Read this first: The State of Zombie Literature: An Autopsy
While I appreciate a mainstream critic taking a look at a genre topic like Zombies, I also feel somewhat protective of the genre. Terrence Rafferty shows evidence of a certain familiarity with the genre, but not much deep thought or research. It’s exactly the sort of thing I might write myself about a non-specialist interest. If I think that Criticism ™ should have the objective of providing an exploded view of a genre or work’s moving parts, to show you how and why it works, then I think this specific piece has missed the mark. If I think of it instead as essentially a high-level acknowledgement of a phenomenon then I should be more pleased.
Without wanting to get into the classic internet “he says/she says”, I think I can expand usefully on some of the points made in the article. Sadly, I’m not bringing more rigour to the article – I’m not doing additional research, I’m just going to rely on my variant experiences.
Position 1: And to be repelled by a woman just because she has returned from the dead could be considered a tad judgmental.
I think this is a fantastic critique of the genre. It’s probably worth reading the whole original article just for this idea. Rather than a simple escalation though, there may be another force entirely at work here. I think that the anxiety in works like Frankenstein are about an external threat: science. The anxiety underpinning a zombie movie is more deeply existential: what differentiates us from the undead? When Rafferty is horrified that “these nonhuman creatures, with their slack, gaping maws, might be serving as metaphors for actual people” he is getting the point exactly. The zombie movie is all about us: we are the mindless flesh-hungering horde.
Position 2: [Z]ombies can’t plausibly be endowed with rich, complex inner lives.
This is another key insight into the way the Zombie subgenre works. The mindlessness of the zombies means that they cannot be reasoned with, or tricked: there is no tactical challenge. Sheer mindless devouring numbers are the only strategy of the walking dead. Combined with the insight above, that Zombies are inherently a metaphor for humanity, and the message is clear: a person may be smart, but people are dumb.
Another perspective on this statement is that a frequent scene motif in the genre is the confusion between living and dead. It is only the perception of a lack of interior life that reveals the true nature of those freshly turned. There is a philosophical point being made, about the separate existence of the body and the soul.
Position 3: The zombies are plenty scary …. and some of the hard-nosed human survivors are barely less threatening.
Rafferty here is like an explorer sighting the outline of a shore, but not recognising it as Australia. After the initial shock, the greatest danger in most zombie films comes from other humans. The decisions that people make are where the interest arises in the films. People are not only more threatening, but they are more interesting too.