(Continuing the stream of Zombie critiques)
What You Can Learn from Zombie Movies: With lessons on science, consumerism, and the soul, a truly educational genre
by Douglas Rushkoff
The undead are everywhere these days. The popular summer movie 28 Weeks Later pits them against the U.S. military. The comic series Marvel Zombies has them eating the Silver Surfer. The video game Dead Rising lets players attack them with weapons ranging from hockey pucks to shower heads. A recent CBS pilot, Babylon Fields, imagines what would happen if the undead tried to integrate back into their former lives.
No other horror creatures invite quite the same breadth of paranoid speculation as zombies, perhaps because they embody such a pure, reflective sense of terror: animated corpses dependent on living flesh for survival. No wolf mythology, no castles, no capes, no fangs; just dead people eating flesh. In short, except for the “being dead” part, they’re just like us. I’d venture this accounts for their popularity over decades of cinema, as well as their more recent migration to other popular media. Zombie movies force us to figure out what, if anything, differentiates us from the monsters on the screen.
The zombie legend originated in the spiritual practices of Afro-Caribbean sects that believed a person could be robbed of his soul by supernatural or shamanic means and forced to work as an uncomplaining slave. Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis studied Haitian voodoo rituals in the 1980s and determined that a kind of “zombie” state can be induced with powerful naturally derived drugs. In horror films, people become zombies by whatever process is deemed scariest by the filmmaker of the era—magic, possession, viral infection—but the result is the same. The victim becomes a walking corpse, a human without a soul.
In this sense, all movies are zombie movies. Lifeless frames of celluloid passed in front of a bright bulb 24 times a second yield moving images convincing enough to make us believe there are living people up there on a screen, moving about with purpose. If the craft is done right, we care about those phantoms as much as we do for real people—alas, sometimes more than those we see suffering on the evening news.
Indeed, zombies are the perfect horror creations for a media-saturated age overloaded with reports of terrorism, famine, disease, and warfare. Zombies tap into our primal fear of being consumed and force us to come up with something—anything—to distinguish ourselves from the ever-hungry, animated corpses traipsing about the countryside and eating flesh. Deep down, these schlocky horror flicks are asking some of the most profound questions: What is life? Why does it depend on killing and consuming other life? Does this cruel reality of survival have any intrinsic meaning?
The way in which zombie movies pose these questions has changed significantly over time, telling us more about ourselves, and about what we most fear, in the process. Zombies have been a staple of American filmmaking since the indie flick White Zombie (1932), best remembered for its eerie shots of undead slaves staring into the night. In that movie, Bela Lugosi plays an evil sorcerer who promises to turn a woman into a zombie so that her spurned lover can control her forever, presumably as a mindless sex servant. Perfect fare for a nation finally reckoning with its own population of former slaves, as well as one of preliberated females just beginning to find their own voices. Back then, though, the big questions seemed to have more to do with whether a walking dead servant or wife could fully satisfy a man’s needs. (Given the outcome, apparently not.)
By 1968, George Romero’s classic, low-budget Night of the Living Dead had reversed this dynamic. Now it was up to the film’s human protagonists to distinguish themselves from the marauding bands of flesh eaters—and to keep from being eaten. Racial conflicts among the film’s living characters end up costing them valuable time and resources; against the backdrop of attacking zombies, the racial tension of the late 1960s seems positively ludicrous. The film’s African American hero survives the night but is mistaken for a zombie and shot dead the next morning.
The film’s sequels had survivors holing up in places like shopping malls, through which zombies would wander aimlessly all day, as if retracing the steps of their former lives as consumers. Of course, the real consumption begins when the zombies find humans on whom to feast—an irony not lost on one tough guy who, as his intestines are being eaten, has enough wit to shout, “Choke on ’em!” What makes the humans for whom we’re rooting any different from the zombies by whom we’re repulsed? Not much, except maybe cannibalism, and the technical distinction that our humans are living while the zombies are “living dead.”
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