Your stoner friend pointed this out years ago, and it probably blew your mind: Zombies are symbols for Western culture's blind adherence to the consumer economy. [Inhale, pass.] It's true, man! Think about it: They stagger around mindlessly, consuming everything they come across, as if the world is totally normal even though it's collapsing all around them. [Exhale, cough.] George Romero made this rich metaphor totally overt with Dawn of the Dead, which was set in a frickin' shopping mall, for Christ's sake! Anyway, that's why zombies became so popular over the last decade—consumer culture is out of control, and the zombies are, like, our twisted reflection.
All due respect to your friend—I took a film appreciation class once and it totally changed my life, too—but the stoned commentary about zombies being a commentary on our culture is more of a commentary on the shallowness of cultural commentary itself.
You know what the zombies in Colson Whitehead's new novel, Zone One, symbolize?
Dead people who get bitten by dead people, become infected with some awful virus, and then begin wandering around, trying to bite living people. Except some of the zombies in Zone One don't do that; some of them just try to repeat the same simple task they were doing before they died, over and over again—some light food-service or janitorial work, maybe—or just sit down, staring into space. These are called stragglers. As in:
The copy machine dominated the back room, buttons grubbed by fingerprints, paper tray sticking out like a fat green tongue. The straggler's right hand held up the cover and he bent slightly. Like all stragglers, he did not flinch at their approach. He peered into the glassed-off guts of the machine, as still as the dust, bent paper clips, overnight-mail packaging, and other assorted leavings in the room.
Mark Spitz—that's not his real name, just a nickname that fell on him like ash after the apocalypse—and a small team of human volunteers are combing through what's left of New York City, cleaning out the stragglers so that living, breathing humans can reoccupy the streets, reclaiming the capital city of the world. They name the above straggler Ned the Copy Boy before they splatter his cold brains all over "the most depressing room in the entire city."
The flip side of that now-dulled coin your stoner friend handed you years ago often remains unexamined. If zombies in the movies are supposed to stand for modern consumer culture, then the humans who fight the zombies represent wildness and freedom and everything that art desperately wants to believe is valuable about the human spirit. If the movie stretches on long enough, the living start to resemble cave people, freed from the death grip of social niceties and etiquette. Sometimes the humans make it out alive in the end and sometimes they don't, but that's not the point. The point those movies make, the reason they are so popular, is that they bestow on the viewer an exultation: The belief that somewhere, hiding deep inside all of us, is the potential for the freedom and nobility that survivors always display in zombie movies. If things went south, we'd make it. We'd pull through.
The joke that Whitehead pulls with Zone One is making Mark Spitz and the band of survivors as mundane as we are. They're not heroes—they're just a sanitation crew, cleaning up long after the heroic Marines have paraded through the city and done all the hard work. They work for a bureaucratic government based out of Buffalo that requires them to wear uniforms emblazoned with cartoon armadillos, due to confusing corporate sponsorship deals that Buffalo swears are integral to reestablishing the world that was, before "Last Night." (The sweepers also can't eat or drink any non-sponsored products they may encounter in the city. Mark Spitz and his coworkers grumble, but they go along with this pointless edict—at least they have some guidance. In other parts of the world not protected by Buffalo's wearying, apersonal government, whole economies are built around juice boxes.) The reader almost wants to side with the quiet zombies in Zone One—among the humans, the content of your character doesn't matter, because "a rusty machete and a bag of almonds made you a person of substance."
None of Colson Whitehead's books are like any of Colson Whitehead's other books. He began, over 15 years ago, with a delicious genre riff called The Intuitionist, set in a futuristic New York City in which two dueling schools of elevator inspectors—fact-based Empiricists and emotion-based Intuitionists—battle for dominance. Then he abandoned sci-fi and told a story about the cutthroat world of stamp collecting and the vacant state of journalism surrounding an unveiling of a new postage stamp design in John Henry Days. As with Mark Spitz, we never learn the name of many of Whitehead's main characters—the unnamed protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt is a high-paid "nomenclature expert" called in to rename a down-on-its-luck town with a messy history. (The book is also an uproarious joke about the institutional cruelty of "flesh-colored" Band-Aids.) With Sag Harbor, Whitehead delved into what felt like memoir with a sun-soaked, relatively high-spirited reminiscence about a small clique of black teens living in an upscale beach resort town for New York City's wealthiest—and, for the most part, whitest—citizens.
Zone One features Whitehead's wry sense of satire (the treatment for Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder is just as sappy and inappropriate as the diagnosis), and beautiful sentences spilled throughout the book that describe the ruined majesty of New York and human civilization will bite at your throat when you least expect them to. ("There had been laws once; to abide by their faint murmuring, despite the interregnum, was to believe in their return. To believe in reconstruction.")
If I had to choose one Whitehead book that most closely resembled Zone One, it would be a slender book of essays published eight years ago called The Colossus of New York. Colossus provides a home for some of Whitehead's most beautiful writing, a series of meditations about his ongoing love affair with fickle, ridiculous New York City. "I'm here because I was born here, and thus ruined for anywhere else," the first sentence begins, ending with an accusatory "I don't know about you." And a page later: "You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it."
Whitehead still loves his private New York City of Zone One, even with her eyes blackened and her teeth knocked out; he still sings about how beautiful she is even as the breath is being squeezed out of her lungs. It's that one little bit of truth he can't seem to let go of, the thing that keeps Zone One from plunging head-on into horror and despair. Even when Whitehead casts his formidable skills to the business of describing a putrid, rotting corpse, he can stop to appreciate the gleam of white shining through—that solid, hard truth of bone lying somewhere down beneath.