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Zombies & Philosophy

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The Undead Gourmet

Brendan Riley asks: is it okay to kill a zombie just because it wants to eat you?

“I’m just trying to eat as few people as I can before we leave for Portugal tomorrow!”
Zombie Honeymoon (2004)

“What are they?”
“They’re us.”
Dawn of the Dead (1978)

When the tall ice-blue zombie in the checked shirt chomps into his girlfriend’s neck during the opening sequence of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), we feel bad for her and revolted by him, but we don’t feel judgmental. Nor do we feel judgmental when someone terminates a zombie. These attitudes comes part and parcel with the basic assumptions of the genre: zombies are not people, but they are inherently dangerous, representing a distinct threat to the order of the universe, and must be put down. Zombie stories establish these ideas over and over again, depicting survivors struggling with guilt, at first unable to kill zombies who used to be family members, and yet driven to do just that. At the same time, we also hold no grudges against the zombies themselves. We don’t expect Johnny Zombie to show compassion just because we were once friends, since he has no compassion to show. Because we imagine zombies as mindless eating machines driven entirely by instinct, we don’t blame them for their behavior any more than we blame wild animals for doing what comes naturally to them. But we don’t tolerate it, either.

But what if a zombie isn’t a senseless eating machine? What if it has thoughts and feelings and memories? Is it still blameless for eating people? What allegiance do we owe it as a fellow conscious being? This article ponders the nature of the thinking zombie, its own ethical obligations, and the complicated moral morass humans must themselves wade through in a world where zombies are people too.

The Right To Bear Arms Against Zombies

Most zombie films draw the line very clearly between human and zombie. A human dies or is infected, has some period of rest, and then re-animates with a new, bloodier set of tastes. The zombie shows no sign of human-level intelligence: it cannot use complex tools, it cannot use language, and most importantly, it seems to have no clear memory of its former life, nor allegiance to its former allies. (The zombie enthusiast will point out exceptions to each of these traits, but I offer them as genre mainstays.) These formerly-human zombies also lust uncontrollably for flesh. But many zombie tales – particularly those from Romero’s oeuvre – undercut this clear demarcation just as they seem to endorse it. If zombies were completely divorced from their former drives, they would not hold to their old human habits – they would not return to the mall, as they do in Dawn of the Dead – and Romero would not include sympathetic scenes in which humans abuse zombies by stringing them up from trees as targets or torment them with cream pies, as in Land of the Dead.

Even given these mitigating factors, zombies in most tales menace the characters so completely that the characters have no qualms about killing them (once they have escaped the deadly trap of the former-family zombie). At the same time, the zombies themselves carry no ethical burden for their behavior. Zombies threaten humans, certainly, but they do so automatically, without malice or forethought. The defining characteristics of zombies are usually infectiousness, undeath, and the drain of personality and/or will. This gives actors on both sides of the human/zombie conflict ethical cover from which to kill.

In ‘Should Vampires Be Held Accountable For Their Blood-Thirsty Behavior?’ (Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy, edited by Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad, 2006), John Draeger agrees that zombies’ mindlessness leaves them morally blameless. He writes, “Zombies… lack the cognitive sophistication to be held accountable for their bloodthirsty behavior” (p.119). Draeger does not say how much sophistication a creature would need to be held accountable for its actions, but he argues that vampires might be held equally blameless in many cases. This does not address the other half of the moral equation – the human response to the undead menace. Draeger equates the zombies to a natural menace, saying, “The nuisance might reasonably be destroyed” (p.119). For this widespread opinion to be valid, the zombies would need to fit both the conditions above: they would need to embody an apocalyptic threat, and they would need to be unaware.

Let’s consider the question of threat first. Certainly Hollywood zombies crashing rotted hands through windows inspire a self-defense response that trumps more nuanced questions of ethics. But when the zombies are not an immediate threat, the issue becomes more tricky. To use Draeger’s ‘nuisance’ analogy: farmers protecting their livestock from wolves are certainly justified in killing any animals who menace the stock; but I would argue that farmers are not justified in wholesale pre-emptive anti-lupus efforts. To wipe out all wolves overemphasizes human claims on the ecosystem. In the same way, killing zombies that pose an immediate threat to people is certainly reasonable, but hunting down and killing all the zombies one can find might be the same error.

Professor Dale Jacquette in his essay ‘Zombie Gladiators’ makes an additional point about the dangers of wholesale zombie killing: because zombies resemble people so closely, killing zombies would likely inure us to violence against people too (Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy, p.115). In the graphic novel The Walking Dead, Vol 11 (2010), writer Robert Kirkman anticipates this effect. One of the twin boys – characters for several volumes in the series – stabs his brother for no reason at all. As the adults try to determine what to do with the surviving twin, one of them states the case plainly, “He’s a boy who doesn’t understand murder… What’s to keep him from killing one of us in our sleep?” The boys grew up in a post-zombie world, where killing is so routine that it no longer appalls them.

What If Zombies Used Their Brains?

brain on plateLet’s now consider that rare case in zombie fiction, the thinking zombie, and its implication on our treatment of all zombies. My case studies come from three stories. The film Zombie Honeymoon (2004) follows the sorrowful descent of Danny, who gets infected with a zombie disease that makes him more and more hungry while his awareness slowly deteriorates. Although he recognizes that killing and eating people is wrong, he can’t help himself. As his sentience slips away, it becomes harder and harder for him to resist his hunger, until the end of the film finds him almost mindless and out of control. The novels Brains (2010) and Zombie, Ohio (2011) both feature sentient zombies (coincidentally, perhaps, both zombified professors), who struggle with their unusual intelligence in a world ravaged by hordes of the mindless. In Robin Becker’s Brains, Jack Barnes finds himself able to read and minimally communicate with other semi-intelligent zombies as they work together to eat as many people as they can. Scott Kenemore’s Zombie, Ohio follows a similar trajectory, except that Peter Mellor, the protagonist, finds no companions of similar intelligence. He can, however, talk, and perhaps it’s this that makes him feel more empathetic about the people around him, such that he tries not to kill and eat everyone, at least some of the time. Both these zombies consider the moral and ethical ramifications of killing and eating people.

The question of zombies as a threat and society’s reaction to them is also a crucial element in my case studies. Both Mellor in Zombie, Ohio and Barnes in Brains must take into account their status as a ‘mindless threat’ to the humans in the novels. While Mellor vacillates between hunger and humanity, Barnes embraces his zombie state, happily chewing on anybody he can catch. By contrast, Danny from Zombie Honeymoon exists in a world unaware that zombies exist. The zombies in his world only infect people in the last moments of their life-cycle. On the surface they appear to be normal (if sickly) people who kill and eat others. Thus, while Barnes and Mellor might be excused for lashing out at the humans trying to do them harm, Danny cannot find refuge for his people-eating under the ethical umbrella of self-defense.

For all three men, hunger becomes the driving force behind their people-eating. Each story characterizes their hunger for people as a mix of pleasure and uncontrollable desire. Indeed, Kenemore describes Mellor’s first kill by analogy to sex (p.55). Becker does the same with Barnes (p.21), but also relies heavily on the language of drug addiction. Danny’s murdering also fits the addiction model in Zombie Honeymoon. When Denise finds Danny huddled over in a bathtub, he might just as well have been injecting heroin instead of eating a handful of spleen. His secrecy about his killing, his panicked pleading for her to help him, and his struggle with self-control, all play out like an addiction narrative. And just as we understand drug addiction to be a disease, so might we imagine the conscious zombie’s struggle over eating people as a similar struggle for self-control.

Love Your Zombie Neighbor

My discussion thus far has approached the question of zombies eating humans as being of equal or equivalent responsibility to humans killing zombies. But given the wide rift between humans and zombies in nearly every text, is it reasonable to expect humans and zombies to accord each other such mutual respect as members of a shared ecosystem, or even species? Once again, the answer depends on the circumstances.

Our instinct, ignited by the unsettling effect of seeing walking corpses, tells us that zombies and humans are distinct species. We assure ourselves that former family members must be empty shells now, unconnected to the people they once were. This allows for the destroying of zombies of people we knew. As Hamish Thompson points out in ‘She’s Not Your Mother Anymore, She’s a Zombie!’ in Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy, the bodily continuity of a person-cum-zombie undermines our confidence in this distinction: since we’ve never known ourselves or our friends to exist without bodies, we can’t help but worry that they are, in fact, still there in the zombiefied body. Nonetheless, we assume that mindless zombies pose an intractable threat, and can be eliminated without qualms.

But when zombies begin to show intelligence, we must reconsider how we conceive the gap between ourselves and our hungry, rotting cousins. It’s easy to dismiss the vacant corpses in Lucio Fulci’s Zombi as brainless – but what about the contemplative little league zombie staring at Fran in Dawn of the Dead, or the noble Bub from Day of the Dead, who remembers how to load a pistol, brush his teeth, and leaf through a book? And what about the friendly, somewhat intelligent title character from Fido, who goes out of control most of the time, but has enough restraint not to eat the little boy with whom it plays? If zombies can retain even some of their emotions and memories, we can condone neither their wholesale slaughter nor the simplistic moral blamelessness we might otherwise apply to them for killing people.

Draeger suggests an ethical model used for considering individuals with warped or undeveloped emotional drives to consider how vampires might be understood morally: they must still be held accountable, but not necessarily held to the same standard of self-control that well-adjusted people have. The same considerations might apply in the case of the three intelligent zombies under consideration here. Just as we acknowledge drug addiction as a factor in driving criminal behavior, we might acknowledge brain addiction as mitigating circumstances for smart zombies. This complex judgment, however, does not mean that we must excuse or leave unpunished their vile behavior.

Zombie Rights

Once we believe that zombies and humans inhabit the same scale of intelligence, we must acknowledge that zombies have a right to live out their lives under the principles accorded to others on that scale. Our respect for the zombie will doesn’t trump our own drive for life, of course: when we are under siege or threatened by the undead, we need not go out of our way to try not to kill them. Our right to life will always overrule their right to take that life away. But to seek out and kill all zombies seems unethical to me if the zombies have even some semblance of internal motivation.

George Romero revisits this argument in nearly every one of his zombie films to one degree or another, but he brings it out most fully in Land of the Dead. In this film the zombie plague has swept the world and left people struggling to survive in small pockets of safety. The surviving humans treat the zombies with contempt, tormenting them unnecessarily, using them for gladiator-style entertainment, and maiming or killing them for sport during their occasional raids into zombie territory. Romero constructs these scenes with sympathetic undertones, investing the primary zombie’s mute observations of his fellow zombies’ treatment with sadness. The final zombie attack in Land of the Dead feels more like self-defense than invasion – the zombies resemble less the marauding wasteland bikers of The Road Warrior than they do the the pitiful peasants standing up for themselves in The Seven Samurai. The zombies have had a chance to garner our sympathy because Romero gives them space to exist outside the threat they pose to humans. We don’t mind when they then attack the human compound, because it’s self-defense: the zombies were ‘minding their own business’ when the humans attacked.

Grappling to understand zombie rights is more relevant than one might at first suppose: it helps us think about the nature of intelligence, and also understand the obligations we have toward beings with different motives than our own. First, it challenges us to examine more closely the other members of the animal kingdom who show intelligence, and consider whether purpose only resides in a human brain. If we come to see intelligence in a more nuanced way, perhaps we will cultivate a stronger sense of kinship with our animal cousins that will foster a more respectful approach to their right to exercise their will. (Our overwhelming attitude toward other life forms still seems to be one of distinction rather than connection.) Second, trying to consider zombie rights may help prepare us for a possible encounter with another high intelligence, whether man-made or from a flying saucer. By contemplating the motives, actions, and rights of a potentially hostile other, we prepare ourselves for the day we encounter such beings, and we will bring a bigger set of choices to the table when we do. Third, and perhaps most importantly, these zombie stories provoke empathy for an enemy we understand as both intractable and deadly. Perhaps the age-old tendency to dehumanize our military opponents can be undercut somewhat if we come to view even the most horrible enemy – say, one trying to snack on your ribs – as worthy of moral consideration, if not some modicum of respect. Thus we arrive at one of the stranger lessons to be drawn from zombie narratives: to understand another’s mind and motives is to become obligated to that being, at least somewhat.

This discussion also provides useful insight in another way. When I discuss Zombie Honeymoon with my students, we invariably turn to the question of cowardice. Are Danny and Denise, the zombie and his new bride, cowards for behaving the way they do? Early on, Danny recognizes that his actions are wrong, and struggles to kill as few people as he can before they leave for Portugal. Denise, too, clearly agonizes over her husband’s zombie ways. These struggles are where Zombie Honeymoon becomes most poignant, as it mimics the experience of a family trying to cope with an addict in the house. But both Danny and Denise wallow in denial, talking themselves into believing that their impending move will solve their problems, and they avoid dealing with Danny’s uncontrollable bloodlust. Ultimately, both Denise and Danny are to blame for the havoc he brings down around him. They recognize the wrongness of their actions, and yet do nothing to prevent future neighbor-eating.

When a thinking zombie chooses not to eat a human, that zombie exercises the same engine of choice and demonstrates a related (if not identical) capacity for empathy as is held by its human counterparts. And insofar as they demonstrate an inner life beyond the hunger for flesh, the mostly-mindless zombies demonstrate corresponding possibilities for empathy too. If we intend to nurture and grow our understanding of ethics, we must continue to evolve our understanding of other intelligences and the ethical burden we carry for them, even if they mostly just want to gnaw on our bones.

© Dr Brendan Riley 2013

Brendan Riley is an Associate Professor of English at Columbia College, Chicago, where he teaches a course called ‘Zombies in Popular Media’. Despite being a member of the Zombie Research Society Advisory Board, Brendan will likely be eaten in the first wave of the zombie apocalypse while overthinking the ethics of killing zombies. You can learn more about his course at


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