Zombies are a symbol of the disconnect we feel from ourselves, one another, and our world. We are consuming our way through life, and we know it.
We consume food and goods with mindless attention to food sources. We are completely disconnected from the food we eat. We don’t know where it comes from, how it is grown, what was used to treat it, or even how long it has sat in a state of decay before it reached the plate. We are completely disconnected from what nourishes us. Zombies reflect mindless consumption. All a zombie wants to do is feed, and they are never full. Rarely do contemporary zombies seem to have anything else on their undead minds. In this way, Freud’s theories regarding the death instinct and pleasure principle reach a crescendo. Freud believed that we all seek death and pleasure. The zombie represents mankind in the form of thanatos. That instinct achieved, there is nothing left other than pleasure, and contemporary zombies get that from eating.
But we don’t just eat our way through our world. We consume goods, the environment, and one another. Much like our food, we don’t know where the goods we wear or use come from nor the conditions under which they were made. We are errand runners, zipping through our environment mindless of the impact on our natural world. Shaun never looked at his environment, missing the bloody handprints on the cooler door and the dead lying in the streets. Like Shaun, we are oblivious to the world around us.
In our interpersonal interactions, we have two modes: consume or other. We live in an lifestyle where we are over-scheduled, lack community, and have virtual relationships defined by our Facebook relationship status. When someone is not useful—read consumable--, we other them. When the zombie apocalypse hits, many times the protagonists finds it easy to chop their way through the walking dead without shedding a tear. This is not lack of character development but the result of our consumptive nature: if you turn into a zombie, too bad for you. Many protagonists find that the kindest thing they can do for a fallen comrade it to double-tap them in the head.
In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud warned that mankind was not meant to live in a society so contrary to our fundamental, yet unflattering, human nature. Civilization subverts natural death and pleasure instincts, resulting in “an instinct of aggressiveness and destructiveness” (78). The id cannot abide social constructs. Indeed, Freud states that it is “the super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds” (106). The zombie apocalypse breaks down the social barriers and allows the id to run amok. The zombie apocalypse reflects the degradation of human values in favor of self-satisfaction. We reject social structure and disconnect ourselves from nature in every way imaginable. High minded characters clinging to the best of humanity, like The Walking Dead’s Dale, have no place in a zombie world. The zombie dystopia allows you to be high minded only if you are willing to shot first and wax philosophical later. A single super-ego cannot survive when the rest of humanity is running about in “survival of the fittest” mode.All this consumption leaves us feeling empty. Isaac Marion’s work, Warm Bodies, has a poignant message about the importance of learning to feel again. In the storyline, R and the other zombies are only returned to a human state when they begin to recall love, connection, and really value others.