Why Zombies Eat Brains


The other night a friend of mine asked me the age-old question: why do zombies eat brains?

History tells us some things about zombie lore, or at least, that of the dead coming to life. The Roman Tables (the official record of the Holy Roman Empire) record that an entire graveyard of zombies also rose at the same time of the resurrection of Christ. Lore from other societies links giganticism with cannibalism, such as the Paiute legend of red-haired giants who were their ancestors. This lives on in the modern idea of zombies having unstoppable strength.

Modern brain-dining as depicted in film and television is primartily instinctive. Violence is in the amygdala, the ancient part of the brain. The id of zombies is on hyper-mode. The parts of their brains (the super-ego) which appeal to order and reason have been incapacitated.

Director George Romero provided us with the clearest view of zombies of this nature. When we talk about zombies we are generally speaking about the Romero version, which is the basis of the modern concept of zombies. A slow-moving, staggering, drooling, (mostly) mindless, neurocannibalistic, decaying and crazed zombie-crat is the norm. And the zombies do not perish if they starved for brains, which is somewhat surprising. His film Dawn of the Dead took on consumer-capitalism by saying that people are like zombies who mindlessly shop for things they don’t really need, pointlessly socialize, and follow the current order of things.

David Cronenberg took this a step further than Romero in his early film Shivers, in which the zombies not only want to eat your brains, but they also want to copulate with their victims while eating them alive. In Day of the Dead, Romero tried to ask the question of whether zombies could be taught to reason beyond their base instincts. The scientist in that film trains a zombie to do simple things like answer a phone. But he finds that it takes too much time and too many resources to be worth the effort.

These portrayals show us the economic and sociological basis of the zombie metaphor. They eat brains because life is a zero-sum game. Some win, and therefor some must lose. Just like in the real economy some cant get decent food or healthcare or security and they die quick on the streets or prison, or live long in misery and isolation. Witness the #BlackLivesMatter movement, like zombies, going around in herds threatening public and private property. Threatening people’s rights to life, liberty, and property because their base instincts tell them to be violent.

Meanwhile others (“the global elite” or “the one percent”) are living the high life and are immune to society’s decline until the final collapse. Romero captured that with his rich gated high rise community called Fiddler’s Green in Land of the Dead. In this, he revealed his criticism of modern society: mass conformity and going through the motions, hoping that emulating past successes will reproduce them, while consuming everything in sight and possessed by a pathological need to destroy intelligence and create more people like them.

Compare this to other statements of the robotic nature of modern times, such as Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” or the entire oeuvre of Devo, Ministry or KMFDM. In these views, the zombies are less biological than robotic in their obedience of what others are doing. They view the creation of masses as the root of this mechanical behavior. Romero’s zombies are similarly products of their time and its mass culture of consumerism, equality, and social power.

The original Night of the Living Dead was unique for its time in having cast a black male in the lead role. He survived the whole film only to be shot dead by militia group. That ending was purposely created to demonstrate that the series is a subversive critique of the capitalist system, which is also the only system proven to work without bringing about collapse to its host nation. That said, however, in capitalism some must win and some must therefore lose. Those who lose will have their brains eaten.

If they survive the angry mobs and zero-sum games of the economy, then they must look out for those such as the government who seek to “protect and serve.” If they mistake you for a zombie then you will be shot. This shows us the metaphorical power of the zombie mythos: by adopting the only method that works, we create vast masses of losers who have destroyed their own brains and now seek to destroy yours. No wonder Scott Fitzgerald summed up human existence with “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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26 thoughts on “Why Zombies Eat Brains”

  1. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

    This wasn’t all that bad.
    You have redeemed yourself somewhat.

  2. Ggallin1776 says:

    You forgot the maggots album by the plasmatics.

    Classic line “all you do is fuck & eat but that’s what we do too”.

  3. Billy Foss says:

    “That’s another one for the fire.”

    I was just thinking about that last scene today. I never considered that it too could be a critique of the capitalist system, though that carries more weight than any racial commentary interpretation. Is there any evidence that this was Romero’s intention, or is that your personal opinion?

  4. John D. says:

    Good summation which I enjoyed reading. But I admittedly have mixed feelings now about the zombie as portrayed in popular culture. The zombie has eaten its own rotting flesh as it has made its way more and more into mainstream culture, digesting all that used to make it so effective as a carrier of social commentary. It has eaten nearly every morsel and gristle of meaning off its own bones. Through time certain monsters lose their power to disturb, turning ironically into fetishized objects. It seems to me everything is reversed now, turned inside out, and people themselves have become the consumers of zombies!

  5. Internatio reloaded says:

    Economy is not a zero-sum game, people produce stuff and it doesn’t always die with them you know.

    Stick to your zombie movies but don’t try to bring up politics, your brain would hurt.

  6. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

    One thing, though. You said that a capitalist system is the only demonstrably stable system.
    I want to raise three counter points:

    The tyranny of kings and emperors was stable for a long time.
    Before that, there were in the north the houses with their huskarls.
    And earlier than that, there were co-operative tribes who hunted, foraged, and cultivated the land, basically in anarchy (I know that this only works on small scales).

    1. The tyranny of kings and emperors was stable for a long time.

      And that, folks, is the bottom line. Either you figure out who is good and give power to them, or you see who seizes power and assume they are good.

      1. Ludvig B.B (vOddy) says:

        “figure out who is good and give power to them”

        This is a problem with no perfect solutions, like the problem of tuning.
        You can tune for some perfect intervals, but not all of them.’

        However, we can definitely do better than we are doing now, or have ever done in recorded history.

        1. This is a problem with no perfect solutions, like the problem of tuning.
          You can tune for some perfect intervals, but not all of them.

          The conservative notion that addresses this:

          There are no universal (i.e. equally applied in all cases) solutions.

          There are only principles, like the notion of a mathematically perfect interval, with many particularized implementations.

          When conservatism drifts from this, like neoconservatism, National Socialism, White Nationalism or pop Christianity, it becomes mentally retarded. Paul Ryan is probably the best example of this, but really, the Republicans are the Stupid Party.

          1. Ludvig B.B (vOddy) says:

            Interesting. Maybe I am more conservative than I had assumed.

            1. The basic idea behind conservatism is to conserve what promoted excellence. You might recognize this as a hybrid of realism and elitism. It is very metal, but unfortunately most conservatives are clowns, and so drive metalheads away because we hate unjust authority, jobs, moralizing mass spiritualism, etc.

              1. OliveFox says:

                Jobs? Metalheads hate jobs? Missed me on that one.

                1. John D. says:

                  Brett is a pipe-smoking aristocrat. If he’s a worker, he tills the fields in his mind. I figure by jobs he means grunt work, work done by those with a slave-morality and mentality. You won’t catch Brett working at McDonald’s. It goes without saying that Brett displays strong work ethic. He’s clearly a hard worker. To be a worker for a noble cause and to do a job against one’s will are two different things. He’s not a lazy thinker, a sponger, a parasite. Absolutely to the contrary. I’m beginning to understand you better, OliveFox. You don’t read very closely and understand what someone has written in its context, the particular point being made. Like a heat-seeking missile you zero in on certain words. You then pounce and jerk the person around who first used those words, without respect for the particular way in which they were used. Frustrating guy, but at the same time, I appreciate your sense of humor. You yourself are obviously very smart too, it’s just this thing you do which is frustrating. By the way, I’m 47 years old. I’m no spring chicken and I’m certainly no silly goose.

                  1. Thank you for the kind words, and I wanted to add: I consider myself a text worker.

                  2. OliveFox says:

                    Ohhh no you don’t! You’re not goading me into an argument that scales the extreme length of the right side of the comment section.

                    1. I





                  3. mordor guy says:

                    I greatly enjoy your posts on the analysis of metal and folk, John.

                2. “No jobs!” – Abbath

                  1. OliveFox says:

                    Touche. What a cool zine that was!

    2. Rainer Weikusat says:

      One thing, though. You said that a capitalist system is the only demonstrably stable system.
      I want to raise three counter points:

      The tyranny of kings and emperors was stable for a long time.

      This is just too eye-watering. The usual/ classic definition (going back to Marx) of capitalism would be »private ownership of the means of production«, historically, the »capital« necessary for building and running a factory. That’s not a governance model. Eg, despite the full name of the NSDAP was »National-Socialist German Workers’ Party« (&raquo:National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei«) and it grew out of the DAP (»German Workers’ Party«) and had an anti-capitalist wing/ program until 1926 (while Georg Strasser was a force in the party), the governance model employed by the Nazis was a tyrannis (see below) which co-existed/ collborated with an economy based on capitialism.

      In classic theory (Aristoteles), there are three different governance models and two varieties for each of them, a negative and a positive one.

      Rule of one, positive form monarchy, negative tyrannis

      Rule of a few, positive aristocracy (»rule of the best«), negative oligarchy (»rule of a clique«)

      Rule of all, positive democracy (»rule of the people«), negative ochlocracy(»rule of the mob«)

      Consequenty, a king can either be a monarch or a tyrant and can control a capitalist society (eg, England) or one whose economy is organized in some other way (eg, mercantilism in France during the rule of Louis XIV).

      I’ve presumably messed up the formatting badly somehwere. A preview function would be very helpful here.

      1. Ludvig B.B (vOddy) says:

        With a wide enough (but not unreasonable) definition of capitalism, I suppose that you could reasonably assert that after society reaches a certain scale, capitalism is the only system which has proven to be stable so far.

        1. Rainer Weikusat says:

          What’s »stable« here? Was already there before my birth and the other system I personally experienced seems to have gone away doesn’t quite cut it in this respect. We should be looking at a proven track record of at least a some hundred years, say, 500, before judging something as »stable«. 500 years ago, it was 1516 and things have changed quite a bit since then. If you had told someone at that time that The Church would fracture within the next ten years, he had probaly laughed at you (if were lucky).

          I’m intuitively convinced that a self-organizing, chaotic system like a competitive market will beat any human’s ability to do sensible minute-organization of anything even remotely complicated (much simpler software systems tend to be full of unexpected errors) but while I cannot imagine how one could exist without capitalism, one of the first things capitalists usually do after seizing control of a state is abolish markets because competition is bad for profits, so, things aren’t that simple.

          For the similar reason, I’m also conservative by design, that is, I’m in favour of keeping what we have — it’s really little enough already — only change that if it can’t be avoided and even then very carefully lest we end up with something worse than what we started from: I don’t believe in “let’s worry about the details later” revolutionary improvements: The inevitable outcome will be a prolonged mess and finally, »the parting on the right is now a parting on the left«. But since I’m not sixty yet, my idea of “what he have” is a bit different from the one the mad baby boomers aka hippies usually harbour nowadays (whose sole accomplishment so far is really the porn industry).

          Lastly, big questions of this kind are really irrelevant: I tend my garden, try to keep my living room floor clean, get my job done and strive to coexist peacefully with the people around me. That’s enough for my limited abilities and means. Music is much more interesting and real.

          Remark related to that: Should someone ever be in need of a real, copy-the-surface without the least bit of understanding” ‘swedeath’ (horrible word) band, Deathrite would suggest itself (to me): That’s an HM2 band from eastern Germany and the only notable thing about it (I noted so far) are the copied Entombed riffs.

          1. John D. says:

            You’re a solid thinker, Rainer. I enjoy reading your considerations.

  7. BlackPhillip says:

    You spend the better part of a week trashing this site and then you submit this passive-aggressive drivel. Cool.

  8. C.M. says:

    Here are a couple of essays I found recently, about the resurgance in popularity that zombies have experienced, as they’ve become the benchmark fiction monster of the last decade. You know how Frankenstein’s monster symbolized the percieved amoral irresponsibility of scientific advancement and the fear of what horrors it could introduce, and how Godzilla was the avatar of nuclear fear. Zombies represent the fear of our fellow people, who look like us and live in the same place but are too stupid to communicate and seemingly programmed for hostility… unless you become one of them.



  9. Rainer Weikusat says:

    “Thus spake Marie Antoinette” …

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