For some, it’s vampires. For others, it’s witches. For still others, it’s ghosts. But for me, it’s all about the zombies. In the last few years, I have been ravenously gobbling up these stories like one of the living dead greedily slurping up a still bloody strip of man flesh. I cannot quite place my finger on exactly why I have such an uncanny interest in these spine-tingling narratives, but maybe it has something to do with their exploration of the dark side of humanity, like all occult subjects; or perhaps, it is, ironically, their curious spotlighting of man’s fundamental goodness that can never quite be snuffed out no matter how hopeless a post-apocalyptical world may seem; however, maybe it is the versatility of the zombie flick aesthetic or its seemingly universal applicability to the germane social issues of the time; finally, I wonder it if it is just one of those pesky “all of the above” answers that test-makers plant at the end of a sequence of multiple-choice questions to make test-takers question their gut instincts and ponder if this is a trick question or not. No trick questions here. It’s definitely all of the above.
Zombie comics, graphic novels, films, and television shows all investigate man’s darkest yearnings and nightmares. I mean who hasn’t wanted to smash something or someone at one time or another? If you claim not to, shame on you for lying! Think, “Hulk smash!” bellowed at the topic of your lungs without any fear of regret or possibility of guilt or culpability because the thing you are annihilating is no longer a person, nor does it possesses a soul. It is merely target practice for whatever sharp-edged blade, projectile, or whatever object happens to be handy or available at that particular moment and which is commandeered to level a bone-crunching or flesh-ripping wound with a devil’s delight. Zombie stories are the real fight clubs, ones that welcome both male and especially attractive female leads, like the “Resident Evil” films (2002, 2004, 2007, 2010). Zombie narratives are equal opportunity stories that can be chauvinist or racist or feminist and egalitarian depending on the director’s purpose.
Zombie stories also frighten us out of our wits because we all worry about or are anxious of suffering a lethal blow (or with zombies a bite or scrape) that we have no way of anticipating. Some people probably live their wholes in suspense waiting for those terrible moments, held in suspension expecting those instances in a movie where some terrible creature makes us just about leap out of our seats and skins with a sudden fear-inducing shadow, blood-curdling scream, or knife-wielding hand. Zombies symbolize the horrifying specter of an unknown danger lurking in the darkness waiting and biding its time before it begins to feast on our flesh. Films like “28 Days Later” and “Crazies” just give me the shivers!
The real terror for me, though, with zombies is that they, like their occult siblings, feature a perversion of some basic tenet of Christianity. With vampires, drinking blood and living forever is a distortion of the Precious Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist that does bring about eternal life. With witches, the incantations and spells are a corruption of the holy words of prayers and the sacraments that are efficacious invocations of grace with the substituted dabbling in and babblings of the diabolic. With ghosts, you have the souls of those who cannot pass on to the next world because of unsettled scores or actions in their lives, but this is really an area typically reserved for Purgatory, not some haunted place. So, with zombies, you have an upending of the bodily resurrection that will occur with the Parousia. Rather than having the dead rise from the dead at the end times to join Christ in Heaven body and soul, you have reanimated bodies without a soul. This literally visualizes a corporeal hell that considers the body without a soul, which is perhaps a grotesque image of what awaits those cast down for their iniquity. I guess you could say zombies are the ultimate memento mori figures who shock us out of our spiritual languor and sloth and encourage us to be sanctified persons through a negative theology.
Zombie stories also underscore man’s core goodness. When the world is on fire, people can and do bind themselves together for the common good, frequently bringing out the best in our race. Sometimes the best takes the form of the love for a father-son or husband-wife storyline or both as in the recent “Walking Dead” (2010) television series, though in other situations it may feature complete strangers looking out for one another and even sacrificing themselves in a kind of wonderful Good Samaritan fashion. While zombie films encourage intimacy and human connection, they are also especially conducive to humor. Consider the recent “Zombieland” (2009) or “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) films which traffic in parodying and spoofing the zombie genre.
You might be surprised to know that the zombie sub-genre of the Gothic/horror film genre has a rich history of satire. Just go check out any of the films in George A. Romero’s “Dead” series, starting with the granddaddy of them all, the cult classic, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), and you will quickly detect a director with a keen nose for sniffing out some of the salient social issues at the time of each film’s production, ranging from fears of a nuclear holocaust or viral outbreak as a result of Cold War politics or corporate greed to issues associated with prejudice of all stripes to consumerism to the Internet and even metacognitive art with more recent films like “Diary of the Dead” (2007). Two other examples of successful zombie parody and satire are undoubtedly Max Brooks’s Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and World War Z (2006). The latter details a series of pseudo-documentary first-person anecdotes recounting episodes from various parts of the globe in the horrible war of attrition during the zombie outbreak. Brooks employs the zombie background to comment critically on a whole range of contemporary political issues, like the Jewish/Palestinian conflict currently embroiling the Middle East, thus further demonstrating the satirical power of zombie literature.
One of the more curious twists of late in this exciting sub-genre is Seth Grahame-Smith’s innovative parody of classism by combining zombie literature with Jane Austen’s quintessential novel of manners in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). Who would have thought of such a bizarre juxtaposition of nineteenth-century fiction and contemporary aesthetics, and yet it works, much to the chagrin (or delight in my case) of teachers everywhere. I actually showcased the work alongside our reading of Pride and Prejudice with my AP kids last year. Needless to say, my students loved the comparisons and really did make meaningful connections between the texts. Sadly, some of them actually like the revised version better than the original, but at least the neurons were firing, so you are not going to hear me complaining too much about it.
Whether a straight-up, run-of-the-mill horror story, an gun-slinging adventure story, a cathartic drama of humanity’s last stand, a social satire of zombie conformity within the walking dead or the human survivors, or a clever reimagining of classical literature, zombie literature has something for everyone and is here to stay. I hope after reading this blog post you will re-consider the value of what seems on the surface to be just B- film material. Zombie fiction serves a vital and needed function as form of aesthetic critical self-examination, and as Socrates so eloquently reminds us, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”