Deconstructing the Zombie: A Look at Junot Díaz’s “Monstro”

Helen Neves

Stories of the apocalypse have been something that fascinate people for centuries. In recent decades, one popular tool for storytellers has been the zombie. Like others before him, Junot Díaz also uses them in his short story “Monstro.” Unlike contemporary depictions of zombies and the disasters surrounding them, Díaz employs them in a different way. Shifting away from common depictions with zombies and their destruction being the main focus, Díaz deconstructs the zombie apocalypse genre through his focus on the mundane lives of those not yet affected by the incoming apocalypse, leaving their reactions to seeing the horrors first-hand unknown as he changes what it even means for a zombie to be a zombie.

Readers are likely familiar with popular depictions of zombies from the last few decades. TV shows, movies, comics, books, and videogames with examples such as The Walking Dead, World War Z, and The Last of Us have found massive commercial and critical success. Despite this popularity and their place as a classic monster, there’s very little explanation of what actually qualifies as a traditional zombie. Emma Jane Austin’s doctoral thesis “A Strange Body of Work: the Cinematic Zombie” provides a point of reference as she explores in her work how the defining characteristics of zombies are not as static as American zombie films and fans may make it seem. As she says, zombies are “how fear is structured within cultures, positioning the Zombie as an embodiment of the abject and, ‘other’, placing the creature as both an extension and a development of previous horror narratives” (Austin 7). This sentiment seems to ring true for most zombie depictions regardless of their popularity.

Díaz challenges popular notions of what zombies are in “Monstro.” A full explanation of their origins is never given. Perhaps this would have been explored if he had gone on to flesh “Monstro” out into a full novel, but at the time of this analysis it continues to be a stand-alone short story. The infection (known as La Negrura) is described to cause massive black pustules on the body of those who have it, and the ability to fuse victims together if they stay too close together (Díaz 2-3). Comparisons to black mold/fungus are common as well. These descriptions may remind readers of depictions that are seen in The Last of Us, with its cordyceps-inspired zombies. Already straying away from the genre’s tropes though, Díaz’s victims don’t become all-out zombies overnight. They don’t turn to violence until much later, and cannibalism is only mentioned at the very end. Instead, Díaz paints a picture of marginalized groups of people in pain who have been neglected as the disease spreads until it’s too late to stop. Race, class, and region all play a part in why they were ignored. This sentiment is explicit from the beginning of the story, as the narrator comments that people found it funny that there was a disease that could make Haitians blacker (Díaz 1). Neglect is a core part of “Monstro,” and something that isn’t usually found in the works considered the canon of zombie apocalypse. The horror of zombies spawns from their status as being an ‘other’ (Austin 7), but in Díaz’s story, the first victims were already othered due to their status. This was an intentional part of his creative process, with him saying in an interview that, “a couple years ago I got to thinking that our world has so many blind spots, so many places and people it intentionally doesn’t want to see … It struck me that many of these very spaces were also the most neglected, mistreated, vulnerable areas of our world—areas on the global body where an opportunistic infection could and would take root” (Leyshon). Díaz’s zombies reflect how they are not a static creature, but are something that changes with the cultural contexts surrounding them (Austin 3).

The accepted canon of zombie media has largely been influenced by fan culture, with these sentiments even bleeding into literary analysis of them as discussed by Austin. Something to note is that, “the reliance on pictures and stills of Zombies reinforces the importance of the image within these films: the physical presence of the Zombie is valued over the subtexts or intended meanings in the film’s storyline”, meaning that many discussions of zombies are on them as a creature rather than story meaning or symbolism using them (Austin 12). In a purely written format like “Monstro,” this focus is more difficult. Díaz spends considerable time exploring the behavior of his zombies though, something that would satisfy fans of the genre. Perhaps this detail has more to do with the concept of zombies being based around fears of the undead body (Austin 21), but in Díaz’s case the fear is surrounding sickness and marginalized groups. While his methods may satisfy worldbuilding-enthusiasts of the zombie genre, they may, at heart, actually be a deconstruction of how the zombie works, changing these fears of the dead to people’s anxieties on those who are sick or otherwise different from them. Díaz continues to use “the Zombie body as corpse is an inherent threat to societal order” (Austin 32) but shows the audience this place that comes before corpses; sickness. Instead of the zombie leaving its place at the graveyard and breaking social orders (Austin 32), Díaz’s zombies leave their quarantined area and spread until the entire world order is destroyed in apocalypse.

As Díaz twists the themes that make zombies what they are to suit his own purposes, he also moves on from the norms of the apocalypse. Referring to Geert Hallbäck’s exploration of the apocalypse genre, it’s interesting to note how the narrator and protagonist of “Monstro” does not fit the patterns explained. One part of the process he describes is when, “the crucial point is that, thanks to what has been disclosed to him, the human recipient obtains knowledge formerly denied to him” (Hallbäck 3). The narrator of “Monstro” goes directly against this. Knowledge had been presented to him in the form of reports on the situation, but he actively ignored the disease in favor of his sick mother and the girl he’s pursuing (Díaz 2). As a fundamental part of the apocalypse genre is gaining knowledge, it’s interesting that the narrator never truly qualified. Self-admittedly busying himself with family and romance, Díaz’s narrator fails to have a moment of true revelation and knowledge gaining as he learns the truth of the situation surrounding him. His revelations and involvement are only implied and briefly mentioned by himself. As the short story reaches its conclusion, he commented that “no one [knew] what the fuck was going on in the darkness. No one but us” (Díaz 14). Revelation occurred in the form of his direct confrontation with the zombies, but the reader doesn’t see it first-hand. With zombies being described as “a warning of plague, sudden death and decomposition” (Austin 33), that very moment where the narrator comes face to face with one of them would have qualified as apocalypse-knowledge gained. It’s a fascinating move compared to the obvious choice of having an impactful scene as the narrator and his friends see the zombies for the first time, and his choice is not the one those who follow the typical apocalypse and zombie genre guidelines would take.

It’s unquestionable that Díaz’s story is one about the apocalypse. While past stories in the genre may have dealt with religion, monsters, aliens, nuclear warfare or dozens of other reasons, Díaz uses modern worries in his apocalypse-ridden world. He had “wanted the story-world to be on the cusp of a catastrophic ecological collapse” (Leyshon), a setting that was effective for the situation. Like how his zombies reflect the audience’s fear of disease and groups of people unlike them, his story-world is also about modern worries. It’s impossible to not be somewhat aware of climate change and the issues surrounding it. Díaz’s world is not unlike our own, and he described it as taking place in a potential possibility of the twenty-thirties (Leyshon). People love to think about the end of the world, and as real-life scenarios get worse, so do their counterparts in fiction. Díaz is one of many writers using our modern fears to change the norms of what causes the apocalypse in stories, and just like his sick people turned zombies, climate change is another old favorite turned into something new.

“Monstro” is in a unique place among other stories like it. With its new takes on how to handle both zombie genres and apocalypse, it brings something satisfying to the table that leaves readers wanting more as Díaz teased a future novel set in the world. Through challenges of what makes a zombie, their treatment by the world both before and after the infection, and his unique take on a protagonist within a world of zombies, Díaz (de)constructed a well-established and loved genre very effectively. His work shows the exact kind of fluidity that surrounds the zombie and how its usage changes throughout history and how it can be utilized by creators for something more than just a scary monster. Zombies are as versatile as their history, and Díaz has taken full advantage of this. Gone are the days of zombies representing our fear of the dead and decay. In Díaz’s deconstructed world, they’ve become something more to show what scares modern people today.


Works Cited

Austin, Emma Jane. “A Strange Body of Work: The Cinematic Zombie”. Diss. University of Portsmouth, 2010.

Díaz, Junot. “Monstro.” The New Yorker, 28 May 2012,

Hallbäck, Geert. “How to read an apocalypse. Deconstruction and reconstruction.” Studia Theologica 47.1 (1993): 91-100.

Leyshon, Cressida. “This Week in Fiction: Junot Díaz.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 27 May 2012,



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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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