There is something so…satisfying about the death of a zombie. Whether it be in popular media or a theological critique, the study and exhibition of zombie death is taking up prodigious space in our collective psyche. Causal sources of literature such as the recent blockbuster movie, World War Z, and the popular television show The Walking Dead illustrate contemporary society’s prominent feelings towards this topic; displaying an essentially unanimous agreement that when a human destroys a zombie, it is a good thing.
But even before our modern culture’s zombie obsession, globally renowned thinkers, such as Slavoj Žižek, a Slovene philosopher and cultural critic, have ruminated on this apocalyptic-survival scenario in scholarly analyses. Considering both popular and academic sources, one can safely say that anything undead threatens the life of the living, and must therefore, be exterminated. But, when we analyze this movie and TV show, more often than not, the zombie killer appears not only relieved from surviving, there’s something else there…something deeper brewing in their soul. After stabbing it in the heart or chopping its head off - or one of the other savage ways of performing the kill - the zombie exterminator displays a general satisfaction. I’d like to know, why. Why is the killer so revitalized after the kill? Is it because they have deadened more than just the monster after their flesh and guts…?
Given its relevance and availability, the film World War Z, directed by Marc Forster, written originally as a novel by Max Brooks, was an immediate go-to. My hope was to excavate and understand the thrill of the kill, so to say, by watching the film with the previously stated questions in mind and observing how this particular story explains zombie killing. Yet, after viewing it, I found that it actually doesn’t answer much. Thrown for a loop due to anticipating some serious zombie slaying, my thesis was in jeopardy. There were deaths in this film of course, of the fully human and the undead, but the storyline focused more on the hysterics caused by a rapid, massively destructive, worldwide apocalypse. And though this drama was caused by the neo-zombies, they were more an accoutrement to the main plot of Brad Pitt being a hunky savior. Even though this theme of “savior against the collapsing world” is tender, it is not relevant for this particular essay.
Yet, noting the responses that zombie killers and other characters in World War Z have to death has been helpful. In this film, the killer and other characters are relieved. And that’s about it. It is important to consider that all of the humans are in varied states of constant shock and terror, and from what I can gather, the characters do not experience anything other than relief when a zombie has been killed. This is partially due to the rushed plot progression and lack of character development; from the first zombie killing to the last, the humans furnish obvious tools such as guns, homemade spears, and crowbars, but the film doesn’t allow for any further innovation until the very end. In contrast, we witness in the television show The Walking Dead, two distinct aspects that wildly differ from Max Brook’s story. In the television series, the killing of a zombie evolves from a sensational to an everyday occurrence and, the characters and their methods of zombie killing continue to develop and innovate organically throughout the show.
So, does The Walking Dead glorify (or “gorify”) zombie killing? In the introduction to this series, the lead character, Rick Grimes, a small-town sheriff, is still negotiating the insane world he awakes to from a gunshot-induced coma. He quickly learns to protect himself against the monstrous, flesh-devouring “things” that have seemingly taken over the world while he was unconscious in the hospital. As a viewer watching these first episodes, one can accept that there is no joy or satisfaction in Grimes as he kills zombies; it appears to be simply an act of survival, done soberly and with moral reluctance. Fast-forward to the final episode of Season 3 and you will encounter him as a very evolved man. He wields a gun still, but also precise weapons specifically innovated for zombie slaying, such as a pickax and knife, and is accompanied by others with refined killing tools such as a crossbow and katana blade. If one watches attentively, they can notice something has transformed in Grimes’ character. He is no longer terrified and flailing, but instead intentional, swift, and motivated when it comes time to kill. It is when he takes down a zombie by lodging the narrow pickax into its brain, or by setting a trap of barbed-wire and explosives, that we, the viewer begin to speculate at just how routine this macabre act has become for him and the other characters.
Zombie killing does, in fact, become ordinary for the characters of The Walking Dead, yet there are some scenes in which it is more prevalent than others. For instance, when one finds her or himself in the woods, or by themselves at night, or in a dark, abandoned building, you can pretty well bet they’ll soon be grunting in a bloody fight against an undead or group of slobbering flesh-feigns. Though many humans in this television show do die, the ratio of theirs’ to zombie deaths is roughly 1:5.
Similar to the survivors’ understandable desensitizing during the span of the show, certain stylistic details increase in gore and violence. In the beginning of the series, the zombies are vile, disgusting creatures -no doubt- but there is still speculation amongst the fully living characters as to whether the undead possess some semblance of humanity, and if so, can they be cured? It is in this timeframe that the scenes featuring zombie murders are generally quick, and more often than not, portray the human character (who must do the murdering) deeply affected by feelings of guilt, sorrow, and confusion. But, as the series progresses the need to bust out zombie brains becomes so commonplace that it’s pedestrian. Even the youngest character, a pre-pubescent Carl, carries a gun and very adeptly executes “walkers” every day.
Another informative detail is the show’s foley (recorded sound effects added in during a production’s editing process). As the characters become less reactive to slaying zombies, the deeper their psychoses grow, and the more theatrical the sound effects become when a zombie meets its maker. In careful examination of these details, one can notice an increased drama of the later episodes’ sound effects; in the beginning when the characters are more fragile, killing a zombie is performed by simply shooting them or jabbing a stick into their cranium and running, and it elicits negative psychological effects on the characters. Accordingly, the sounds associated with the zombie’s death are unexciting…typical, I suppose (if any of us actually know what it sounds like to smash things into brains). But, as the series progresses, the foley gets extraordinary; the repulsive squishes and splats of spilt zombie brains is accentuated to the point of being grotesque. These amped-up sounds relate an aspect of the subconscious, carnal desire to exploit and exterminate the evil that arises from within our own species. It correlates to a Freudian concept that explains this desire to eliminate the abject, even if it means sentencing someone, or something, to death. Freud’s idea was that “human beings are not solely governed by the pursuit of pleasure, but also, perhaps, by a principle that seems to be almost its opposite, the principle of death” (Sigurdson 364). And given that “this death drive […] seemingly forces (someone) to destructive behaviours”, it seems plausible to say that humans are driven by the desire to remove aspects of themselves that can be interpreted as monstrous (Sigurdson 365).
Slavoj Žižek also speaks of this the “Death Drive”. He adopts this psychology from Freud’s theory that there is “an uncanny excess of life, . . . an ‘undead’” within human beings that urges them “beyond the (biological) cycle of life and death [...] and corruption” (Sigurdson 364). Žižek’s “Death Drive” has to do with the notion that there exists “something within human beings that is more than human beings”, hence the obsession/repulsion of zombies, and their gruesome deaths, in our contemporary society (Sigurdson 364).
We see further examples of the “Death Drive” in the developing ways that the human characters in The Walking Dead kill zombies. Also, the length of time the cinematography spends on showing them being killed becomes more emphasized as the series advances. When, in the first season a zombie would merely be shot, by the third, there are substantially more and extended scenes in which the characters are creatively exterminating the zombie plague. Rounding them up in a trench to set it ablaze, pitting them against each other in a fighting ring, or enticing soulless corpses to walk into booby traps is not uncommon at this point in the series. Call it boredom.
Or, perhaps it should be attributed to the severe stress and shock one would be coping with if actually faced with the scenario that The Walking Dead posits. Or perhaps, it’s part of the inevitable desensitizing that occurs to a human mind when repeatedly exposed to gore and trauma.
There is something compelling though, no matter with whom, or in what situation, when a human successfully kills a zombie. By the final scenes of Season 3 in The Walking Dead, it’s plausible that every character has smashed in at least one zombie skull with their boot, repeatedly, and well beyond necessity. It is in this overt display of violence that the humans begin to lose their sense of humanity, and in the case of many, begin to noticeably enjoy the kill. Can Žižek’s “Death Drive” theory provide an explanation for what is fueling this fire?
According to Ola Sigurdson, who authored the article “Slavoj Žižek, the Death Drive, and Zombies: A Theological Account”, this theory “is not ordered towards death as its telos but is, rather, just a disruption” (367). She continues to explain Žižek’s concept as the “compulsion to repeat” as the psyche’s way of defending itself against […] traumatic disruptions” (367). Given that the characters in both World War Z and The Walking Dead are repeatedly exposed to horrific scenes of anguish every day, it is not so fantastic to suggest they all are repeatedly reacting to their dreadful surroundings out of an animalistic instinct to survive. But, when does it transform from survival to gratification?
I propose it is in the communal act of defending one’s tribe from the undead that this line from mere survival to gusto is crossed. When killing (a zombie or any “enemy”) becomes a reciprocal act of redemption and protection within a group of human survivors, the light in which murdering is traditionally viewed drastically changes from socially unacceptable to necessary and, even, admirable. When a character in The Walking Dead defends themself or others by shooting down, cutting to pieces, or blowing a “walker” to bits, the reaction from their tribe is 99 percent of the time gratitude and approval.
Unless the murdered is not a zombie, the killer is not considered evil. Although, there are two exceptions to this: the character Hershel Greene, an elder farm owner who takes in Grimes’ pack of survivors, and Dr. Edwin Jenner, the last surviving pathologist at the Atlanta Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Up until a certain point in the show, Greene defends the “walkers” because he believes that they are only sick but curable. It is only after another character kills Greene’s zombified family members that he comes to a more rational understanding of the situation. In a similar way Dr. Jenner is a defender of the “walkers” too, as he continues researching in hopes of a cure, even after every single colleague and family member has died or turned. This nearly consensual agreement upon the killing of zombies illustrates something very profound: that in the scenario created by The Walking Dead it is okay to murder or kill, depending on how you want to look at it. In fact, if one does not, they, and many whom they love, will most certainly die and turn from human to flesh-eater. Žižek claims this is either/or an illusion though - the notion that we are wholly separate from the undead. He promotes we are a lot closer to the zombie in its liminal state of being than we think. And though we see them as straddling the border between life and death- ugly, monstrous creatures- “zombies are a ﬁctional embodiment of this “undead” aspect of ourselves” (375).
If we are not as purely human as assumed, but instead, inherently possessive of some grotesque aspects of zombification, it follows suit that we’d naturally want to amputate this appendage for the sake of remaining fully “human”. Through our own real-life experiences of engaging with and being part of a violent world, we can propose that the entertainment industries’ zombie killers do more than just eliminate a life- threatening monster; by destroying the zombie, maybe, they also chip away, piece by piece, at the monster that lives inside themselves. Sigurdson claims, “…zombies are (not) aliens that need to be defeated so that human life can continue” but instead, they “represent the alien within us…they confront us with a scenario where human life is threatened, but the apocalypse should not be understood as a vision of a dystopic future, but instead as an apocalypse of the here-and-now” (373). It in this passage Sigurdson supports my thesis that the zombie destroyer has a grander mission than simply lopping off beastly heads, but instead, performs a sort of biological cleansing with each zombie brain it explodes: each kill is one step closer to a society, and self, expurgated towards purity.
According to Žižek, our drive to death represents “the possibility of a radical act of renewal” (Sigurdson 368). If this is the case, by killing a zombie, a human creates new opportunities for Utopia; a world in which the detritus of human imperfection is sloughed off; where the abject and unconventional is destroyed and replaced with things pleasing and normal. Though, we may all be “zombies who are not aware of it, who are self-deceived into perceiving themselves as self-aware”, as Žižek suggests, we, as humans feel an undeniable duty to defend, to the death, our humanity (371). The characters of World War Z and The Walking Dead serve in helping to crack open our dome of perception, and splatter a prismatic array of motivations that explain why it feels so good to kill a zombie. It is ultimately up to the viewer, though, to unravel their personal relationship to the guts, terror, and bloody mess of their own humanness.
Kirkman, Robert, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard. The Walking Dead. Prod. Frank
Darabont. N.d. AMC.com. AMC Network Entertainment LLC, 2010. Web.
Sigurdson, Ola. "Slavoj Žižek, the Death Drive, and Zombies: A Theological Account." Modern Theology 29.3 (2013): 361-80. Print.
World War Z. Dir. Marc Forster. Perf. Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz.
Paramount Pictures, 2013. Film.