Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What Is a Zombie, and Why Does It Want to Eat Us?

The New York Times ran an article in its December 5, 2010, edition -- --

arguing that Zombies are in vogue because they remind people of their own repetitive, mindless everyday lives:

What if contemporary people are less interested in seeing depictions of their unconscious fears and more attracted to allegories of how their day-to-day existence feels? That would explain why so many people watched that first episode of “The Walking Dead”: They knew they would be able to relate to it.

A lot of modern life is exactly like slaughtering zombies.

The author goes on to suggest that such modern tasks as deleting unwanted email resemble Zombie-killing in that they're simple, easy, mechanical - and yet endless: "The zombies you kill today will merely be replaced by the zombies of tomorrow."

I have a different interpretation. I think horror is all about our fears, whether unconscious, preconscious, semi-conscious or conscious - that's why it's horrific.

What do Zombies do? They eat you. You can't feed them anything else, like apples or dog food, or get them to feast on one another. No, NO, they want to eat YOU out of house and home and all your substance. They want to turn your vibrant, thriving individual person into a heap of decaying remains.

The most ghastly thing in the world to just about every human being is a corpse. We fear Death and we are terrified of the Dead.

The second most ghastly thing is the prospect of being eaten - not just eaten, but eaten ALIVE.

The Zombie Apocalypse brilliantly combines these two horrors, but adds a third element: a MASS of Zombies, slow-moving and defenseless but so numerous and ravenous as to be unstoppable.

Why is this vision so compelling? Because in the back of our minds, we know that there really is such a threat. We are constantly warned about it and commanded to feel responsible for it, and even told we deserve to be destroyed by it. At the same time we aren't supposed to talk about it.

What is this threat? The near-starvation of millions in the "underdeveloped" world. No longer are teeming poverty-stricken masses sitting put and quietly dying as they wait for rescue. In the age of mass communication and mass transportation, they are on the move.

They have already begun coming. As the horror movie line goes, "They're HEE-ere ..." We see images of them all the time - thin bony people wearing ragged clothes, scrambling through tunnels and across fences, lurking in the darkness waiting for a break, taking huge risks to reach the (over?)developed world and -

grab a bite to eat.

The best-quality Zombie treatments at least hint at the uneasy relationship between the Living and the Undead, the Pure and the Infected. George Romero kicked off the franchise in 1968 with plenty of tragedy and irony. Shaun of the Dead managed to tame his Zombified "mate" Ed and turn him into a tolerable telly-watching companion. I didn't go to see "Zombieland" because the trailer showed Zombies being simply soullessly mowed down. But American Movie Classics' new series "The Walking Dead" is showing signs of sensitivity to the fact that there but for fortune and a drop of blood or saliva may go any of us: its Zombies need more to be put out of their misery than brutally terminated.

The tension between the person the Zombie was and the Thing to which it has been reduced makes for great if horrifying storytelling. As with the tension between human and machine ("I, Robot," "The Terminator," "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"), we yearn to respond to any humanity we detect, even in cyborgs or the Undead. It is a bitter lesson when we learn we can't afford to do that.

Who will win World War Z? Is there a remedy for Zombie invasion other than a bullet to the brain? I wonder what popular culture is telling us.