by Whatsblem the Pro
Zombies. The shambling, hungry dead.
The initially-tiny cult phenomenon that was George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been massively reprised and expanded over the years into a full-blown touchstone of mainstream culture. . . but it isn’t just the grotesque thrills of gore-horror that give the genre its legs. Beyond and below the surface of GRRAAARR BRAINS lies a durable contemporary allegory that has struck a resonance in the hearts and minds of a certain kind of person for over half a century.
I’m not talking about the multiple individual subtexts that some zombie movies – and all of Romero’s zombie movies – carry with them. There are a number of clear themes that emerge from these films; xenophobia and racism, feminism, consumerism and the emptiness of life lived solely in material pursuits. There are pointed questions posed about relational heirarchies, about the moral and ethical problems that pure science faces in the presence of military concerns that weaponize every discovery possible, about leadership and autonomy, about Communism and Capitalism, about the innate goodness (or badness) of people in general, and about the very warp and woof of the fabric of society as a whole.
All of these subtexts have the potential to be interesting and thought-provoking for any particular viewer, but none of them are the kind of thing that might make you want to go out and actually prepare for the Zompocalypse as though it could really happen. . . and yet there are people who do so, often with a glaring display of tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes in what seems to be total earnestness. A large part of that impulse is no doubt attributable to the not-very-subtle subtext of the end of civilization and the imminent crumbling of social order and the rule of law, but for me it’s deeper than that.
Other monster genre films leave me cold; I’m not wild about graphically violent horror in general although I can certainly take it. The point is that I don’t watch zombie movies to see rotting flesh being ripped apart by bullets, or to see the living torn limb-from-limb in the teeth of the dead. Even the goriest, ghastliest vampire movies make me yawn with all their brooding, overly-studied cool, although I certainly understand the wish-fulfilling empowerment fantasies they inspire in others. I find serial-killer slasher films dull and unrewarding, too, for the most part.
Why? Because here’s the thing about zombies: they’re not few and far-between, like vampires, or werewolves, or serial killers. When the Zompocalypse comes, the living are absolutely overwhelmed by the dead, and in no time, it is the survivors who are the rarity, not the monsters.
What does this make them?
For me it’s simple: the zombies, vastly outnumbering the living as they do, become the status quo. They, not the survivors, are the typical form of human life on Earth. The living, with their use of language and tools, their emotions and their emotional connections to each other, and their willingness to eat things no normal person would touch, are freakish, abnormal rarities.
And what is it that the zombies – i.e., the normal people – are constantly trying to do to these oddballs and outliers living on the fringes of their world?
One of two things: infect them with normalcy, or turn them into a product, to be consumed.
If you’re an artist, and you earn your living by making art, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’re beholden to nobody; you’re even free to some extent in a way that no corporate ladder-climber or blue-collar serf could ever be, but life can be peculiarly hard for you, and people often don’t understand you very well. Sometimes, especially if they’re family, they put pressure on you to give up your aspirations and leave the difficult, lonely path you’ve chosen, to join the herd and pursue cookie-cutter notions of worldly success that, to your way of thinking, resemble a kind of living death. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure most of those people in your life are nice folks with nothing but good intentions, but in our allegory they are best represented by the zombies.
What happens if you’re a successful artist, and the public gets to probing and clawing at you with their nerveless, idiot fingers? What happened to Michael Jackson? I’ll tell you what happened to Michael Jackson: starting with his own father when Michael was just an innocent tot, the normal people commodified him, wrapped him in plastic and bought and sold him as an item of consumption, like the neatly-packaged ground beef they sell at your local supermarket, isolated from its origins, sanitized for your protection, a natural thing made utterly, completely unnatural. They ate Michael Jackson.
Sure, Jocko is an extreme example, but the same is true of almost any famous artist whose name and face are in the public eye. Most of us dream of fame and fortune, but how would we really feel if we were unable to simply walk down the street like an ordinary person without being pursued and mobbed by random strangers?
The real beauty of zombie movies is that although the allegory that pits heavily outnumbered freaks against a status quo juggernaut is a sort of depressingly accurate commentary on what we, as real-life freaks, are up against, it all takes place in a consequence-free environment. This is where the subtext departs from reality and offers us our reward in the form of some satisfying wish-fulfillment: you can shoot the bastards in the head, and nobody will get mad at you. Hell, you’ll probably get a pat on the back and maybe even build some camaraderie with your co-freaks by pulling that trigger.
Note that you have to shoot a zombie in the head, in the brain, to make it stop. This is because our struggle in real life is a struggle of ideas. We can’t literally kill all the normal people in order to secure our own survival as artists and weirdos; we have to kill the normal ideas in their heads instead. We have to kill the way they think.