Opinion: humans can imagine beating vampires but zombies are a much different matter, especially as we increasingly worry that we might be becoming more like them.

In 1897, Bram Stoker published Dracula, creating the modern vampire as a lone aristocratic undead Übermensch with a specific hunger for blood. He did so from a jumble of traveller tales and European folklore about how the dead sometimes return to feast on the living. In the story, Dracula migrates from an obscure corner of eastern Europe in search of redder pastures in Britain. 

The count proves a formidable foe for a collection of characters representing the best aspects of Euro-American society. These include the idealised Victorian womanhood of Mina Harker, the religious devotion and scholarship of the venerable Dutchman Abraham Van Helsing and the youthful energy (and impressive armoury) of the American, Quincey Morris. This original Scooby Gang deploy all the modern technological advantages they can lay their hands on, from early dictaphones and portable typewriters to repeating rifles and cross-continental train travel. They drive Dracula back to his Transylvanian heimat and defeat him on his own turf. They experience some loss (poor Quincey dies), but with only a ripple of notice in the broader society.

The arrival of the zombies

Some 70 years later, George Romero released Night of the Living Dead, a story of corpses reanimated by an acme of technological modernity, radiation from a spacecraft returned to earth. These revived creatures, only called ghouls in the film, awake with an insatiable desire for human flesh. Unlike the dapper Dracula, the collective appetite of this species of the undead nearly overwhelms everything that modernity has to throw at them. As the zombie franchise develops, it is clear that our society is really no match for them. Even when they are defeated and something like order is restored, it comes at a terrible cost. 

Unlike Stoker, Romero had to radically transform the zombie because they are actually quite dull in most of the properly folkloric stories that we have about them. For example, the defining feature of the zombie in most Haitian folktales is work, specifically agricultural labour at night. The zombie was first and last a producer; less than a slave and even less than an animal, a zombie would labour on the task at hand without complaint and would continue to labour, provided bare life was maintained in his or her body. Thus recasting modern technology as potentially threatening is only the means to get the dead moving around in Night of the Living Dead.

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The real genius of Romero flows from the profound transformation he wreaks on the folkloric zombie collective. Romero is, in many ways, the Margaret Thatcher of Zombie Society. Overnight, he threw all the zombies out of work, turning them from pathetic and clumsy producers into wholly irrational and clumsy consumers. After Night of the Living Dead, zombies were never going back to work in gardens and the idea of collapse and apocalypse got a new, scary, decomposing face.

Consuming hunger

While both the hungers of vampires and zombies have been liberated from the tyranny of the alimentary canal, it is telling how differently humans resist their potential consumption. Going back to Stoker, successful vampire combat is almost always a collective enterprise. There are usually voluntarily agreed-upon hierarchies and a sense of collective ownership of the project, i.e., a social contract. In Dracula, this collective is expressly instantiated with an oath, pledging the individual lives of the oath-takers to redeeming Mrs Harker’s soul from Dracula’s baptism of blood.

On the other hand, the fight against zombies comes only after a social collapse and a return to a state of nature. As a result, the bonds between the survivors in most zombie movies are tenuous, volatile and the source of most of the dramatic conflict in the narrative. 

We can imagine beating vampires because vampires and humans are closer to each other than either of them are to zombies.

Similarly, the instructions (po-faced or tongue-in-cheek) on how to survive a zombie apocalypse encourage a sort of Robinson Crusoe self-sufficiency while there is still time to pull together the resources to survive this state of nature. It is not difficult to see similarities to real-world phenomena, such as the so-called "Prepper Movement" in the United States, which also has its modern roots in the late 1960s.

At about the same time, the modern environmental movement also came into being, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). This was a historical moment when human consumption and technological virtuosity becomes a source of increasing anxiety to some, predominantly in those places  consuming the most resources in the most technologically sophisticated fashion.

Zombies vs vampires

We can imagine beating vampires - and we almost always do - because vampires and humans are closer to each other than either of them are to zombies. Both humans and vampires are self-aware - this is what makes possible the vampire’s distress at their lack of a reflection in a mirror. The emergence of Stoker’s vampire, though, is still in the era of the flaneur – it was still possible to see one’s reflection in the shop window full of commodities. 

Ironically, vampires know they are alienated, and are often troubled by this fact, because they are like us in most other respects. They understand and share an uniquely human capacity for symbolic thought and can form social bonds with each other and with humans. They can even tell the difference between holy water and regular water – indeed arguably better than we can. It is this symbolic faculty that ultimately also makes vampires vulnerable.

Zombies, though, are not in the symbolic order. They did not understand their alienation as down-market producers nor do they now understand their alienation as insatiable consumers. They lack even the capacity for alienation and we increasingly worry that we might be becoming like them. 

This concerns explains the recent regime change in the realm of the undead. Audiences might be initially invited to see "zombies" as Other, the hoi poloi of the undead that are locked into an endless cycle of meaningless repetitive consumption. But the iPhone in our pockets and our next mall visit tells us something rather different.

Our hunger gnaws us with anxieties about out-of- control appetites at the individual level (addiction) and on a global stage (our collective consumption driving us into the Anthropocene). As developed countries have become increasingly dissatisfied with their own abundance, many share a nagging feeling that we, too, might at an enforced and alienating feast. We are increasingly worried that it will only end in an apocalyptic after-dinner floor-show or an uncertain individual recovery.