guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 28 August 2012 05.16 EDT
Zombies unlike vampires, or even werewolves, have no glamour. Since George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, zombies in popular culture have been understood as the dead returned to life with an insatiable desire for human flesh. They are slow-moving, ugly, relentless and mindless. I have always been especially scared by them because, more than other monster, they represent our most unthinking and relentlessly hungry selves. They are interested in one thing only: consumption. And they can never be filled.
George Romero's later film Dawn of the Dead is set primarily in a shopping mall. Many of the zombies continue to push shopping carts around the mall and act as if they are still alive. Their prime remaining instinct is to shop. Though made in 1978, its vision of basic human instinct as "shop till you drop" – even if you're undead – was prescient, and troublingly accurate about rapacious consumerism.
I sense that part of the reason for the current fad for zombie walks, lies in an unconscious recognition of the way in which post-industrial, consumerist culture wishes to reduce us to narrow modes of identity. Yes, the zombie walkers want to have fun, but they also want to expose the ways in which society damages our sense of self. In an age where many lives, especially those of the young, are constrained by long-term unemployment, and many who have a job find it unchallenging and routine, the zombie metaphor has genuine power.
Words are one of the defining characteristic of our humanity. Zombies are wordless yet constantly moan and make noise. Our consumerist age seems to make words – the very things that should enrich us – become empty, untrustworthy and unsatisfying. They do not nourish us. An ad campaign tells us that vegetables are "flavour-fresh" or invites us to "live the dream" by owning a pair of expensive trainers. But the "flavour-fresh" apple turns out in our mouth to have no more flavour than the trainers.
A mark of our zombified age is the extent to which our words are dust in our mouths and do not nourish us. We multiply words hoping that we will be satisfied. As Barbara Brown Taylor once put it we have a "famine of excess" – we have an excess of words, and yet because they contain no nutrients, no matter how much we seek to feed on them we are not satisfied. Like zombies, we are never satisfied and hunger after the next "meal".
Insofar as we are living in an age which seeks to zombify us and make us relentlessly hungry, the church – seen so often as wilfully obscure and out of touch – clearly offers the promise of new life and hope. For at the heart of the Christian hope is fullness of life. The "bread of life" is precisely the food which satisfies; Jesus is the "living water" which fills us with a spring to eternal Life. The very nature of the kingdom – which prioritises the poor and the vulnerable and invites us to be our true selves in Christ – is a work of resistance against the emptiness of rapacious consumerism. This is good news in its rawest form.
One of the silly questions asked by those who enjoy the zombie trope is, "Where would you go if the zombie apocalypse happened? What would you do to survive?" Inevitably, many of the answers involve heading to the kind of places that might ensure one has sufficient weapons and supplies to stave off attacks. Equally, many folk would aim to get in the sturdiest, fastest vehicle they could find and head off to the wilderness. No one heads to church. And yet, insofar as the zombie metaphor has purchase on what modern society does to people, the church may yet be precisely our very best hope and also the kind of refuge it often historically has been.