So Halloween is just around the corner and it seems that our culture’s current favorite boogiemen are zombies.
Most of the classic scary monsters such as vampires, werewolves and even mummies have been sexed up via Hollywood. Nowadays, our bloodsuckers tend to be brooding, thin and misunderstood (are there any fat, jolly vampires?), as in the Twilight films, or leather-clad, complicated badasses with their own problems, as in the Underworld series of films.
But zombies … yikes!
Zombies aren’t sexy, complicated or brooding, they have no internal struggle or need for restraint (“I love you more than anything, but your jugular sure looks tasty”), and they sure aren’t hard to understand. They can’t be reasoned with or controlled; they are insatiable and relentless in their pursuit of “braaaains!” or “flesshh!”
They simply hunger.
Back in ancient times (you know, black-and-white movies) zombies were often the lumbering minions of some dark magic. They were raised from the dead by vengeful voodoo priests or Bela Lugosi-era vampires who controlled them. Sure, that’s pretty scary, but they were often presented as reluctant employees who did their master’s bidding slowly and without thought, like teenagers working a late Friday shift at a McDonald’s.
But somewhere along the way, Hollywood realized that raising the dead through phantasmagorical means wasn’t nearly as scary as taking our species’ very real and inexorable drive for scientific discovery, new technology and control of our environment, and turning it against us. In most contemporary interpretations, if a catalyst is identified, zombies are now man-made. They come as a result of our hubris, our belief that since we sit at the top of the food chain (God created the entire universe just for us, didn’t he?), everything is under our dominion and we can always control what we create.
There are no more bug-eyed, babbling witch doctors in grass skirts or mysterious glowing moon rocks falling out of the sky that jump-start the disease. Now it’s viruses spreading quickly and uncontrollably, created by scientists to hurt or heal. Our modern-day zombie isn’t the reanimated corpse of your decade-long-dead grandma in her burial dress, aimlessly wandering around with her arms stuck straight out (why would they do that?). It is your spouse, your child, your friend or neighbor, who was alive and well moments or hours before, and is now desperate to rip you apart at the seams.
I think that’s why zombie-related films, books and other forms of entertainment have become so popular in the last several years. Seeing an actual zombie on your street may seem far-fetched. But the underlying concept that we will create and perhaps even be the instrument of our own doom? Not so much.
At the beginning of the 2002 film 28 Days Later — arguably the jump-off for the new zombie craze in pop culture — animal activists break into a medical research facility to free some chimpanzees that are, unbeknownst to them, infected with the scientifically produced “Rage” virus. They wind up unleashing it on London. I’m sure I wasn’t the only moviegoer who thought, “Oh, yeah, that could happen.”
To quote the wise and possibly prescient words of the T-800 Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, another film where man’s technological creation and hubris leads to his destruction (please use your best Ah-nold Schwarzenegger accent): “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves.”
Zombies are so popular that last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention smelled the zeitgeist and created a blog post about preparing for the Zombiepocalypse (that word will be in the dictionary soon). Sure, the post was really about emergency preparation, but 30 years ago that same post would have been about nuclear apocalypse, which, since the end of the Cold War, seems a lot less frightening.
Shows such as The Walking Dead don’t bother with the origin (although it’s still viral), just the aftermath. It’s the new “post-apocalyptic” world but the end result is the same. Stripped of our material things, our laws, our society and (relative) civility, we are forced to survive like the animals over which we feel so comfortably dominant, and ultimately we become as dangerous and predatory toward each other as the mindless, hungry zombies we created.
Umm, happy Halloween?