Man vs Zombies

Posted by on January 4, 2011 in Thoughts | 5 comments

Firstly, Happy New Year to you all, and thanks for joining me again in 2011, for what I hope will be another successful year of blogging. As always, your feedback is appreciated. I’m going to start the year with what may seem to be quite a secular topic (i.e. non religious) within popular culture, but is actually much more.

Over the latter half of last year, I became somewhat obsessed with zombies. It all started with the BBC series called “Dead Set” which was a brilliant idea for a show, where the members of the Big Brother house in England are totally oblivious to the fact that a zombie apocalypse has taken place outside the house while the show is being filmed. I was hooked from that moment on, including games like “Plants vs Zombies” for the iPhone.

Why zombies?

There are a few reasons actually.

Firstly of interest are  the parallels between a zombie apocalypse and the apparent obsession among some religious types as the coming “end of days” scenarios as outlined in the holy books. Only instead of the faithful being magically spirited away to heaven, the general population becomes the walking dead. I see this parallel as a popular cultural reference to the same idea, that the end of humanity is coming, whether it be by infection from viruses or by the “Hand of God” as it were. It may be a tenuous link, but I can’t help but think it every time I see a zombie flick.

Secondly, there is a definite morbid fascination people have with end-of-world scenarios that plays a part in the popularity of this genre. We love to see the hero fight his way through a horde of undead to simply try to survive, don’t we? The fact that they are actually dead makes us feel ok about the bloodshed (or goo-shed in some cases), the idea that once a person is dead they cease to be human, of any consequence, or worthy of “living”. We feel bad if we see a living human get blown up, it touches a nerve with us, piques our mirror neurons into action, and we feel some repulsion to the idea. If a zombie gets blown up, we feel no remorse, no need to think about the consequences of their demise, and we can easily move on with our splatterfest to the next town.

But what does a zombie represent? What does it mean when someone is a zombie?

In most incarnations of zombiedom, the zombie is represented as a slow and brainless creature, reanimated through magic, through divine command, or via a virus working on the brain-stem to reanimate an otherwise dead corpse. The dead simply become an automaton, a shell with no ghost inside, with no purpose but to eat the brains of the living. In some cases however, like in the brilliant new series “The Walking Dead“, zombies retain some of their former selves in their reanimated incarnations, they continue to do some things in death that they did in life. (This raises some interesting questions. Does it become less acceptable to kill a zombie if it still has some traits within it that it had as a living human?)

The zombie can represent a few different things, but for me the biggest message (and the key to the popularity of the genre) is the mindless masses, with their unquestioning consumption of everything around them. People relate to the zombie flick because they see in zombies what they fear about humanity, and they see that it may be true. Zombies move forward and destroy all in their path. What’s worse, this zombification is contagious, so once you get the bug, you become one of them!

Zombies also represent what we fear most about ourselves. Are we really just shells which hold the soul, and if so, what happens once the soul has left the body?  Without a soul, we become nothing but a machine that moves forward in “life” without any real sense of purpose. Of course, the idea of “soul” is something I don’t actually think exists, and some zombie flicks actually remove this idea of soul and replace it with the automatic impulses of the brain controlling an otherwise dead body. But the idea remains, and even the more skeptical among us may hold some repulsion to the idea of a “body without an inhabitant soul”.

Another thing that zombies represent has more to do with society, the disenfranchised, and the everyday consumer. Those in society who are discriminated against based on sex, race, culture, caste, religion (or lack thereof) can be represented by the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. In a typical zombie apocalypse scenario, the survivors are seen as regular people whose lives have been suddenly turned upside-down. Everything they know has changed, and those they love have to be shunned because the survivor is not willing to become part of “the infected masses”. For me, these survivors represent all the people who don’t subscribe to the inane consumerism of our times, those who don’t subscribe to superstitious dogma of the religious powers-that-be, or those who have become disenfranchised in society because of their lifestyle choices. The zombies therefore represent everyone else in their unthinking support of a system in need of change, or an unsustainable system.

This is quite different from one of my earlier blog pieces which talks about The Hooters’ song “All You Zombies” in which the zombies represented the godless.

Zombies in the bible?

Well yeah, apart from Jesus who rose from the dead, not to eat our brains, but to save our souls, there were “many” zombies who rose from the dead in the bible. Matthew 27:52-53 reads:

“The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”

And Zechariah 14:12

“This is the plague with which the Lord will strike all the nations that fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. On that day men will be stricken by the Lord with great panic. Each man will seize the hand of another, and they will attack each other.”

Oh wait, there’s more! Revelations 9:6

“During those days men will seek death, but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.”

In fact the Bible has a whole lot of references to the raising of the dead, and this is because the whole idea of the new testament was based on the idea that Jesus rose from the dead to save our souls from a damnation of eternity in hell.

This is the crux of the situation right here. Firstly, through our arrogance and human-centricity, one assumes that a soul exists, and at death, when this assumed soul has nowhere to inhabit, what happens to it? And can the body exist without this assumed soul? The constructors of the Christian religion saw this question, the fear people hold about the unknowns in death, and used this to sway the more vulnerable into believing in Christ as savior because his resurrection had, somehow, answered the question of “what happens to the ME in me when I die?”

BRAAAAAAAINSSSSSSSSSSSSssssssss……

So you see, the zombie genre really does tap into much more than just your want for a bit of a start and some material for nightmares. I’ve really only just started to formulate my ideas on the psychology of the zombie genre, but there really is a lot more I could write about these ideas. I hope you’ve enjoyed a little insight into my take on Zombies in popular culture.

All the photos in this post were taken on May 1 2010 at the Melbourne Zombie Shuffle.

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5 Comments

  1. Oops, you did it again “M”,

    Jesus is the ultimate zombie, afterall, what is going to happen if he comes back…death destruction and death again. A zombie is the living dead, someone just going through the motions, being ‘awake’ and relentlessly striving to eat ‘brain’-which is the organ that gives living humans knowledge and purpose. Zombification is a virus that one can catch, just like religion. Once you get it, life is over and you are just a robot (zombie) whos only purpose is to feed, to feed on the organ that makes us human and differentiates us from animals. While atheist do not believe in ‘souls’, in the zombie scenario the soul represents life and living. To be soulless is to be lifeless. Atheist are the survivors, the ones who do not follow the trends, the ones that can do more than just eat (brains) and go through the motions. The walking dead are the believers here on earth and Team-A are the survivors capable of more than going through the motions of surviving and the eternal quest for ‘brain.’

    Or not. Awesomeness “M”

    Kriss

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  2. I don’t think I ever really considered the genre from this angle. I can also credit Dead Set for getting me hooked on the Zombie genre. A single one of those sprinting zombies was more terrifying than a horde of shamblers.

    I think a subtlety of the point you make about the zombies not being human is that they nearly are. When the zombie gets hit, I think they look human enough that our mirror neurons probably do fire, and so we have this conflict between something that we feel is human but that we think is not. We have to override our instinct with our rationality – understand that the thing that looks human isn’t and we have to destroy it (it now occurs to me that this is a trope than can usually be observed in the start of the flick where the protagonist discovers what’s going on). From that perspective, perhaps it does mirror any justification for violence, religious or other, where ‘they’ have to be dehumanised before reasonable people can be convinced to kill ‘them’.

    A conflict between the instinctive and the rational, perhaps.

    That moral dilemma is usually brought into sharp relief when, like in Shaun of the Dead, someone beloved of the main character(s) is bitten. We know that the person is as good as dead and now present a mortal threat, but we still feel who they are. Moral dilemma.

    When we see the little girl at the beginning of The Walking Dead I think it hits those ‘protect our young’ triggers and our ‘monster will eat me’ triggers at the same time, and that’s another conflict that gets us.

    I’m not even sure what my point was any more, but yeah, very thought-provoking post.

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  3. Once again, Marty, you post about something that was in the back of my mind to talk about.

    On the Biblical/Christian side, sadly these aren’t zombies. All of the biblical stuff about raising from the dead has little to do with the modern zombie concept. Though it is fun to riff on.

    My top zombie films (in no order) include

    Dawn of the Dead (Romero)

    Wild Zero (Japan)

    Reanimator

    Brain Dead

    Zombi 2 (Italy)

    Shaun of the Dead

    28 Days Later

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

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  4. Ooh, I nearly forgot: One of the all-time BEST:

    [REC] (Spain)

    The movie Quarantine copied. Truly scary and realistic.

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  5. GREAT insight Marty, I love your parallel between zombies and the mindless religious masses, it’s brilliant!
    Thanks,
    Kim

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