Not too long ago, I posted about how, with the advent of CGI and other related moviemaking technological wizardry, society at large has begun to join the once smallish and semi-closeted ranks of the comic book geek and the sci-fi/fantasy nerd in appreciating the fantastical realms of their inner landscapes. Such genres have become huge business — you only need to look at the viewing numbers and cultural omnipresence of something like the Harry Potter series or “Game of Thrones,” or the booming attendance statistics at once humble events like Comic-Con in San Diego to see that this is so. The theories I was putting forth in that post were that a) it could be that the more hardcore fans of such genres simply have extra-vivid imaginations, and could always see in their minds’ eyes what everyone can now have provided for them on vast IMAX movie screens, and b) maybe humanity is gearing up to access powers and abilities within us that have lain dormant until now, and first studying such phenomena in the controlled way that movies allow will prepare us to actually become telepathic or telekinetic or whatever-else-have-you. This latter notion may seem a bit far-fetched, but then again, so did things like humans walking on the Moon or cloning mammals, until somebody did them. Things are only impossible until they’re not, right…?
But anyway, all of that aside for now, I wanted to post some thoughts on another concept that now sits alongside such things as super-powers and dragons and young wizards as a prominent fascination for our current collective psyche: the zombie, and the large-scale, sweeping cataclysm that usually accompanies the zombie’s appearance in fiction: the Zombie Apocalypse.
We have undeniably become about as enamored of the zombie in the last decade or so as we have been (and remain) with the vampire. Why is that, though? Vampires are, after all, in many, many portrayals of them, depicted as being super-sexy, dark, brooding, romantic, tortured, angst-ridden, poetic. magnetic, hypnotic, and let’s stress once more, super-sexy. It’s not a stretch to fantasize about being one of them, being with one of them, or both, especially when movies, TV, and comic books render them as so prodigiously beautiful and alluring. But what of the zombie, then…?
Why are we so fascinated by the undead as embodied in the rancid, shambling, decaying form of the zombie? They’re gross, markedly unlovely, and they have no discernible personalities to speak of, whatsoever. Why, then, are they such huge business?
First a quick recap of zombie proliferation in our fiction…
Like most people, I’d look to Mr. George A. Romero as being the modern fountainhead to which we can all trace this current deluge of zombie-interest. Back in 1968 (meaning, interestingly, he was most likely working on the project during the previous year’s Summer of Love…), Romero unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, a seemingly modest black-and-white feature film called Night of the Living Dead. Now, Romero freely admits to having drawn direct inspiration from the 1954 novel, I Am Legend, written by Richard Matheson, but while Matheson’s novel remains influential in its own right, Romero’s film would most likely be any serious zombie aficionado’s pick for the true “Let There Be Zombies!” moment in our cultural evolution.
The sub-genre grew from there, albeit maybe a bit slowly at first (much like the way a zombie lurches along…). Romero released a sequel — this time shooting in color — in 1978, which he called Dawn of the Dead. A personal detail: when I was a a youngster, I spent my grade school years living in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, a suburb just outside of the city of Pittsburgh…and Romero filmed this sequel at our local shopping mall there, the Monroeville Mall. It’s never escaped my awareness that the film which helped nudge along the zombie sub-genre so effectively was filmed at exactly the same spot where I learned to ice-skate (the mall had its own skating rink), where I bought up most of my early comic book collection, and where I peaked in my love for the hot dog, at a little place called Pup-a-Go-Go…
Romero’s sequel was well-received, by audiences and critics alike, and in its wake, more zombie-product began to materialize…slowly at first, but with more insistence as the ’80s and ’90s wore on… Romero’s work helped give rise to such films as the Return of the Living Dead series, Night of the Comet, Night of the Creeps, Reanimator, and the Resident Evil series, all of which riff on the infected/undead concept. More recently, as zombie popularity has gathered more and more steam, we’ve been treated to such projects as 28 Days Later and its sequels, Shaun of the Dead, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, Zombieland, the modern film version of I Am Legend, the currently running World War Z, and the Walking Dead TV series and comic book, not to mention several more sequels from Romero himself, plus remakes of a few of his earlier films. That’s quite the groundswell of zombie fare!
So back to the question of why we care so much…? What is it about these soulless, flesh-eating wretches that we find so compelling? Personally, I think it boils down to a few specific elements intrinsic to the entire sub-genre:
1) Survivalist fantasy — this one applies to pretty much any apocalypse scenario that features your basic ragtag group of survivors. The idea is that it’s somehow enjoyable to project ourselves into a deadly set of circumstances — like an apocalypse setting — to extrapolate out how we’d fare there, but without actually having to expose ourselves to any real danger in the process. Fair enough, right?
2) Zombies as metaphor — I don’t believe it would take much persuasion to make a case for zombies as representing the pure consumerist parts of ourselves. Romero may have really been onto something when he set his first major sequel in a shopping mall, because don’t the crazed shopper-selves we sometimes embody seem a lot like zombies tunnel-visioned on fresh brains and flesh…? And that applies not just to the consumerism of tangible goods, but of entertainment, as well: think about what people resemble when in the throes of a movie, TV show, or video game marathon…
3) Venting of aggression — zombies provide a fantastic vehicle for the fantasy release of anger, hostility, and even violent urges. That is, anyone confronted with zombies can feel free to enact profound violence upon them without the slightest pangs of guilt or remorse — after all, a zombie has no soul to speak of, no personality, no humanity. A surviving human wandering the landscape of a Zombie Apocalypse world can act upon any and every impulse toward mayhem that she or he has ever felt…and it’s not just forgivable to do so in that context; it’s downright necessary!
4) Contemplating civilization’s reboot — I feel this may actually be the most subtle yet the biggest draw here… It’s no secret that as technology has enabled us all across the globe to link up and communicate better than we ever could in our species’ history, we’ve become well aware that our collective society is riddled with imperfections and even gross inadequacies: too much money is concentrated in the hands of too few…hate crimes abound…enormous groupings of people still face persecution and injustice simply because of who and what they are…freedoms are curtailed…health care and basic necessities of life are denied to far too many… But how would we fix all of this within the infrastructure of our civilization as it currently stands? The alarming answer I keep coming up with is that quite possibly…we can’t. So many of our largest and richest institutions depend on the status quo remaining as it is, and so much of that infrastructure is so built up upon already-teetering foundations, that the kinds of large changes that “fixing things” would require, would be not only vigorously opposed by those who are so very capable of making their opposition stick, but even if that opposition were to be somehow overcome, the kinds of massive alterations in the fabric of society that we’d be looking at would be nearly as disruptive to us as an apocalypse scenario would be.
A lot of our current predicament as a people is totally understandable: those who came before us had to be more concerned with meeting immediate, short-term needs than many of us are today (I’m talking on average here). Our predecessors had to focus on just getting food on the table and making it through the day — planning for the well-being of future generations probably didn’t receive much quality brainpower and effort. And meanwhile, societal structures did start to accumulate, probably quite often without too much intensive forethought. Those structures appeared — maybe inefficient structures, maybe ill-conceived ones, but capable of surviving for a while, at least — and more was built up on those early underpinnings, despite their having had definite flaws. People needed to get on with their lives, after all, right…?
But eventually you reach a point where your well-intentioned but ill-conceived structures are these odd grotesqueries, barely capable of remaining upright, much less supporting additional weight or growth, and while they may have some life left in them for some indefinite period, looking ahead, you can start to perceive that at some point, a collapse will be inevitable. A possible choice, then, would be to voluntarily tear down a structure and rebuild it more intelligently, with an eye toward longer-term practicality. But when the structures you’re talking about aren’t just, say, a local two-story building slapped together in slipshod fashion by half-starving pioneers, but are instead things like the global economy…well, who wants to live through a tearing down and restructuring of that? Wouldn’t it mean chaos and calamity for one or more generations of people forced to live through it? Who would sign up for that kind of misery…?
Zombie Apocalypse fiction, then, provides a sort of controlled space for examining and experiencing a forced version of such a breakdown. It’s not a voluntary, planned reboot of society, but it’s a reboot nonetheless…and I believe that it’s this principle that fuels a great deal of our current fascination with the zombie sub-genre: it showcases the kind of deck-clearing that our society might actually need to go through before it can administer to everybody’s needs equally, and in ways that will stand the tests of time. Whether people are tuning into The Walking Dead each week so that they can consciously mull over questions of curing our social shortcomings, I’m pretty positive that there’s a fair amount of that going on subconsciously, just below the surface.
And I’d love to be proven wrong about the necessity for a full-on societal reboot, and/or the magnitude of what might be required. I’m not that much of a gloom/doom person in general, and ‘d be as thrilled as anyone if we could fix things for everyone without needing to go through a new Dark Ages first. But these are things to consider, I guess, and we do at least undeniably now have safe ways for doing so…such as watching zombie-centric entertainment! Thanks, George A. Romero!