Okay, I know all zero of you were on tenterhooks, waiting for the final installment in my epic examination of the kick-assitude of modern pop zombies, so here it is. After reviewing several reasons for the pandemic of modern pop zombies in parts one, two and three, I gave my own explanation in part four. Zombies are extreme vampires. I explain what that means here in part five.
Zombies are more extreme than vampires in a few ways.
1. While vampires may pass as mortal, zombies can’t. With their clearly reduced mental capacities and blatant decay, they unavoidably embody mortality and death.
2. While it is possible for humans to survive vampire feedings, it’s more difficult, if not impossible, for them to survive zombie feedings because zombies eat brains, a substance that our medical view holds dearer than blood. Vampires used to be more threatening than they currently are because the significance of their diet — blood — has changed. At earlier periods in human history, blood held great symbolic significance as the fluid of life. The Hippocratic theory of the four humors, which governed millennia of surgical history, held that blood was the bearer of the body’s vital force, indeed, the soul. Because surgical techniques were cruder and mortality rates higher, bleeding often presaged a turn for the worse and then death. Loss of blood, in our earlier experience, meant loss of life.
Now, however, we know that blood regularly regenerates erythrocytes in the long bones of the body at the rate of about 6 weeks per pint of whole blood. With our knowledge of circulation, blood typing [discovered around the turn of the 20th century according to this drily amusing slideshow] and transfusions [practiced as many as 3 centuries ago, but only refined and perfected during the world wars], we can now to some extent manage the blood loss that so distressed us centuries ago. Loss of blood no longer entails loss of life for us. From our modern scientific mindset, blood is a substance essential to human life; however, we are not automatically doomed because of its loss. Therefore, it is possible to view vampires not as death with pointy teeth, but as Red Cross phlebotomists with pointy teeth, causing temporary weakness from which we will eventually recover.
Modern pop zombies are as deadly to us now as vampires once were. This is because the food of modern pop zombies — viz., brains — has replaced blood as the central stuff of life in the human imagination. Current medical technology allows us to sustain human life in the direst extremities that would have spelled death mere generations ago. For a particularly alarming example, it is possible for those who have cancer of the pelvic girdle or lower spine to experience a translumbar hemicorporectomy, in which their legs, pelvis, lower excretory system and reproductive system are removed. Though very rare and very risky, this procedure does exist, and there are details in another entry of mine. My point is that we have figured out how to keep people alive without the lower halves of their bodies, without all 4 limbs, hair, sweat glands, larynx, tonsils, 2 eyes, 2 ears, nose, teeth, tongue, upper palette, lower jaw, 1 or 2 kidneys, reproductive systems, 1 or 2 breasts, bladders, large tracts of intestine, spleen, liver and other organs that I am probably forgetting, but we haven’t figured out how to keep people alive without their brains.
The brain, in our current medicalized view of personhood, is the irreducible essence of life, the sine qua non of humanity. Without it, we are either dead or literally inhuman: a "vegetable." Modern pop zombies, as brain eaters, are automatically deadly, in our minds, because they consume the foundational basis of our humanity and our life: that is, our brains. Modern pop zombies are more extreme than modern pop vampires because we can survive loss of blood, but not loss of brain.
So I believe that modern pop zombies are compelling to us for all the reasons explored in previous segments of this essay and, moreover, because they embody our current scientific anxiety over the locus of human identity and individuality. The conceptions of zombies as vectors of a pandemic, as uncritical followers of a warlike administration and as herds of oppressed chattel in a soul-eviscerating workplace — all of these highlight our fears that the heightened perils of modern social life, whether in the form of illness, politics or corporate culture, will obliterate our selfhood and personalities. These views of zombies make emotional sense. My point is that the prevalence of zombies these days may make some scientific sense because medical culture has influenced us into seeing our brains as our selves. Then, perhaps, zombies represent not only our discomfort with the technology of terror, the demagoguery of modern politics and the dehumanization of white-collar drudgery. Maybe zombies also embody our anxiety about the medicalization and regimentation of the human animal, in which the regulation and consumption of our very minds is contested.