I was never a horror movie fan as a kid, but lately I’ve become attracted to them, specifically to zombie movies. I’d seen George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead some years ago, but recently I took in the sequels Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. I also saw two British takes on the genre, the hilarious but gruesome Sean of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Oh yeah, and I caught a viewing of the low-budget classic, Evil Dead, tho’ I don’t know if that counts as a zombie flick.
I’m very interested in the use of zombies as a societal metaphor: about racism & xenophobia, about commercialism, and militarism. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which takes place in a shopping mall, is particularly noteworthy in this regard. His films seem to strike that perfect balance of being straight-ahead horror and carrying a social message without being heavy-handed or didactic. And they’re weird as hell!
Obviously, recent events have put me in the zombie frame of mind: Y2K, 9/11, Islamic fundamentalism, George Bush, bird flu, and Hurricane Katrina, to name a few. I grew up in the 80s during the baroque era of the Cold War, fearful of mutually assured destruction and nuclear winter — but I was never as afraid, or fatalistic, as I have felt in the last 5–6 years. 9/11 is what really set it off; I often feel like I have some form of PTSD because of that. But it’s the irrationality of the present moment that’s really scary. And zombies are the ultimate representation of irrationality.
Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a piece (in, of all places, the Sunday “Styles” section) all about how zombies are “hot” again. I thought the piece had some good observations about the phenomenon — and made me feel very “cutting edge”:
Zombies … are the perfect goblin for such times, in part because they suggest broad social collapse, when anyone — a policeman, a nurse, a friend — can turn into a force of evil. “They go hand in hand with apocalyptic scenarios,” [zombie “expert”] Max Brooks said. “You can’t have one zombie. You’ve got to have a million of them. Society has to be breaking down. And zombies aren’t in conventional horror settings. Zombies find you. The sun comes up and they’re still there. You call the cops and they’re still there. They create a chain reaction of societal collapse.” [Author] Bryan Smith … agreed. “It speaks to the underlying fear that a lot of people have that the whole world can suddenly go crazy.”
That omnipresent anxiety the piece refers to is what’s behind my newfound interest in these movies. Ridiculous as it sounds, I think I’m actually preparing for the apocalypse, trying to get a handle on how society will rebuild itself — or be destroyed forever — after it breaks down. That’s what attracted me to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Alex Garland’s The Beach, and ABC’s Lost — a burning curiosity in the underpinnings of human relationships, ideas of order & chaos, and man’s nature. Are we inherently selfish or altruistic? Rather than reading Locke (yes, same name), Hobbes or Rousseau, I read the tea leaves of junk culture! (I also recently re-read the extended edition of Stephen King’s epic The Stand, which is exactly about these issues, except without the zombies (and with only white people — ugh!).
Another part of the Times piece tries to make a connection to Islamic terrorism: “The fear that anyone could be a suicide bomber or a hijacker parallels a common trope of zombie films, in which healthy people are zombified by contact with other zombies and become killers. … [Author Brian] Keene says, ‘It’s the xenophobia. Americans don’t trust Muslims, and Muslims don’t trust the West. Everybody is paranoid.'” I actually don’t have that kind of attraction to the films. I don’t feel paranoid about certain groups or people; I think I have more of an overall abiding dread. Very different.
I also read that zombies originated in Caribbean folklore. After seeing New Orleans shortly after the hurricane, that would be a great setting for a zombie movie. Can you imagine? Reanimated corpses rising out of the water, descending on the French Quarter. But who are the zombies? The drowned residents of the Ninth Ward, or the drunken tourists, clutching a hurricane in one hand and a zombie in the other?
So yeah, I know there are a million-and-one movies, books, and websites dedicated to zombies. I’m probably not interested in them. I’m not one of those people that thinks zombies are funny or has to know everything about them. I don’t even like the genre. I’m just staggering slowly through it trying to work some stuff out.