I read with interest the Paul Cantor article about the meaning of the surprisingly durable pop-culture crazy for zombies that Daniel McCarthy linked to on Friday. And I think he’s basically right that the craze represents a fantasy of individualism, in which the institutions of civilization fail and our native human (or, better, American) capacity for invention and self-reliance comes to the fore. But I want to point out that this represents a considerable impoverishment of the power of the zombie as a mythical antagonist. And I think comparisons to the classic western reveal how poorly we recall that genre so long after the closing of the frontier.

As I’ve pointed out before, classically the zombie represents death itself, and as such the zombie hordes cannot be defeated. From representing death, the zombie may ramify to represent a kind of living death, whether it is the surrender of the soul to infernal powers in the case of “black magic”-induced zombies, or a metaphor for life within civilization, where we are reduced from citizens to mindless consumers. Turning the zombie hordes into an enemy to be defeated robs them of all metaphorical power in their own right. They are no longer us; they are a character-less other, existing only in order to bring out our best qualities. Their popularity in their current incarnation feels to me like evidence of a descent into solipsism.

As for comparisons to the classic western, Cantor seems to be agreeing with Quentin Tarantino, who memorably declared he “hated” the work of John Ford because Ford treated the American Indian enemy like zombies to be mowed down. That strikes me as a pretty weak reading of Ford, though.

Take a look at a movie like “Fort Apache.” The Apaches aren’t zombies – mindless hordes bent on destruction. They are an adversary – but an intelligent one. The Henry Fonda character sees them entirely as an canvas upon which to paint his own character, rather than a problem to be understood, and managed intelligently. As a consequence, he gets himself killed and his men cut to pieces. The irony, of course, is that this fiasco prompts the Federal Government to take a much more forceful line against the Apaches, with a consequence that Fonda appears in retrospect to be a pioneering hero. But anyone watching the film with his eyes open can’t miss that it is an irony. The whites ultimately triumphed not because they demonstrated superior intelligence or character; they ultimately triumphed because of vastly superior force.

I suppose the zombie analogy works passably well for “Stagecoach.” But that’s not the only John Ford western.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Ford was interested in the American Indian perspective. He was writing a story about whites – and the forging of the American nation on the western frontier (which is why the Civil War looms so large in the background in so many of his movies). But there’s a big difference between saying he portrayed the Indians as enemies, and hence not the object of moral concern, and that he saw them as zombies, and hence not human.

Which is what worries me about the argument that zombie movies are the “new westerns.” If we are uncomfortable with the traditional western because of the role it assigns to the aboriginal Americans, and this is because we recognize the massive injustices committed by our nation and our government in the course of our conquest and settlement of the continent, well and good. But it might be that we’re uncomfortable for the opposite reason – that we prefer to see our enemies as truly non-human. As orcs, or zombies.

And we still do have enemies, after all. But those enemies are human, with human, comprehensible motivations.

The other problem with the comparison to the classic western is that westerns are the story of advancing civilization. They are tragic – Ford’s westerns in particular – because they describe virtues that necessarily put themselves out of business. The self-reliant individual is on the frontier to make it possible for civilization to advance. Once it advances, though, that individual is made obsolete. This is the whole point of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” but it’s a thread running through his oeuvre in general.

The modern zombie film, by contrast, is not a lament for the lost frontier that prompts us to recall its lost virtues, so that we can be better men today (and better Cold Warriors), but a fantasy of freedom from civilization’s constraints, and in particular from the constraints of dealing with other people. We form our team and then it’s us against them. We have the moral satisfaction of feeling outnumbered, but of being objectively superior to our enemies in every way. And then we win. Our love of zombie wars is very much of a piece with the kind of surging national purpose that followed on the 9-11 attacks, and that made possible our misadventure in Iraq.

And if the political subtext of the classic western was the Cold War – the anxiety that, on the one hand, our virtu had decayed since the days of the Old West, while on the other hand the suspicion that becoming an Empire of necessity was taking us even further away from those days – I think Marian Coombs gets the political subtext of the contemporary zombie movie about right:

Some have explained the zombie-apocalypse phenomenon as fear of alien invasion or global plague or even plain old urban anomie. But Max Brooks, author of World War Z, notes that humans have always had good reason to fear the horde: huge, human, and hideously hungry. Right now this horde is our fellow man in the form of millions faced with starvation in the developing world. In the age of mass transportation and communications, they are no longer content to sit and wait for death. “They” are coming. The real-world images are haunting: gaunt figures wearing ragged clothing, disheveled, scrambling over fences and clawing through tunnels, lurking in the darkness waiting for a break.

Where’s Quentin Tarantino’s critique when we actually need it?

Personally, I think we created better post-apocalyptic stories back when we were really afraid the world could end with the push of a button. This movie, for example, has lots of problems, but it is weirder and creepier than any modern zombie story I’m familiar with.