Sep 17 2010 3:32pm

Beware of Zombies Bearing Metaphorical Significance

(or, Zombies! But Not White Zombie)

Several years ago, on the occasion of a particularly misguided review of Kelly Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” (“...and those zombies—are they supposed to be a metaphor?”), Scott Westerfeld had this to say about zombies, stories, and science fiction:

“Allow me to explain... Sure, zombies can ‘be a metaphor.’ They can represent the oppressed, as in Land of the Dead, or humanity’s feral nature, as in 28 Days Later. Or racial politics or fear of contagion or even the consumer unconscious (Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead)... But really, zombies are not ’supposed to be metaphors.’ They’re supposed to be friggin’ zombies. They follow the Zombie Rules: they rise from death to eat the flesh of the living, they shuffle in slow pursuit (or should, anyway), and most important, they multiply exponentially. They bring civilization down, taking all but the most resourceful, lucky and well-armed among us, whom they save for last. They make us the hunted; all of us.

That’s the stuff zombies are supposed to do. Yes, they make excellent symbols, and metaphors, and have kick-ass mythopoeic resonance to boot. But their main job is to follow genre conventions, to play with and expand the Zombie Rules, to make us begin to see the world as a place colored by our own zombie contingency plans. [...]

Stories are the original virtual reality device; their internal rules spread out into reality around us like a bite-transmitted virus, slowly but inexorably consuming its flesh. They don’t just stand around ’being metaphors’ whose sole purpose is to represent things in the real world; they EAT the real world."

-Scott Westerfeld, via Making Light

We’ve discussed the way the speculative elements are integral to science fiction stories before. It’s something that most people who would call themselves fans of the genres feel strongly about—if you deny the fantastic its existence within the constructed reality of the story, you’re not only missing out on much of the enjoyment and effect of such fiction, you’re actually reading it wrong.

Westerfeld’s formulation of this idea stuck with me—clearly, as here I am referencing it five years later. It really does seem to explain the difference between the way a fan reads a science fiction story, and the way someone hostile to or uninterested in the genre reads it. If you don’t want your world changed just a little, if you don’t want the edges gnawed a little ragged, if you’re not interested in a few impossibilities turning up in the peripheries of vision, speculative fiction may not have that much to offer you. We’ll take the social commentary and psychological exploration and all that, but we do so more fully because the story truly captures us—consumes us—on its own level, in its own terms.

So it makes sense that when folks from within the science fiction community turn their delicious brains to the ”why?” of zombies, as in John Joseph Adams’ recent roundtable, they’re not (or not only) thinking about what zombies mean, but how zombies work. The zombies qua zombies are the facts; all else is interpretation and analysis, and arguably secondary.

This is as it should be for an intelligent consideration of most genre media featuring zombies—the novels, comics, movies and games that have been so overrun. However, there is, perhaps, one realm of zombie media where searching for metaphor as a first impulse isn’t necessarily a terrible idea. In music, I’d go out on a (slightly unsteady) limb to say that suggestion, impressionism, image, and metaphor are the default modes for song lyrics. It’s a rarity to encounter a song where you would know, from the three-to-four minutes of the song alone, exactly and specifically what the singer is referring to in every line. Interpretation is what makes a song relevant to us.

And “name that zombie metaphor” is a pretty fun game to play.


Therefore: it is with the utmost respect for zombies’ kick-ass mythopoeic resonance—and for the artists’ kick-ass tunes—that I offer an addendum to Jason Heller and Jesse Bullington’s amazing zombie playlist. Here are eight more excellent zombie songs (some obscure, some the opposite) for your consideration and enjoyment. And these ones come with metaphor-guage attached.

Ever hear the expression “earworm?”


Do the Bruce Campbell
YTCracker & MC Lars
The zombies are a 35% metaphor for: lyrical domination of other rappers
Concept/sound: This is our horrorcore song, because it has zombies on it.
Exemplary line: “Fresh from the cemetery I’m a terrifying sight, with little bits of bloody flesh stuck to my mic.”
[note: lyrics definitely NSFW]

Nellie McKay
The zombies are a 85% metaphor for: sleepwalking through the Bush years
Concept/sound: When I want contemporary relevance, I will ask for it in a cabaret jazz tune.
Exemplary line: “Should you plan to travel way down South, woman to woman, I gotta tell you ’bout... a curse.”

She’s a Zombie
The Fall-Outs
The zombies are a 30% metaphor for: really persistent ex-girlfriends
Concept/sound: Perhaps I cannot discourage this lurching lady from bothering me, but I can certainly complain about it with some catchy, sloppy, garage-punk.
Exemplary line: “I think she’s a zombie, woah-oh. Don’t want her ’round me, no-oh.”

Re: Your Brains
Jonathan Coulton
The zombies are a 15% metaphor for: mindlessly hostile office bureaucracy
Concept/sound: Middle management’s been zombified before you’ve had your morning coffee, but at least they can put together a singalong power-pop song about it.
Exemplary line: “I’d like to help you, Tom, in any way I can. I sure appreciate the way you’re working with me. I’m not a monster, Tom—well, technically I am. I guess I am...”

They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhhh!  
Sufjan Stevens
The zombies are a 60% metaphor for: past regrets or something wimpy like that
Concept/sound: Sensitive indie zombies get their bite from a wicked bassline.
Exemplary line: “I know, I know my time has passed. I’m not so young, I’m not so fast. I tremble with the nervous thought—of having been, at last, forgot.”

The Living Dead
Phantom Planet
The zombies are a 40% metaphor for: kids these days
Concept/sound: Band behind the sunny theme to The O.C. offers a clanging anthem more suited to AMC’s upcoming The Walking Dead.
Exemplary line: “I got myself together, just like you said. I’m conquering this city with the living dead.”

Zombie Manifesto
Zombies! Organize!!
The zombies are a 50% metaphor for: the proletariat
Concept/sound: Baby-voiced, surprisingly chill Marxist zombie hip-hop to foment laid-back revolution at the goth club. Yes, this is the weirdest song on the list.
Exemplary Line: “We want to send capitalism into a tailspin; eating up the rich will be our sweetest retribution.”

If You Shoot the Head You Kill the Ghoul
Jeffrey Lewis
The zombies are a 0% metaphor for: zombies
Concept/sound: Prolific lo-fi anti-folk singer and comic artist broadcasts zombocalypse awareness PSA.
Exemplary line: “We don’t know if it’s radiation or if it’s something biblical, but we know if you shoot the head you kill the ghoul.”


Have a take on zombies-as-metaphor vs. zombies-as-zombie? Have a quibble with my (INFALLIBLE) metaphormometer? Want to take your own metaphormometer to other zombie media, or have even more zombie songs to share? Please, shout ‘em out in the comments—and don’t forget to let us know what sort of symbolism to watch out for.

Joshua Starr will have kick-ass mythopoeic resonance, one day.

1. soru
The Cranberries

The zombies are a 85% metaphor for: The Troubles, as seen from Dublin.
Concept/sound: grunge-pop
Exemplary line:
"It's the same old theme since 1916
In your head, in your head they're still fighting"
Joshua Starr
3. JStarr
@1: Ah yes. I was always at a loss to figure out whether there was an actual zombie to be used as a metaphor in that song--is it the "you" being addressed, made a "zombie" by trauma?--but it's certainly a high-quality song either way.
4. Gorbag
I am grieviously disappointed that God Save the Queen has not made it onto your list.

The tune was, after all, according to William Carey, son of its (alleged) composer Henry Carey, composed by Henry Carey in 1745, a year and more after his death in 1743. Thus it should take an honourable place as one of the only songs to have ghoul - a true ghoul song, in other words.

A re-animated Bob Seeger might complain:

Just take those old records off the shelf
I'll sit and listen to 'em by myself
Today's music ain 't got the same ghoul
I like that old time rock 'n' roll

Still like that old time rock'n' roll
That kind of music just soothes the ghoul
I reminisce about the days of old
With that old time rock 'n' roll

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