Zombies. They shuffle, the moan, they groan, they eat brains and are walking corpses. But, if you look at how zombies are used in films, games, and television. The Zombie Genre is really just a commentary on PTSD, an ailment found frequently in soldiers who have returned from battle.
I know, that sounds like it’s coming out of left field, right? Zombies are soldiers? MoonSedai, you must be off your rocker!
I promise you, reader, this is going somewhere.
As a movie monster goes, the popularity of the zombie comes in waves. Based on African and Haitian traditions, the Zombie, nzambi, or zombi is the walking dead, a creature resurrected by (usually magical, sometimes biological) means, a mindless warrior that fights in hordes. The Zombie traditionally has no mind of its own, but must instead follow the whims of its “Master,” though recently, popular cinema has decreed zombies a byproduct of a pandemic. Whatever the cause, zombies are quite frightening and fascinating. I’m not going to talk about the History of the zombie, or the religious implications of zombies. While I could talk about it all, I think that much has been said elsewhere of the origins of zombies.
First, let us look at your stereotypical zombie. Let’s call him “Stank.” Regardless of Stank’s personality when he was alive, or the particular style of zombie he is (traditional, fast, smart, whatever), Stank has three things that define who he is.
At some point in his past, he died. His body is a corpse, and he is rotting away. Stank is Dead. D-E-D, Dead. There is no cure for what ails him, he is gone. He has “shuffled off his mortal coil.”
- He is now reanimate. He shambles, walks, fights, bites, and groans, but his dead body is not still. He moves around. Frightening thought.
- Stank is no longer the same person. His body no longer contains that essential spirit of who he was, even though he still looks like his original self. Whatever it was that made Stank who he was before he died, that thing is gone and he is now just “Stank.” Stank is not your gaming buddy, he’s a Zombie.
It’s that last bit I find the most fascinating.
As we see in any number of games and movies, zombies must be dehumanized in order for us to effectively combat them. No one wants to shoot a beloved friend or family member in the head. (My husband and one of his friends have a deal worked out that in case of Zombie Apocalypse, they will shoot each other’s wives- if we become zombies.) The only way we can deal with a zombie is to shoot them in the head, twice. Because it takes a lot to ‘stop’ a zombie.
Now, films typically relay the subconscious (or sometimes conscious) dreams and fears of whatever time they are made. Film studies courses and research will tell you that in a horror film, when a particular villain takes on a supernatural or monstrous aspect, it is to be understood that the creature represents the feared outside element. 
In Nosferatu (1922), the vampire took on strong Semitic traits, and was supposed to represent the Jew in Germany. In the various Frankenstein interpretations, the monster represents a fear of genetic or medical manipulation; how many transplants can one get before a person is no longer their original self? Werewolves are symbolic of Man vs Himself: How can a man (or woman) hope to battle and defeat the monster inside. Evil wizards often represent scientists; evil witches often just represent strong-minded women. These are all things that society fears on some level.
Zombies can be either victims of PTSD, like a returning disabled soldier, or they can be representations of enemy troops in war.
In a time of war, the zombie can be the enemy troops combating the soldiers in battle. They fight in waves, hordes. They are a never ending threat, coming out of the “darkness” or the “cemetery” (read: Jungle or desert) and are a non-stop terrorizing fear for the victim/soldier. They surround the area of safety, are a threat to the survival of the group.
It is no accident George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was produced and played during the bloodiest and most horrifying year of Vietnam: 1968 (the year of the Tet offensive).
Then there’s the other idea of the PTSD/returning disabled soldier. This is the idea that I really think is more telling.
We don’t exactly *fear* our returning soldiers, not exactly. But to someone who has never served in the military, or never been in combat, it can be terrifying to talk with a returning Veteran.
War changes a person. And sometimes, that change is on a physical level: there are several war injuries: amputees, soldiers caught in fires, soldiers injured by shrapnel, as well as soldiers who have come in contact with Agent Orange or radiation, or some other physically disfiguring accident. There is also Gulf War Syndrome, as well as PTSD/Shell-shock.
Take a look at Lt. Dan Taylor (Forest Gump) or Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July). They become withdrawn, depressed, and miserable because of their injuries. In the case of Kovic, his family didn’t know how to live with him, he’d become a completely different person, in their minds. They are Living Zombies! Both of them lost body parts, both of them struggle with their identity.
Just like my buddy Stank, they’ve had trauma.
Lt. Dan and Kovic went through something traumatic. Stank died, that is pretty traumatic. They are not really dead (although they both probably wished they were for a time).
Their bodies still moved, but they were missing crucial pieces. While Lt. Dan and Ron Kovic were missing pieces of their bodies, PTSD victims are missing a piece of their selves.
They were both also different. Although they both eventually found their way to cope: Lt. Dan after a hurricane, Kovic through the peace movement, the two were permanently physically and emotionally changed. Whatever it was that made them who they were was gone, and they became new people. Just Like Stank: Lt. Dan and Kovic were not the same after their trauma, they were changed. The essential spark was gone, a new person returned.
Living with a person who suffers with PTSD can be a nightmare: you have to step lightly to avoid triggering memories of the trauma, there are nightmares, mood swings, may attempt to self-medicate (through drugs and alcohol). The drugs and alcohol can leave them groaning, incoherent. They feel like “Walking Zombies.”
And the family members can feel powerless, like they can do nothing but watch them suffer.
Although the help for a zombie is different for help for PTSD: Zombies can be shot in the head. We don’t shoot our veterans, we can only help as much as they will let us, and hope we can help them find that better resolution.