towards food, infecting anyone they bite.

In his best film – Dawn of the Dead, made in 1978 – we find the clues to their comeback. A few surviving human beings hole up in a shopping mall in Middle America, only to find that the zombies are ambling endlessly through the aisles, soothed by the Muzak and the artificial lighting. "They have come here out of some instinctive sense memory. This was an important place for them," a startled onlooker says. The humans refuse to leave, even as the sanest person among them snaps: "You're hypnotised by this place. It's so bright and neatly wrapped – do you not see that it's a prison too?" Later, she stares at the Mall-mulling zombies and says: "What the hell are they?" A man replies: "They're us. That's all."

That's the niggling fear that is always taken and caricatured by the zombie genre. They stumble through life aimless, affectless, shaping nothing, understanding nothing, with no control over their lives, thinking only of the next bite, and the next. Who hasn't felt like that for at least some of 2010? As disaster occurs all around us – economic, ecological, political – who hasn't felt that their own little life of shopping and eating and consuming isn't a little zombie-like? The zombie is the amoral consumer made (dead) flesh. Have we started to see zombies all around us because we fear – on some distant, allegorical, semi-serious level – that we have become a bit like zombies?

This anxiety is best explored in the mega-hit movie Zombie-Land. It is about a cowardly Californian called Columbus, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who lives a cosseted closed-down life in his air-conditioned apartment, playing video games, masturbating, and obsessing over the risk from germs. Then the zombie apocalypse happens – and he discovers all the primal instincts that had been buried beneath the disinfectant. In fighting back against the Undead, he realises he too was stumbling aimlessly from bite to bite, with no rationality and no greater purpose. He was only slightly less dead than them. He says: "A zombie isn't a dead person who's come back to life. It's someone who's been infected with the plague of the 21st century."

Who doesn't have a niggling sense that the 21st-century life pushed on us endlessly by advertising – of endless shopping as an end in itself – bears as much relationship to a full life as Muzak does to music? Of course some consumption is a pleasure and a joy – the inhabitants of Zombieland certainly miss the supermarkets when they are gone. But it has eaten too deeply into our brains. Listen to any 10-year-old convinced they are worthless if they don't have the right brand of trainers: they are sensitive antennae picking up the dysfunctional priorities of our culture. Then watch again the zombies limping through Dawn of the Dead's mall, grasping for more. But zombie stories also ask a different, more hopeful question (as the Undead munch on a human ribcage): how do you stay human, in an environment that so often dulls and deadens your humanity?

There is almost always only one answer: turn away from worrying about consuming and acquiring (and the panic that you can't afford to do it any more), and look to the humans around you. The genre shows we need a common cause and fulfilling relationships much more than we need another iPhone app and another milkshake – but it can take a crisis to make us realise it. At the climax of Shaun of the Dead, the central character announces: "As Bertrand Russell said, 'The only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation.' I think we can all appreciate the relevance of that now." As the zombies surrounded me on Shaftsbury Avenue and let out their low groan, I thought – yes, I know why you rose from the grave now, in the long, bleak year of 2010. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need brains... brains... Feed me brains....

j.hari@independent.co.uk ; To follow Johann's updates on this issue and others, go twitter.com/johannhari101

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Upper KS2 Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Upper Key Stage 2 teacher ...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + ?110 - 130: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher ...

KS2 Teacher with SEN responsibilities

£115 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: KS2 teacher with SEN responsibi...

Administrative Assistant

£60 - £75 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Administrative Assitant Hertford...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Young Syrian refugees gather around a small fire at the Minieh camp in Lebanon  

Cameron and Obama may want to ‘destroy’ Isis, but what will they do about the growing number of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria?

Kate Allen
“You're running away!” Nick said to me the other night as I tried to leave the hospital  

In Sickness and in Health: ‘There’s nothing I want more than to have you at home, but you’re not well’

Rebecca Armstrong
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments