Zombies: Fine and Decomposing Art

Zombie Snob Part 1: A look at our zombie past.

Everyone knows what a zombie is. Setting aside the fact that TV and decades of pop culture tell us what zombies are; where did they come from and what are they really? We like to think that the undead are at least as old as film and television, but the truth is they’ve been shambling around the arts for as long as humans have had a preoccupation with death. Which is to say, since the very beginning.

The term zombie traces its roots back to Haitian Vodun, where zombies functioned in the religious narrative as a product of dark magic. During the 1930’s travel writers inflamed American curiosity by penning stories about Haitian priests who would kill people, resurrect them after burial and then put them to work doing hard labor in the sugar cane fields.

Haitian zombies were not the violent, ravening, flesh eaters of today: they were slaves. This should not come as a huge shock when we consider the origins of Haitian culture; the marriage of West African religious practices and Catholic icons, the history of slavery, colonialism and revolution. Haitian Voodoo zombies were associated with enslavement; the return to which would be a terrifying concept for a society founded on the overthrow of colonial rule. 

The horror genre and everything monstrous within it, is rooted in the desire to try and make sense of fear. It’s your basic attempt to assert Apollonian (order) control over a Dionysian (chaos) world. Monsters are born from social and cultural anxieties. Let’s run down the examples, shall we? First we have the old standbys like Frankenstein’s monster, which represents the fear of science and man’s ability to play god, controlling life and death. Then there are vampires, which represent the fear of subversive ideologies and repressed lust. Next we have the esoteric types of monsters.

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For example, in 1817 there was a sudden uptick in sea serpent sightings off the coast of New England. Newspapers nicknamed the monster “Embargo” in reference to Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act. Or we could consider the early 19th century man eating “snoligoster” which was conveniently sighted in Florida swamps where runaway slaves were known to hide. Monsters come from somewhere. They emerge from the psyche and reflect what we have hidden there. Zombies are no different and they draw on one of the oldest fears known to mankind: death.

Oh Crap, People Actually Die

True story: once I was walking through a hospital hallway, running an errand for work. I passed an extremely old woman with thinning hair and an oxygen tube running from her nose to a small tank she was carrying. She was standing in the hall, hunched over, wearing these old baggy flannel clothes that must have belonged to her husband. The woman took one look at me as I passed and said, “Never get old sweetie.”

That woman scared the bejeezus out of me and still does. We like to think of ourselves as these immortal creatures who, when WE get old, will merely be sandy haired and somewhat weathered versions of our current selves. Yeah. Good luck with that. We conveniently forget that when we get old everything goes to shit. We fall apart.

Depressing? You bet. That’s the point. Getting old is scary because we associate it with a visual decline into death. But not all endings are so drawn out, heck, we’re lucky if we even have the good fortune to get old in the first place.

Ridiculous numbers of dead people have piled up throughout history. Sure, everyone dies, but I’m not talking about dying from old age or misadventure. No, I’m referring to war, pandemic and natural disasters; occasions for the dead to actually pile up.

Did I lose you? Most modern Americans have trouble conceptualizing such things. We have first world problems like slow WiFi to worry about. While war and natural disasters occur all the time, they tend to happen in far off, exotic places to which our only connection is through the tenuous link of the 24 hour news cycle. And then there’s pandemic.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2008 there were 16,084 deaths in the U.S. due to HIV/AIDS, a disease that is commonly referred to as a modern pandemic. Flash back to 1918, when an estimated 50 million people worldwide died within 120 days from an outbreak of Spanish Influenza (fun fact: H1N1, which is a modern version of the Spanish Flu, was responsible for a mere 2,117 casualties in the U.S. in 2009/2010). Care to put that in perspective? 15 million people died in combat during World War I. 

What the hell does this have to do with zombies? Keep your shirt on, we’re getting there.

Compared to modern standards, mortality rates during the 14th century were staggering. Between the 13th and the 18th century the bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) repeatedly swept the globe. In 1349 the population of Cairo was nearly cut in half when the plague claimed 200,000 lives. Across the Mediterranean, the population in Europe was cut down by as much as 30%.Again, let’s put that in perspective. If you have ten friends, imagine half of them dropping dead from the Black Plague within two years. If you lived in 1349 Cairo, those five buddies would have turned into puss riddled corpses. Look at your significant other. One of you wouldn’t have made it.

The prospect is so fantastic, so unbelievable, that today the concept only finds a home in the supernatural narratives of the zombie apocalypse. How likely is it that you or I will die of the Black Death? Not very.

Of course it was a totally different story seven hundred years ago. Physicians didn’t understand what caused plagues or how they were spread. Antibiotics were not developed until the late 19th century. People considered guilty of spreading disease were associated with witchcraft and executed. The only truly effective cure at the time was thought to be divine intercession and we can all guess how well that worked out.

  The ubiquitous presence of death dominated art in Western Europe for centuries from the Medieval, to the Renaissance and through the Enlightenment. With it came a rich, allegorical language through which artists could translate the traumatic experience of survival. In other words, the walking dead rose up as a prominent element in art.

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Many of these figures were portrayed in religious tableaus. Martyrs were often depicted as holding a palm leaf (a symbol of their martyrdom) and then some indication of how they were killed can be found on their person. Clergy members who were stoned to death might be depicted with rocks balanced on their heads. Individuals who were stabbed to death might be seen strolling through a painting with a cleaver buried in their skulls.

Some of the religious figures popping up in Medieval paintings, like St. Sebastian, had much more layered meaning. He may not have been the first Christian zombie (Jesus), but he sure was the prettiest; ole ‘Bastian was believed to plead with God on behalf of those afflicted with disease. This seems strange since he didn’t actually die from the plague.

According to Catholicism, St. Sebastian was miraculously resurrected after being shot so full of arrows that he resembled a pin cushion. Not content with merely being alive, he decided to confront his killers and was beaten to death (again) and chucked down a sewer for his efforts.  

In paintings and sculpture St. Sebastian is depicted as a tragic, living, figure feathered with arrows. Not as menacing as the modern zombie, but the connection is still there. Skipping past the obvious reference to the resurrection of Christ, it is worth noting that the arrows draw a direct correlation with other symbolic images of pestilence, in which God holds an arrow. That image, in turn, comes from classical texts about the Roman gods Apollo and Diana who punish humans with arrows of sudden illness and death. 

Want me to really blow your mind? You know how Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, is frequently associated with images of deer (innocence)? Did you see Season 2 of The Walking Dead when Carl was shot while watching a deer in the forest? You think that was an accident?

But enough about Carl, I’m not done going medieval on your ass just yet. St. Sebastian is just one in a veritable army of iconographic figures, of which death is another.

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Believe it or not, there are all types of death; especially in art. You have death riding a pale horse as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, you have the dance of death and you have the memento mori. Each has its own nuance. The dance of death employs a more literal manifestation in the image of an animate skeleton or corpse.

This is not necessarily an individual who has risen from the grave so much as a personification of the concept. The tableau can be lighthearted: a cavorting group of skeletons that dance around the living; or it can be somber: a skeleton cast as a grave digger.

The dance of death is what we could most easily associate with the modern zombie. A 15th century Italian engraving of a skeleton carrying the train of a young woman’s wedding dress in one hand and a bier in the other has the same message of dread as that of a ravenous 21st century zombie chasing down a young bride. 

This sentiment is beautifully expressed in the 1635 Giovanni Martinelli painting “Memento Mori: Death Comes to the Dinner Table.” The piece depicts richly dressed banqueters in a state of shock as a skeleton, holding an hourglass and clutching at the cape of a young man, emerges from the shadows. Ya know, I don’t think he’s going to make it to desert.

Martinelli painted several similar scenes of interrupted banquets, showing revelers who had only just begun their meal and thereby implying people struck down in the prime of life. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life aped these paintings to wondrous effect in the scene where Death literally interrupts a gathering of friends at a small cottage. One bad can of salmon and it’s goodbye to the entire dinner party. 

Unlike the dance of death, the memento mori is a much more generalized representation of mortality. It can be subtle or overt, depending on the artist and the context of the piece. Overt images are skulls, bones, slaughtered animals or open graves. Subtle images are commonly found in still life paintings which render groups of vibrant flowers alongside a single, wilted blossom, rotted piece of fruit or creeping insect.

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Still life artist Antoine Berjone paired the bouquet in an 1819 painting with a shark skull while Rembrandt de Rijn used a freshly butchered ox as an allegory for death, sin and forgiveness in his 1630 piece “The Slaughtered Ox.” Early English portraiture is so rife with memento mori that the subjects practically trip over the bones of the deceased. Skulls rest inside homes upon the floor, outside on the ground, on desks, on caskets, held in outstretched hands or tucked neatly under a cloak. The next time you visit an art museum, you’ll notice that the macabre is pretty much everywhere. These are your basic proto zombies.

Whether dance of death or memento mori, all of these paintings meditated on mortality to one extent or other. Gentrified dandies walked around cemeteries as skeletons rose from their graves to admonish “I was not as I was, you will not be as you are.” I’m going straight to hell for saying it, but this message is no different from the old lady in the hospital telling me to never get old and it is the same message we get whenever a major character in a zombie narrative succumbs to a bite.

Historian Roland Frye observed that “the preoccupation with death is not sterile; it comes from the preoccupation of life, which must be lived under the shadow of death” and went on to argue that meditating on death evoked a passive acceptance or resignation to the inevitable that was free from anxiety and dread. I am dubious. When I think about my own death it certainly doesn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy and I sincerely doubt that Frye felt that way when his own mortal coil wore down. 

Still, Frye has a point. Human beings expend a lot of energy contemplating their relationship to death and trying to bridge the gap that makes the concept abstract. For example, let’s consider a pair of stained glass trefoils from 1502, Nuremberg, Germany. Here, death is depicted as a hunter; a skeleton firing an arrow while riding an emaciated horse toward a man who does not appear alarmed or frightened. Instead the dude stands there calmly, gesturing toward his waiting bier. After all, death is inevitable, right?

A couple years later, famous engraver of creepy things, Albrecht Durer, was likely inspired by the trefoils when, as he fled an outbreak of plague in Nuremberg, he made a charcoal drawing of a skeleton on horseback alongside the words “remember me.” Durer reminds us that people weren’t merely resigning themselves to the inevitable; they were also reacting to the horrors of the world around them. Anxiety and dread can go hand in hand with the preoccupation of death much more easily than passive acceptance. And not all of these morbid paintings were merely symbolic; some of the most desolate, almost post-apocalyptic images were based on real world events. 

Pandemic dominated the works of 17th century painter Domenico Gargiulo. His “Largo del Mercatello during the plague of 1656, Naples” depicts the Italian city in chaos with corpses being dragged out of buildings and piled in the market square. In the foreground, bodies of plague victims are being dumped alongside a fountain and in the background men are being hanged from makeshift gallows; executed on suspicion of spreading disease. On the horizon, lines of smoke suggest extensive devastation throughout the city. Sound familiar? It should. Think of the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia and then compare the images you saw on the news with Gargiulo’s painting. This is a record of real events.

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Now think about the pilot episode of TWD with the piles of bodies, destruction of infrastructure, heck even the lines of smoke rising from Atlanta as Rick rode toward it on the deserted highway. Creepy right? That’s supposed to be fiction; but all the horrors that make up the worst of the genre are generated from the real world.

The practical fears of modern Americans involve the foundering economy, political upheaval, war, terrorist attack and struggles with opposing ideologies. What would happen in the absolute, worst case scenario; if those problems got so out of hand they resulted in the collapse of society? Zombie narratives are nothing more than modern iterations of the dance of death and the memento mori. They posit the same questions about these terrors, they are expressed in extremes and yet they remain comfortably removed as a fictitious and supernatural scenario.

Remember Me

With the invention of photography, dating back to the 1820s, the memento mori leapt from the canvas to the daguerreotype. Yes, even before Facebook and Instagram, old timey folk were taking creepy (and probably inappropriate) pictures. People quickly developed a fascination with postmortem portraiture. Because nothing says ‘rest in peace’ like dressing up the corpse of your beloved and then propping them up on a chair for picture time.

The practice of commemorating the loss of a loved one by taking a picture of the body became hugely popular and pretty soon, this gothic sentimentality devolved into morbid voyeurism. During the Civil War, Matthew Brady and his assistant Alexander Gardner made a career out of taking pictures of battlefield carnage, then displaying them for public consumption. If he was unsatisfied with how the bodies had hit the ground, Brady was not above moving corpses around to get a better shot.

Brady’s pictures were publicized to maximum effect during a time when the press was full of stories about war souvenirs created through explicit acts of barbarism. Papers in the North claimed that the children of Confederate soldiers were being given toys made out of the bones of Union soldiers while papers in the South made the same claims, only in reverse.

Seriously, do you have any idea how creepy that is? Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and decided to go down to the deli for a nice cup of coffee and a jelly donut. As you’re standing in the checkout line you see a picture of Victoria Beckham’s daughter splashed across the front of the Enquirer with the headline POSH SPICE GIVES CHILD RATTLE MADE FROM REAL AMERICAN TEETH.

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Now imagine that at the exact same moment someone is standing in a deli checkout line in London, with a morning cup of tea and a biscuit, looking at a picture of Angelina Jolie’s daughter Shiloh splashed across the front of Hello with the headline BRANGELINA GIVES CHILD RATTLE MADE FROM REAL BRITISH TEETH.

That would be ridiculous, right? But people bought it and frankly, they still do. This type of yellow journalism has been around forever. Given our lasting penchant for gore it is no surprise that blood and guts have continued to dominate visual culture from old timey sculpture and painting, to somewhat less old timey photography, to film, television and the internet. Just like Gargiulo, modern artists are creating the illusion of literal representation and letting people conveniently forget they are reading context into what they see. When we watch horror we conveniently forget that we are merely digesting the fears that come from real life while keeping them at a safe distance.

The dance of death, the memento mori and zombies are all reminders of the inevitable. Death chases people down, springs up from the shadows and dogs our footsteps. Zombies change the game because they indicate that personification has stopped being an abstract concept and started being us. Now death has a name and a face; it is someone we knew and loved.

Everyone has the potential to become this monster. The once human zombie acts as an allegory writ large for racism, classism and consumerism. They are symbolic of distinctly human systems of belief and behaviors such as religious and political ideology. But all of these implied meanings pale in comparison to the first and last word on the human condition. No matter the social implications, a corpse is still a corpse, even if it shambles hungrily after us proclaiming, “I was not as I was, you will not be as you are.”

Speaking of shambling, stay tuned for Zombie Snob Part 2, where our search for delicious brains will take us from the canvas to the silver screen!


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