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All that and BRAIIINsss too: A Few Thoughts About Zombies

"Zombies are the new vampires, didn't you know that?"
- Arlene, True Blood

I have been thinking about Zombies a lot lately... a whole lot, almost a bit obsessively. Let me be clear, I am not too concerned about the dead rising tomorrow, but the dead sure have been shambling around here quite a bit lately, and I am not altogether unconcerned.

*warning, all sorts of spoilers for stuff ahead, here's a hint, the dead start walking around*

The Rise of the Dead
(see, the heading alone gives it away)

Okay, so Zombies are scary and creepy, but so what, so are corporate executives (with apologies to zombies for the comparison). How did they become the monster of our times? I think it's because they are the perfect monster for an industrial and internet world. They are about the force of a billion or so things working against you. They don't care about you but are perfectly willing to destroy you all the same. Contrast them with vampires (which they would have been indistinguishable from 150 years ago). The thing is that vampirism is tempting in a transgressive sort of way, and the victims are in many (maybe most) cases seen as at least partially complicit.
Lucy is not a random victim, attacked by mere accident, you understand? No. She is a willing recruit, a breathless follower, a wanton follower. I dare say, a devoted disciple. She is the Devil's concubine! - Van Helsing, Bram Stoker's Dracula
There aren't any (or not many) willing recruits to the ranks of the zombies. Consider this quote from Zombieland about a victim:
In those moments where you're not quite sure if the undead are really dead, dead, don't get all stingy with your bullets. I mean, one more clean shot to the head, and this lady could have avoided becoming a human Happy Meal. Woulda... coulda... shoulda.
If our monsters reflect our fears, zombies are about being packed into cities with millions of others and trying to figure out why bad things are happening to us. Here are some great zombie movies, books, series, stories which could form a primer for understanding the modern dead. They can be divided into three groups: old school zombies, modern dread and the new normal, with just maybe a new phase out on the horizon.

Old school zombies begin and end with George Romero. He's still out there making his zombie movies today. He sets the tone and it's fair to say that if you make a zombie movie today, the assumption is that you are working with "Romero rules" (slow moving, human munching, dispatched with a shot to the head) until proven otherwise.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

"It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder. A widespread investigation of funeral homes, morgues, and hospitals has concluded that the unburied dead have been returning to life and seeking human victims. It's hard for us here to be reporting this to you, but it does seem to be a fact."

The modern zombie era begins in a cemetery in Pennsylvania in 1968. It's not even immediately obvious that there is a problem until the foolish characters in that lonely graveyard start to suggest that the shambling figure in the distance is coming. Coming for them! And they have been coming for us ever since. It established the rules, the relentlessness and the hopelessness which has been the hallmark of all subsequent zombie tales.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)
"This isn't the Republicans versus the Democrats, where we're in a hole economically or... or we're in another war. This is more crucial than that. This is down to the line, folks, this is down to the line. There can be no more divisions among the living!"

I personally have always found this movie, the original zombie mall-crawl, a bit pedantic and overrated, but I am in the very small minority with that opinion. Generally viewed as the best zombie movie ever made, it realized George Romero's vision of the zombie plague as social commentary about a society that deserves to get eaten by zombies.

Romero keeps making his zombie movies but sadly they seem, well, a little lifeless anymore. The nihilism of the past has softened a bit, but the didactic social commentary just keeps getting stronger. There are still some great moments (the death of the villain in Land of the Dead at the hands of a gas station attendant zombie comes to mind) but the times have passed Romero by.

It only gets Worse

Modern dread is starker than the Romero vision. Its about the pervasive (and likely accurate) sense of doom that hangs over society in the 21st century. SARS, Katrina, terrorism, even the economy and joblessness seem beyond our control and ultimately the best we can hope for is to save ourselves, and maybe our friends and family. It is a post-apocalyptic vision in the middle of daily lives. Two movies capture this pervasive dread perfectly:

28 Days Later (2002)
He was full of plans. Have you got any plans, Jim? Do you want us to find a cure and save the world or just fall in love and fuck? Plans are pointless. Staying alive's as good as it gets.

Beyond the fact that it has the best introduction to the end of the world ever (which The Walking Dead shamelessly cribs from), what really makes this a masterpiece is the cause of the zombie-apocalypse. Its uncontrolled rage brought on by our own stupidity. This metaphor gets at a big part of what makes the 21st century zombie movie, because it focuses not on moral failings per se but on the overwhelming nature of the problem. There is definitely social commentary, but it's mostly about small people swept away by disaster.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)
How do you think your God will judge you? Well friends, now we know. When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.

Actually in this version, they sprint the earth, but that's a minor point. This is easily the most underrated zombie movie of recent years. It had the dubious "advantage" of being compared to the original, but there's a particularly good quote in both that illustrate how things have changed.

1978 version:

What are they doing? Why do they come here?

Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

2004 version:

Why are they coming here?

Kenneth: Memory, maybe. Instinct. Maybe they're coming for us.

The difference is subtle. In 1978, they are still coming to the mall because that's what the soulless continue to do even after death. Trust me; in 2004 they are coming for us.

Finally, I can't leave this version without mentioning the opening credits set to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around." If you haven't seen it, you are truly missing a masterpiece of creepiness.

Traffic, Job Loss, and Zombies

But then something strange happened to this sense of overwhelming dread that pervaded zombie movies, old and new, in the early 21st century. Zombies wove their ways into our lives and essentially became part of the "New Normal."

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
"He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger of falling in love, and were it not for his considerable skill in the deadly arts, that he should be in danger of being bested by hers--for never had he seen a lady more gifted in the ways of vanquishing the undead."

Many would dismiss this book (and soon to be movie) as silly gimmickry, but I think it represents the total ubiquity of the dead in our lives. The book weaves together the Jane Austen classic with a tale of zombie attack (and also ninjas, but that's a different essay altogether). It makes the point, perhaps accidentally, that zombies (or the existential threat they represent) can safely be present in virtually any story. My only real complaint is: not enough zombies!

Shaun of the Dead
Just look at the face: it's vacant, with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who's lost a bet.

Funniest zombie movie ever, and that in a terribly over parodied genre, because they actually play a lot of it relatively straight much of the time. Basically, the zombie apocalypse is really inconvenient in large measure because it forces them to confront the problems they have with their relationships, although they still do manage to get down to the pub. At the end of the day though, becoming a zombie doesn't really interfere with one character's lifestyle that much; he's back in the shed playing video games and being a slacker. Zombies have become just another annoyance in our lives.

Oh, America. I wish I could tell you that this was still America, but I've come to realize that you can't have a country without people. And there are no people here. No, my friends. This is now the United States of Zombieland. - Columbus

Oh, I do it to blend in. You know. Zombies don't mess with other zombies. Buddy of mine, makeup guy, he showed me how to do this. Corn starch. You know, some berries, a little licorice for the ladies. Suits my lifestyle, you know. I like to get out and do stuff. Just played nine holes on the Riviera. Just walked on. Nobody there. – Bill Murray as Bill Murray

The "Scream" of zombie movies which manages to articulate the "Romero rules" as immutable laws of the universe. Witty and again focused on the relationships and travails of daily life, the characters sail along with their lives even as the majority of the population tries to eat them. The focus isn't the end of the world, it's the quest for the last Twinkie or trying to get laid in a world with only two women left. Zombies are just another fact of life.

The Walking Dead
I'm sorry this happened to you.

We have never had a closer relationship with the dead than we do in The Walking Dead. The mutilated zombie woman who Rick speaks the above quote to, or the poor man who is trapped and unable to kill his wife (now a zombie) even as she returns again and again to her home make great examples. But they pale beside the best scene in the entire series to date in which Andrea waits for her sister Amy to rise from the dead so she can say goodbye and kill her. It is these scenes about their connections and not the zombie fighting scenes that make this show harrowing to watch. This show isn't funny by a long sight but it also accepts the zombie as just the way it is. We care about the dead, but have to get on with our lives. The world is a horrible place, but the world is the world we live in, and it's time to get on with it. Everyone I have spoken with about The Walking Dead has had the same objection to a Zombie TV show, "won't it get boring just running from Zombies every week?" The genius of this show is it's not about zombies, it's about living in a world of constant, unremitting danger. A world which we sometimes fear may be our own.

The next great vision
So overall, a pretty depressing genre, but I think there is an interesting new trend that may be developing. Just as we have seen characters learning to live with the New Normal of zombie wasteland, there have begun to appear zombie stories about facing down this greatest threat to human existence and actually doing something about it. World War Z
"... 'the greatest threat to human existence.' C'mon! Can you imagine what America would have been like if the federal government slammed on the brakes every time some paranoid crackpot cried "wolf" or "global warming" or "living dead"? Please."

This book, published in 2006, is a compelling and readable oral history of the Zombie War. Brad Pitt is off making it into a movie as I write this, and there's a reason he is. It's about a zombie apocalypse that humans fight their way back from. It's on the theme that even the worst problem that has ever existed can be overcome. That there may be a new normal, but it can be one defined by human courage and ingenuity and not by zombie appetite.

Sadly, the very hopefulness of this vision may be the double tap to the head of the genre. Things may be bad but they are not irredeemable, and I suspect this will force us to find a new big bad. (Werewolves anyone?)


  1. I have my own little theory on Zombies. I firmly believe they are misunderstood, and that they aren't actually brainless. They HAVE brains, they are just a wee bit smaller than human brains, meaning that there's more room in their skulls and that loud noises, when they get in there, really bounce around and screw them up, making them act the way they do.

  2. Terrific essay, Ben. Totally coincidentally, I saw Shaun of the Dead for the first time last night, so I actually can relate to a movie you mentioned, instead of just The Walking Dead. And I think The Walking Dead has staying power, for the very reasons you mentioned. It's so much more than scary.

  3. World War Z!

    I can't remember if I've preached the gospel of WWZ here before. Fabulous zombie book. Funny, sad, touching, heart-warming, frightening--Brooks hits every note perfectly. (I was telling someone about it just the other day, and actually got goosebumps when I remembered one scene.)

    What a fun essay.

  4. 28 DAYS LATER.... is the scariest movie I have ever watched. I was traumatized by it. I didn't sleep right for months after and I still have some nights – when I watch it again – where I can't sleep peacefully.

    Boom! Studios released a 24 issue comic book series starring Selena and set not too long after 28 DAYS LATER.... and ending right at the beginning of 28 WEEKS LATER.... It was a terrific series.


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