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The unnamable dead

Watching the first season of The Walking Dead, I found myself incredulous, as I often am when watching zombie fiction, at the lack of any character who is like, “Oh em gee, ZOMBIES !” ((A Swedish philosopher recently remarked to me: “So I hear the Pope is on Twitter now. I wonder if he tweets ‘OMG’?”)) Why have so few people in zombie-based media ever heard of the word zombie? ((The origin of which, according to the OED, is Angolan “NZambi”, “the word for Deity”. First recorded in English in 1819.)) After all, characters in shows or films about vampires, werewolves, demons and the like are naturally au fait with the proper terminology for the monsters they face. “Hmmm! That is definitely a vampire! Let’s shoot him through the chest with a harpoon chained to the bumper of our pickup truck and then drag him out into the sunlight through the wall of his decrepit shack!” And yet in zombietainments, people get saddled with weird circumlocutions: walkers, the infected, et cetera. It’s like no one in a zombie film has ever seen a zombie film? When everything else, as in The Walking Dead, is so ultra-realistic, this phenomenon really pains me. But perhaps there are some good reasons! Any ideas?

  1. 1  Laurent Fintoni  July 12, 2011, 4:11 pm 

    It’s a conspiracy, led by the owner of major film studios/tv who are in fact zombies *grabs coat*

  2. 2  harmfulguy  July 12, 2011, 6:14 pm 

    You should read the novel Feed by Mira Grant. It’s a zombie novel set twenty-odd years after the Rising, in which two of the main characters are named for the prophetic hero George Romero.

    For that matter, Max Brooks’s World War Z uses “Zombie” pretty regularly, but other terms as well. Naturally, zombie-fighting soldiers have their own slang for them: “Zack never sleeps!”

  3. 3  Katherine Farmar  July 12, 2011, 10:26 pm 

    Not sure this is as widespread as you think. I seem to recall Shaun of the Dead played around with this: “We’re not using the Z-word!” Zombieland was not remotely shy about calling a shambling corpse a zombie. “Epidemiology”, the zombie episode of Community, wasn’t shy about it either. Mind you, all three of these are comedic and deliberately “meta”, the kinds of media where the characters are somewhat aware of what kind of story they’re in. It may be that writers of non-meta, non-comedic zombie stories are trying to avoid the “our zombies are different” conversation, which is now de rigeuer for vampire stories, given the many variations on the mythos (and is always tedious).

  4. 4  Sean Anderson  July 12, 2011, 11:13 pm 

    I’ve always thought a good zombie film meant the zombies were a good metaphor for something interesting.

    Whether it’s a metaphor for communism, racism, feminism or whatever: being familiar with how to deal with them doesn’t fit.

  5. 5  Tom  July 12, 2011, 11:34 pm 

    I’m sure I can think of werewolf and vampire movies in which saying the actual term is taboo — the unspoken (or explicit as, cf K Farmer, in Shaun of the Dead) reasoning being that those things belong in “fiction” and here we are in “reality” of some or other sort. Even the Twilight movies, hardly the grittiest pieces of cinema verite, are VERY sparing in their use of the V-word (ahem) and never, to my recollection, say “werewolf”.

    There’s also the fact that the word “zombie” didn’t really come to mean what it does now until the original Dawn of the Dead (Night of the Living Dead only ever uses “ghoul”), so stories set before this time can be forgiven for not using a word whose popular understanding is as a then-obscure item of Voodoo folklore.

    Also, if you think zombies have it bad, try finding me a movie in which a Frankenstein is rampaging about the place and someone just comes right out and says, “OMG, that Frankenstein’s wrecking shit!”

  6. 6  Sean Anderson  July 12, 2011, 11:36 pm 

    Tom, surely you must recall that “Frankenstein” is the name of the Doctor and not the Monster! :)

  7. 7  Tom  July 12, 2011, 11:38 pm 

    I don’t care what he does for his day job, throwing a little girl in a lake is pretty monstrous.

  8. 8  Art  July 12, 2011, 11:45 pm 

    Here are three possible reasons, two of which you muse upon yourself.

    1. If you don’t mention the z-word, you’re trying to escape z-movie inflation.

    2. Or, perhaps, you’re trying to be serious about the whole thing (as serious as can be pulled off, though). Considering the fact that most z-movies are a sort of farce, or worse. Or perhaps they’re just zeroing down the concept for the sake of art. Not every director loves to admit that while cashing in on a stereotypical concept, he’s in fact working with one.

    3. A variation of the note above: The z-concept is so worn that any mention of the word plunges the whole thing down to self-referential comedy and ultimately gorefestery.

    Having said that. I think it’s a rather decent series… as these things go.

  9. 9  hey zeus  July 13, 2011, 8:48 am 

    Could the word possibly be owned by Universal?
    I’m pretty sure they’d have something to say if you released ‘Frankenstein with a shotgun’ even if it was about a tortured anatomist who was pushed too far.
    Maybe if it was prefixed ‘Mary Shelley’s’…

  10. 10  james  July 13, 2011, 2:13 pm 

    Along with the words pad™, app™, store™, book™ and genius™ Apple™ have acquired the rights to the term in order to prevent further mocking of their most ardent followers.

  11. 11  Steven  July 13, 2011, 4:13 pm 

    Thanks to everyone for all the zombietainment science and ideas. I think there’s probably something to the point that zombie-based fiction is often a metaphor for something else (plague, consumerism, eco-sin etc), so that a studied vagueness is useful?

  12. 12  flyingrodent  July 13, 2011, 8:44 pm 

    It’s just one of the genre rules of the zombie film, like how the romantic comedy must feature the “Everything goes wrong/running to prevent lover leaving on a train/marrying someone else”, or the requirement for a femme fatale in a noir film etc.

    At a guess, I’d say some of the other laws are that the phenomenon/outbreak should always be out of control as quickly as possible, and that humans should cause their own destruction through selfishness/disunity.

    Back when zombies were slow-moving, there was also a law requiring an overly cocky character to get cornered by more zombies than he can fight off/surprised by the one in the cupboard/cellar/back of the car. The one in Land of the Dead with the seemingly headless zombie is a stupendously nasty example…

  13. 13  Dan A  July 14, 2011, 9:07 am 

    I don’t see the big deal with zombies to be honest. I’m perfectly happy to watch Shaun of the Dead and leave it at that.

    Ooooh, scary rotting dead people, I am literally quaking in my boots. It’s like jeez, come up with a new fucking idea already. I can think of plenty of things scarier than some shambling corpses.

  14. 14  Dan A  July 14, 2011, 9:09 am 

    And btw, if your idea for re-inventing the genre is that the zombies walk a bit faster, then congrats, perhaps you can pursue a career at News International with that kind of sparkling revelatory prowess.

  15. 15  hey zeus  July 14, 2011, 8:02 pm 

    Zombies might not scare you, but they nestle just below flying spiders in my list of shit-to-leave-earth-in-the-event-of.

  16. 16  Alex  July 23, 2011, 5:04 am 

    OT, but here’s one for the Unspeak annals:

    “If the bomb blast in Oslo turns out to be a terror attack, it will mark a 9/11 moment for Norway.”

  17. 17  JJM  July 24, 2011, 7:50 pm 

    Vampires, witches and werewolves are Old World. There is a folklore that tells how to deal with them. The afflictions they cause can be prevented or even cured. If a malady is treatable, we’re more willing to mention its name.

    Zombies are New World. The ones seen in movies aren’t the same as the zombis of Voudou. They have no traditional lore. They arrive like a natural disaster and spread like a virus. Eventually a solution is pieced together to fend them off.

    Vampires, witches and werewolves are the nightmares of faith. Zombies are the supernaturalism of the modern world. No one summons a priest to deal with them. No one summons a scientist, either. They aren’t like 1950’s movie monsters, who are the products of scientific blundering. A trace of mysticism still hovers about them: they’re returned from the grave. Perhaps this is why the characters avoid naming them. It requires a certain commitment of mind, of will, to call them what they are.

  18. 18  dr_demento  July 26, 2011, 12:39 pm 

    Maybe it’s a practicality thing. Vampire lore (stakes, garlic, crosses, cut off the head with a lemon in the mouth and bury it at a crossroads) is so complicated that if the characters don’t know any, they stand no chance at all of working it out. Zombies, on the other hand, can be killed by sufficient head trauma, and are also relatively harmless in small numbers; given those, the humans can make a good effort at repelling them.

  19. 19  Regan  July 31, 2011, 3:39 pm 

    According to The Januarist, Marvel owned a “publishing trademark” on the word “zombie” from 1975 to 1996. Perhaps writers avoided using the word in order to lessen (or, in the case of Shaun of the Dead, mock) the threat of litigation.

  20. 20  Steven  August 1, 2011, 12:33 pm 

    Aha! Thanks for the zombie science!

  21. 21  hey zeus  August 3, 2011, 12:15 pm 

    ha ha ha,
    “for more information on the topest products then email
    is this what becomes of people who respond to those adverts about making
    £££’s from home?

  22. 22  weaver  August 10, 2011, 3:43 pm 

    Until I’m corrected I intend to hold to the thesis that “zombie” is a misnomer brought about by cheap Italian knock-offs of the original Romero film. Zombies are people, or wights, under the control of another person, a sorcerer or Delgadoesque mesmerist; the undead of Romero’s invented genre are autonomous beings.

    And then there’s the fact that the chief source of inspiration for Romero’s flick was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and the (also Italian) adaptation of same writen by Matheson himself and starring Vincent Price. And the walking dead there were the original walking dead: vampires. Shambling, moronic, non-supernatural vampires. I mean, come on – undead, preying and feeding on the living, their condition spread by infectious bites? En’t it obvious? “Zombies” are vampires, and a damn sight more like the vampires of trad folklore, particularly the 18th century vampire epidemic, than are the aristocratic cape-wearers invented by Polidori, popularised by film adaptations of Stoker, and now exemplified by the frightful ghouls of Paranormal Romance.

    Romero also invented the turbozombie subgenre but it didn’t take until Boyle’s flick. Romero called them “Crazies”. I think the Oz term “Feral” might be usefully applied here. Joss Whedon’s “Reiver” is a tad pretentious. “The Infected” is dull, and “Darkseekers” is a ludicrous non-starter (even the most recent adaptation of I Am Legend couldn’t admit the creatures are vampires).

    So I’m all for dropping the Z word.

  23. 23  Derek Williams  August 22, 2011, 6:27 pm 

    I think I ‘ve got it! The problem with zombies is that they tend to imply an end of the world scenario. Once Zombies are around it’s pretty difficult to do stop them ultimately spreading everywhere and it result in the apocalypse. Thus for characters to have known about them the world must have already ended.

    It doesn’t really work for them to exist in fiction within the story either as that would somehow make the threat feel less real, I’d expect. Zombies in films have to be previously unknown.

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