“Hmph,” a zombie says to his friend. “Rrrg,” the friend responds. Hilarious! Just kidding. Who can say if they’re even joking? No one speaks zombie. Possibly zombies themselves don’t speak zombie. There’s a predicament for our present circumstances: Can zombies communicate?
Survey says: Don’t be dumb. One can exhume from the graveyards of pop culture certain incarnations that do—“Send more paramedics,” one intones, slowly but esuriently, in The Return of the Living Dead—but overanimating a reanimation, as Dr. Frankenstein will tell you, tends to spoil the fun. Zombies eat brains; they don’t have them. (Even in undeath, we want what we don’t have.) Their purpose is to shuffle and squelch toward you, heedless of blown-off limbs. Unpoetic monsters, they can scarcely compose a thought, much less a sonnet. Zombification is, in every way, an act of de-composition.
Now look over there, in the crosswalk. A human-shaped figure is stumbling through it, neck bent unnaturally, oblivious to the “Don’t Walk” sign. Most cultures would classify this thing, rightly, as a zombie. Of course, German taxonomists have a more precise term for it: Frankenstein’d together from two English loanwords, “smartphone” and “zombie”—the condition respects no borders or language barriers—“smombie” was named das Jugendwort des Jahres in 2015, Germany’s youth-word of the year. It’s been in the global lexicon ever since. In the summer of 2019, The Economist ran a story in the Asia section of its print edition titled “Smombie Apocalypse,” reporting that smombified pedestrians in South Korea cause 370 traffic accidents a year. Across the world in the UK, some Scots made a high school musical out of the phenomenon, 2017’s Anna and the Apocalypse, cinema’s showiest indictment of smombies to date. Teens text their friends at sunup, and by sundown they’re eating each other alive—what’s the difference? “I’ve been calling you all zombies for years,” the vice principal wails in his big number.
A complication, then: If smombies can still send text messages, in fact depend for their smombiehood on this act of composition, then perhaps zombies can communicate after all. Not so fast. When two of Jim Jarmusch’s zombies in his latest film, The Dead Don’t Die, return to their favorite diner for a snack of waitress washed down with what their rotting articulatory systems manage to croak out as “cof … fee,” they’re not accomplishing true speech. Instead, it’s a moment of “vestigial memory,” as Jarmusch calls it, where zombies mimic the old habits (that undie hard) of their past selves. Senselessly and unsuccessfully, what they’re doing is going through the motions of the living, from residual caffeine cravings to their sad, shambling semblance of perambulation. (Again, not so fast.) Accordingly, sending a text, for the modern smombie, carries the same emptiness: It’s no more than a vestigial memory of communication. “Lol,” “I hear you,” “Sounds good,” the smombie types, over and over, though no one has made so much as a peep, or really said anything at all. Hmph, rrrg.
Even more than vestigial memories, zombies are, themselves, vestigial humans: redundant remnants, oversimplifications of sentience. The 2017 Japanese hit One Cut of the Dead, a low-budget zombie movie within a low-budget zombie movie within yet another low-budget zombie movie, formalizes the point: Shells of shells, zombies are many screens removed from existence. They “have no will,” the male lead says. (“Well, zombies have many types,” a nerdy castmate tries to counter. He’s ignored in the room.) Many years before embarking on his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson made his own contribution to the genre, a gutty, gutsy, very Kiwi zom-com called Braindead (aka Dead Alive, in the US). In the climactic bloodbath, a giant zombie matriarch sucks her still-living son back into her undead womb. “Come to Mummy, Lionel!” she cries. Appears willful—but even then, the audience understands that Mummy isn’t really talking. She’s symbolically enacting a cartoonishly Freudian psychosexual fantasy unfulfilled in her lifetime. Zombies are cribbers, never creators.
What can be said of them, these unspeaking if not unspeakable ghouls, is that their cribbings constitute a kind of organization, even a culture. Moved by a vestigial memory of sociality, zombies tend to exhibit a preference for comradeship. They clump together in the old church, near the main mall, wherever, waiting for warm bodies to inopportunely sneeze. In the 2017 French Canadian film Ravenous, les affamés linger in a field, where they pile every chair they can find into a towering shrine to something like forgotten idleness. The parasitic “hungries” of the 2016 British film The Girl With All the Gifts, meanwhile, create a massive vertical nest of seedpods in the center of the city, a shrine to reproduction. (Earlier, a mombie is seen robotically pushing a stroller around, baffling a human scientist.) Something about going from dead to undead seems to restore the will to live, a paradox reified by these spectral rituals.
Thus the reality of zombieism as we experience it today: It’s a mindlessly life-seeking death cult. Long ago a quirk of the necromantic arts, it’s now entrenched as a perversion of reproductive science. Incapable of thought, guided only by instinct, zombies kill so that more of them can be reborn. A disease. An infection. A self-replicating virus. Sometimes, it’s a metaphor. The zombies are us under capitalism; iPhones and AirPods are flatlining the masses. Other times, it’s far more literal: Zombies, sloughing off their meanings like dead skin, simply become the worst-case embodiment of pandemic.
According to Google Trends, searches for “zombie apocalypse” have spiked worldwide in recent months, peaking in mid-March. Google News counts more than 15,000 uses of the phrase since December, compared with a third as many in the same period a year ago. A protest in Ohio over the state’s stay-at-home order “looked like a zombie movie,” reported The Washington Post. Outlets like USA Today and Vox are running interviews with writers of zombie fiction. Even the staid New Yorker has contributed. “We are in the zombie apocalypse,” declared Lorrie Moore in an April print edition. “So we are all social-distancing; that is, pretending to have died, lying very still.” Aside from the verbal overkill, what these evocations miss is the very unzombielike fact of, it’s needful to say, their sayability.
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Right now, people are talking like never before. They’re FaceTiming with family, Zooming with coworkers, soliloquizing on the nature of mortality before an audience of pets and houseplants. The old-fashioned phone call, that uncluttered vector for voice, has emerged as the most soothing, salubrious, and sustainable mode of communication in 2020. Has it really been 17 years? I’ll ring you Thursday! It’s the opposite of zombielike. In fact, by our definition of zombieism, you were far more undead six months ago, head down and bumping into strangers in the crosswalk, than you are now—a time of unceasing communication.
As their world burns and collapses, the teens of Anna and the Apocalypse break out into the musical’s saddest song, “Human Voice”: “I lay my head on my pillow and pray / That someday we’ll talk in that old-fashioned way / There’s so much to fear in all this noise / But all I want to hear is a human voice / Just a human voice.” For them, the human voice, “something that I can hold onto,” pierces through the “neon haze” of smombification. Singing plays a part in the 2019 Australian movie Little Monsters, too, in which an elementary-school teacher, inexplicably played by Lupita Nyong’o, must protect her charges from zombies (and Josh Gad). To keep them from panicking, she strums her ukulele and leads them in a Taylor Swift sing-along. During the final escape, their sweet voices not only placate the zombies but convince the soldiers not to shoot. “Zombies don’t sing,” admits the commander (forgetting about Michael Jackson). The human voice is the difference and their salvation—just as it is at the end of South Korea’s canonical entry, Train to Busan, when a little girl’s sobbing rendition of “Aloha ‘Oe” reaches the ears of the military men, who hold their fire.
“We are because we can talk,” as some speech scientists like to say. Special pathways in the brain seem to perceive different types of vocal information—melodies, timbres, emotions. Perhaps these are regions the zombies are hungriest for. They have the vestigial memory of speech and crave its restoration. Every so often, it happens for them. As the zombie stars of movies like Warm Bodies and Swiss Army Man begin to recover their ability to speak, they slowly come back to life. The more you can communicate, the zombies teach us, the more human you are.
So you, right now, are not a zombie. Not yet. Every phone call you make, every pet or plant you serenade, is in defiance of despair, for that is the true sound of the zombie apocalypse: silence. When Jim wakes to a gutted world in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, he shouts into the void, “Hello?” The word booms, echoes. “Hello? Hello?” Nobody—nothing—responds.
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