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Zombie Nation

It's The Living That's Unsettling About The Living Dead

Donald Ely

By John Berndt | Posted 2/13/2008

Imagine a contemporary zombie movie, only without the zombies. You have groups of people, like us enough to be disturbing, living in terrified small bands in a depopulated and toxic America. They build temporary safe zones if they are lucky, while everything around them goes to hell at breakneck speed. Western civilized society--and everywhere else--has utterly collapsed, and no one knows what to do about the crisis except hole up in little paranoid bands. Starved for a return to normalcy and posttraumatically stressed, they fight among themselves, betray each other, and watch what little they have left slip through their fingers.

It all looks strangely--and perhaps soberly--like how we imagine the United States might look after any one of a number of potentially apocalyptic scenarios takes place. Anyone who is alert knows that severe climate change, biological or nuclear conflict, magnetic pole reversal (wiping out every technology that involves software), or a particularly bad natural plague is all quite possible, and that any one of these might take civilization down. It's the future we can only start to imagine but are increasingly compelled to, as our knowledge and collective bad behavior intensifies--a future where the people we care about have to coexist with extreme danger, vigilante behavior, privation, and, most importantly, a deeply unprepared, relatively addicted, and totally panicked population.

We can see around the world what it looks like when states collapse. Iraq today. Bosnia, a place that was relatively developed and looked "Western"--complete with malls--became a nightmare of destruction and privation inside of three years. In Africa and elsewhere, we have only to stretch the imagination a bit to identify with the Rwandans or residents of Darfur to see how bad neighbor-to-neighbor disagreement can get. Places such as the West Baltimore ghetto continue to shock with its juxtaposition of modern buildings, toxic social collapse, and deadly gun-battle feudalism. The events of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, awful and revealing as they were, were minor in comparison to some of the very real possibilities that have been planned for by governments--in both the warlike and recovery senses of planning.

The larger posttraumatic implications from all these types of circumstances may be deeply repressed--how fragile and particular is the safety and social order to which we are bonded--but they still circulate in our psyches. Privately, we ponder the fact that all the luxurious stability we have enjoyed is far from historically normal or guaranteed to us. The flip side of our advanced interdependency, culture, and the task specialization of our population is the horror of imagining ourselves trying to survive with each other, on a large scale, without a functioning industrial state.

So zombie movies are a form of piercing "realism" that is masked behind a thin curtain of impossibility (the zombies), not totally conscious, but allowing us to imagine scenarios that are both pressing and too painful to contemplate directly. More than anything, they represent a deep, probably warranted pessimism we feel about ourselves and our leaders, detailed in a fantasy context where we can think it through. This, more than anything else, accounts for their sustained and growing popularity. They do a good job of getting this harsh point across precisely because of the gaps in realism allow the filmmakers latitude--since recent "realistic" disaster movies don't pack nearly the unsentimental wallop, and deliver bad faith in a requisite Hollywood happy ending.

But again the themes are only thinly hidden. It is no coincidence that the evolution of the post-George A. Romero zombie movie has focused in a variety of ways on topical explanations for the undead. In 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, and I Am Legend, not to mention the comedic Return of the Living Dead series, the zombie plague is tagged directly to the kind of genetic-engineering medicine and biological weapons research that has gained enormous momentum in recent decades, and that many responsible scientists have decried as deeply irresponsible to humanity.

It all goes hand in hand with the denial necessary for emotional survival, and resulting deep discomfort, that any thinking person has to deal with when contemplating the activities of a place such as Fort Detrick (aka "Fort Doom"), the bioweapons lab just down the road from Baltimore in Frederick. There is a warranted pessimism here--about the sanity and responsibility of our leaders, their potential failures of imagination, and our sense of inability to do anything about it. It's probably sad and a bit crazy that this theme reaches some of its highest expression in popular culture in what are ultimately trash zombie movies--but hey, other major civilizations look pretty confused and un-self-conscious in retrospect, too.

Zombies are rich symbols. Yes, they're inherently scary and fascinating--they represent the inevitability of death, and also the secret fear we all have of large groups that might consume us: the fear of the loss of our individuality, a topic treated exhaustively by Klaus Theweleit's two-volume philosophical classic, Male Fantasies. And zombies as the consuming horde dovetails with the thought that they represent the starving masses of Africa, India, and other parts of the Third World--and these movies are, perversely, the "guilty conscience of the West"--where we imagine the disposed showing up to wantonly claim their share, or simply take us down.

While all that may have some ring of truth, I think another interpretation makes more sense. The zombies, with their lack of reason and sophistication, their desperation and horrible appetite, are what we fear many of us would quickly become when the crisis comes. The zombies are us in a crisis. The people running from them are us, too. And the fiction of the living dead, which is apocalyptic, is probably less disturbing than the really strange dangers we can actually foresee but that, as of yet, are far outside of our ability to fix.

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