Thursday, June 16, 2011

ZombieLand of the “Free”: You Are What You Eat?

If you’ve been generous enough to follow my blog, you’ll know that I recently vented my frustration with our culture’s current obsession with making monsters “sexy,” a tendency that provides evidence of the degradation of the horror film genre in the past hundred years (among other more serious societal ills). However, it’s time for a confession: unlike my warm feelings towards the elder vampire Nosferatu, I’m not so nostalgic about the oldest zombie flicks. Not that the oldies aren’t great in their own way, or that zombie films have necessarily gotten better over the past fifty years—unless they’re comedic, they always seem to slip out of control these day—but I have to say that I find 28 Days Later much more frightening overall than the original Night of the Living Dead. I remain hopeful that we may still produce a masterpiece because, for some reason, our culture has left zombies off of the sexy bandwagon—and thank goodness we have, because to do otherwise would result in the ultimate distortion of monstrosity.

Of course, I’m not going to give us credit for being self-aware on this one, so I’m curious as to why it is that we’ve allowed zombies to remain scary. If anything, our fear of them seems to be increasing. One of the most noticeable developments in the portrayal of zombies since George Romero’s classic 1960’s and 70’s Living Dead series is their threat level: zombies in today’s films are usually a whole lot faster, with the most lethargic of humans seemingly morphing into a record-setting sprinter once bitten; they are also stronger, and they’re always more grotesque. In addition, zombies are getting a lot more coverage. The 1990’s and 2000’s witnessed an explosion of media attention to the undead, from the Resident Evil videogame (which, by the way, may be the scariest rendering yet—I’m pretty sure that the time I spent watching my brothers play it is the root cause of one of my recurring nightmares) to Image Comic’s Walking Dead series, to 28 Days Later and all of its cousins on the big screen, to the more recent self-aware “zombie irony” that gives rise to lovable parodies like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and the novels written as zombie re-takes on classics.

Admittedly, zombie fascination in our culture is not terribly new; folklore concerning corpse re-animation has been present in Western society at least since the 1800’s. However, pop culture’s current level of interest in zombies is unprecedented. There’s zombie s.w.a.g. galore, and recently as I was driving through Nashville I noticed a marquee for a camping goods store that said, “Get your zombie survival gear here.” It’s not even close to Halloween, and this is no Spencers-esque novelty outlet. What’s going on with us? 

Some might suggest that this recent upswing is due to our ubiquitous access to T.V. and obsession with carnage; throw in our increasingly global consciousness, and it’s no wonder that we’ve been consistently paranoid about a worldwide zombie apocalypse since the advent of Romero’s Living Dead. There are even folks who seem eager to go ahead and get the apocalypse started. You’ve heard of the “zombie walks,” right? If you live in a big enough city, you’ve perhaps even witnessed one? This phenomenon originated in 2001 and is contained primarily to larger urban areas in North America. Basically, a zombie walk entails a decent-sized crowd getting together to stagger around town, in character, as the walking dead. Most of the time they do it for no particular reason, although there are some charitable zombies who use the walks as an opportunity to raise money to combat world hunger (it would be irreverent if it weren’t so clever).

…As a side note—it only seems natural that if these people really want to stay current, they should be conducting “zombie sprints” around their cities. It would make a great Halloween Day marathon, if nothing else.

It’s hard to believe that all of this heightening anxiety about/fascination with the un-dead only stems from our inundation with visual stimuli and violence (although I’m confident that these proliferate our obsession). Instead, I wonder if it doesn’t have more to do with our repressed fear that we are witnessing the zombie apocalypse already—that we are becoming, more and more, the living dead.

Think about it: What characterizes zombies? First, they look like they are alive but aren’t. This might correlate with the widespread depersonalization endemic to our culture. We humans have an inherent tendency to place ultimate trust in those things which will not sustain us—to passing pleasures, especially rising social statuses of various expressions. A culture like ours that privileges one-upmanship is especially encouraging of this tendency (and it’s time we admit that our resistance sub-cultures are not exempt from this temptation either). And when we can’t numb our emptiness in the forms of wealth/beauty/fame, we usually turn to over-medication, intoxication, and other forms of escapism. Thus, we easily become those who continue working and socializing, looking as if we were alive when we have actually forfeited our humanity and are enslaved to success and escapism.

Second, zombies are intent on one thing only: the consumption of the living. This probably speaks to our one-upmanship once again, wherein people become little more than means to desired ends. What’s more, in our quest for success, we make ourselves into “means” as well, striving to become that product which other people want not for relationship but for benefit. The zombie’s appetite also probably connects with our paralyzing insecurity in light of the physical and emotional violence we perpetuate: we assume that most people are out to get us, so we’re gonna get them first; and round and round we go. If you are what you eat, it's no wonder that we're all behaving like the undead.

Finally, when it comes to zombies, everyone has the same personality: the individual is consumed by the masses and is then unidentifiable from the masses. This probably correlates, again, with widespread depersonalization and viewing the self as a product of consumption. These conditions engender our interacting primarily via contrived forms rather than genuinely and vulnerably. The result is the irony of isolation—by closing ourselves off from one another, we lose our individuality.

Essentially, I believe that our culture is obsessed with zombies because, in the back of our minds, we feel like the picture zombie fictions paint may not be far from the truth. I’m reminded of the tagline on the original Dawn of the Dead poster: “When there’s no more room in HELL, the dead will walk the EARTH.” Catchy. However, I might tweak it a bit: “When the dead walk the earth, we create our own hell.” We are so afraid of vulnerability that, to borrow Paul Tillich’s terms, we “avoid non-being by avoiding being,” worshipping that which we control instead of that which is of ultimate concern. And so we become the living dead. It’s worth mentioning that, of course, Christians are not exempt from this danger. Christians are human and so, though we profess to worship that which is ultimate--God--we are much more apt to place our trust in the tangibles of our culture along with everyone else.

However, all of this zombie-mania could encourage us Christ-followers to admit and even find solace in the fact that there are two things we cannot avoid: First, we cannot escape the fact that to be human is to seek ultimate meaning and security in something, and that most of us (“Christians” and non-) find it much easier to put our faith in that which, in the end, lacks the power to save us by giving meaning to our existence. Pretending otherwise is just another form of escapism, and a quick ticket to zombieland. Let’s admit instead that faith is an ongoing struggle: that because we are finite, the element of uncertainty will always be there. However, we should also recognize that there is something beautiful in accepting that. Turning again to Paul Tillich, “If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it. It is a consequence of the risk of faith…Faith includes courage. Therefore, it can include the doubt about itself.”

And second, let us come to terms with the uncomfortable reality of our mortality. We cannot escape our embodiment, try as we might through anti-aging procedures and reliance on technology. This means that we Christians should resist making “salvation” abstract, and that we should more readily acknowledge that we are ALL going to die. However, let us not forget that that proclamation is paired with the promise of resurrection—not corpse re-animation, but re-creation into the fullness of life that we’ve yet to experience.

Perhaps our clearest reminder of this is the Communion Feast, a celebration which is the ultimate reversal of the zombie myth. In it, we are not consumed but rather feast on the body and blood of the crucified Christ, and in doing so our embodied souls are brought to restoration, renewal, and resurrection. Until our Lord comes, this sacrament proclaims his death, teaching us that the final word will not belong to death but that there will come a day when the dead may walk in the newness of life. 


  1. Sexy Zombie romance literature may not have gotten particularly popular (because, ew) but there are a few teen-oriented books out there about living girls crushing on living-dead guys. "I Kissed a Zombie, and I Liked It" by Adam Selzer and "Generation Dead" by Daniel Waters seem to fit the mold. There's also "Hungry for Your Love: An Anthology of Zombie Romance" which came out last year.

    I haven't read them (again, ew) but they do check out of the library.

    So just because there aren't a lot of sexy zombie movies out there right now doesn't mean they didn't try to make it happen.

  2. Lauren - I love you and your blog for a myriad of different reasons, but today, I'm nearly in tears over seeing you give a shout-out to the Walking Dead comics. Bless you, honey. Bless you so hard.

  3. Danny--oh MY. This is disturbing news indeed. I should have asked you before I made the presumption that sexy zombie cultural artifacts were non-extant…and the people checking those books out from the library should be put on some sort of psycho-watchlist, don't you think? Wow. "I Kissed a Zombie, and I Liked It"? I can't stop laughing at that one.

    Aaron--I love you for a myriad of reasons as well, one of which being your kindness in taking time to comment on my humble blog, and the second being that you enjoy the Walking Dead comics. Bless you as well, my friend.

  4. Lauren,
    Masterful, masterful.
    Another theme in the zombie genre is the sense of aloneness that gives birth to the quest for community within authentic humanity. What's the use of surviving the zombie apocalypse if you do it completely alone? Thus, there is almost always the desperate search for somebody that can be connected with humanly as opposed to the embodied unhumanness that wants to eat your legs. to me it's this search for community that defines the zombie genre.