Since I recently finished reading Max Brook’s World War Z, I thought I would post back up this essay that I wrote about zombie culture on my blog. I wrote it a couple of years ago, but took it down for whatever reason. Since I finished the book, I thought I would repost my thoughts on the topic. After all, there is no denying the hype that exists around zombies these days. In fact, whether looking for a book at the library or scanning the shelves at your local movie rental, these monsters seem to be everywhere you turn. They are certainly not the prettiest things to look at, either. By their very nature, they are rotten to the bone and keep getting gorier and gorier with every film. They used to walk stiff-leggedly through the night, searching for brains, but now, they chase their prey down in mob fashion. Hollywood keeps making it easier for these zombies to overwhelm survivors who haven’t died yet. One minute they’re limping and moaning, the next they’re running and snarling. They just keep getting meaner and meaner. No surprise really. When you stop to look at a list of movie titles available from Wikipedia, the zombie movie, arranged by year, is produced by the droves annually and has been since film production studios were able to produce films, so they need to do something to keep these slow moving mobs interesting. Budgets usually don’t help either. Earlier films managed to make really scary backdrops with hardly anything going for production crews. According to Zombiepedia (yes, such a website exists), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was filmed and produced on as little of a budget as $114,000. Regardless of the budget or theme, the film industry pushes the zombie movie through the production lines, because it is what most people want to see. They are high in demand. But why? What is the fascination? Because we want to live to tell about it, that’s why.
Zombie culture is not just limited to the big screen. In fact, it is invading college campuses all across the nation. HUMANSVSZOMBIES is an organization devoted to social networking campus-wide events, where users can label themselves as either human survivors or zombie menace, in order to socialize and roleplay zombie apocalypse scenarios in a real-world setting. I say campus-wide, but what I really meant was worldwide, as the influence of this organization seems to have quite the reach. The location finder (Googlemaps) they have on their homepage shows their registered users extending even to remote countries like Kyrgyzstan, located in Euroasia. So what does this glorified game of tag ultimately mean, in terms of the apparent obsession that people have with zombies?
While a game like this may be “fun” to play when it is not exam time, there are others who take the idea of a zombie apocalypse much more seriously. Guns and Ammo magazine seems to have picked up on the fascination, as they offer an entire series of blog articles on their website titled “Zombie Nation.” Their tag line: “When you’re helpless against the zombie horde and their blood lust, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Get your tips, tactics and gear for zombie defense here” (Guns&Ammo). There’s something disconcerting about a magazine that advocates second amendment rights, but uses a theme like the zombie apocalypse to inform their readers of “responsible” gunmanship. One of the articles, for example, is about the Kel-Tec shotgun. Tom Beckstrand, a demonstrator for the “Zombie Nation” column, advertises and promotes this tactical weapon when he states in the video: “If you’re going to carry a shotgun in the zombie apocalypse, this is a good one to have” (0:24, “Ultimate Zombie Shotgun). He, then, proceeds to unload the 14-round magazine this .12 gauge pump-action shotgun is capable of holding into a series of zombie paper targets. “Alright, that was fourteen rounds of twelve-gauge goodness,” he concludes the video with. What a safe feeling it brings to know that such tactical weapons are available on the open market. Just think, weapons like this are being stockpiled and bunkered in American homes right now for the “coming” zombie apocalypse.
But, I digress. This is more of a by-product with the fascination that surrounds the zombie, not an explanation for its influence over the American mentality. Interestingly enough, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the governmental agency responsible for the nation’s immunal security, offers some insight into this fascination for the undead when director Dr. Ali Khan is quoted from a CNN interview to illustrate why they are using the zombie apocalypse theme to promote preparedness: “It’s a good metaphor for where you have complete disruption” (qtd. in Greene). He goes on to suggest that the same level of preparation needed for a pandemic or a natural catastrophe would be the same if the world were to be plagued by a zombie infestation. It’s a step in the direction they want people to think in when it comes to a disaster, where they want people to survive and fend for themselves when the social system in place is disrupted by circumstances beyond anyone’s control. In every way, they’re promoting survivalism. In fact, from their Public Health Matters Blog, the CDC states:
When you walk up to a person and start talking about the undead they have all kinds of preparedness ideas, most involving food, water, and other life essentials which just so happen to be the same items that we recommend people put in their disaster kit. So, the old adage really holds true, if you’re prepared for zombies, then you’re prepared for anything (Zombie Nation).
Is this what we find fascinating about them? Because we would rather be survivors than mindless zombies? Perhaps watching a zombie film is not about watching a gore-fest, per say, but to see how we could potentially survive such a scenario. As the quote above states, many people have their own ideas about preparedness when they talk about the undead. Some believe that the possibility, although highly improbable, exists, so these people toy with the idea and concoct a hypothetical strategy for survival against an imaginary foe. An exit plan, if you will, for when hell on Earth ensues. As improbable as they may be, though, zombies are still dangerous — not just to the protagonists in the zombie story, but to the American way of life, in general. They represent a much larger threat; one that is not detrimental to our physical, bodily condition, but a threat that is more psychologically restrictive. With the violence our culture is often exposed to, both factual and fictional, most Americans like to think they can handle a zombie single-handedly. But, when it comes to the zombie horde, closing in and cutting off all avenues of escape, liberties are at stake. A person trapped cannot help but die an agonizing and terrible death. To make matters worse, that individual rises again to join their ranks. To this end, it goes against the very notion of being free and living your life the way you want to. Is this not something Americans pride themselves with over anything else? Once an individual turns into a zombie, he or she is no longer capable of their own free will, rather they become a part of the mob that makes up the undead. This scares Americans. Perhaps this is why the CDC uses the zombie as a means to encourage people to think for themselves in terms of their own survivability during a disaster. Most people will listen and act when their civil liberties are at risk.
An article written by Stephen Gertz, then a senior English major for the project “An Exploration of Modern Monsters,” headed by Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan in 1999, addresses something similar about the notion of free will and the zombie, but he draws his conclusions by looking at the root of the zombie’s origins in Haitian Voodooism. He declares that “by ‘controlling’ another person and eliminating that persons [sic] ability to make choices, let alone engage in conscious thought, the ‘controller’ has reduced that person to the level of an animal and has robbed him of his humanity” (Gertz). The “controller” that he is referring to here is known as the bokor (evil sorceror) and the houngan (healer) in Haitian Voodoo, both who are capable of zombification through the use of a powder, where the victim is drugged into a zombie-like state, rendering them as “zombi astral” (Jacobi). Wade Davis talks about this type of zombie in his widely acclaimed book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, an inside look at Haitian Voodoo and the secret societies that exist around it. When the poison is used by a bokor or a houngan, the soul of the victim is released and becomes trapped. He writes, “‘In that bottle was the soul of a human being… the control of which is an ominous power. It is a ghost, or like a dream; it wanders at the command of the one who possesses it. It was a zombi astral captured from the victim by the magic of the bokor'” (Davis 167). Clearly, an human being is placed into jeopardy when such a poison has the ability to render a person soulless, but this type of zombie that Gertz and Davis describes is more malevolently created by the hands of a witch doctor. This is not the same zombie — zombi savanne — that returns from the dead (Jacobi); it is not the zombie that George A. Romero reinvented with Night of the Living Dead. This zombie rises from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living and is controlled by no one but its own urges.
The zombi astral, then, is in every way the literal theft of the human soul from a poisoned victim, and the loss of free will imposed by such an act is undeniable. But, does the zombi savanne, the undead corpse that returns from the dead to stalk the earth, still fall under the debate about civil liberties and the threat against the American way of life? It certainly does. Death, in the present hypothetical context, is not a release from the throes of life, because the individual who dies is doomed to turn into one of them. This is what makes the zombie so menacing. It is not enough that one should be ravaged by a mob of flesh-eating monsters, but that the condition is viral and spreads with each attack. This is where the power of the zombie narrative exists. This is what makes for compelling stories of survival.
Books like The Zombie Survival Guide, authored by Max Brooks in 2003, are popular for this very reason. People want to read about ways in which they can survive a zombie apocalypse. Afterall, who wants to become a zombie? The AMC original series, The Walking Dead, is in its fifth season now, because most viewers want to know what happens to the survivors. Their quest for survival and liberation from the oppressive and ever hostile zombie makes for compelling story. We watch these shows always from the perspective of a survivor, someone whom we are sympathetic with, because we ourselves want to think we can survive such an event, too. A book like this offers strategies and tips, all hypothetical, of course, that we can consult, much in the way of a Boyscout Handbook. Afterall, does not the survivor, pitted against all odds against a horde of flesh-eating zombies, appeal to our gun-crazy, survivalistic, free-thinking society? If anything, it makes for a compelling and dramatic storyline — the more apocalyptic and dire the backdrop, the better. Max Brook’s World War Z, a collection of testimonials from survivors of the “Zombie War,” which was very entertaining, given all of the different perspectives Brooks offers. At one point he even shows what the zombie apocalypse looks like from an astronaut’s vantage point on the International Space Station. Needless to say, it was a well-thought series of stories about a significant event, which Hollywood had to put on the big screen. It was adapted and released as a film starring Brad Pitt back in 2013, making it the exact type of plot that attracts viewers. It is post-apocalyptic and barren — a no-man’s land. This is the direction that Hollywood film-making seems to be taking us, too.
In post-apocalyptic America, the rules change. It is the wild, wild west all over again. Lawlessness and zombie menace make life for survivors difficult and rugid, but they are free from the bonds of social restraint, from the bonds of government. These survivors are where the appeal lies. They are not limited by rules and regulations. They do not live the mundane lives, where routine dictates what comes on the dinner table or what we wear when we go to work six days out of the week. In fact, the more alone they are, the better. There are no ties or commitments to be made. It is simply a matter of fending for oneself. In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for example, three survivors coup themselves up in a retail mall, where they clean out and barricade themselves inside for protection against the zombies that roam the land. One of the protagonists, Roger, played by Scott Reiniger, is injured at one point in the film, where he is laid up in the storage room they turned into their home. There, he slowly rots from the viral infection that spreads from the attack. Peter (Ken Foree) watches the heart-wrenching transformation from human to zombie and shots him once he turns. This is one of the drawbacks that the zombie narrative plays on its survivors; the protagonists are forced to consider and do things that often go against their conscience, their very nature, in order to survive. At first, they see the zombies as humans — from a distance — until they are up-close and aggressive. Once they are forced to defend themselves, their demeanor becomes hardened. They do not sympathize with the dead and are desensitized by the violence around them. It becomes easier for them to do the harder tasks, like surviving.
There is a certain appeal to the zombie horror movie that people will acknowledge. Any way you look at them, they make for intriguing but grisly stories. We see these people placed in horrific environments, where they are forced to fend for their right to live. Each turn the story takes leaves us predicting who amongst the cast will be killed and how. As horrible as this may sound, it is something we are used to. The exposure most Americans have to violence is commonplace, ranging from the sensationalized evening news to prime-time television, making a topic like the zombie apocalypse an interesting one for some. Therein lies the truth to the zombie myth in America: it is the by-product of a culture that thrives and profits off of violence. We like to watch as the human condition is pushed to its limit. Just looking at how Guns and Ammo‘s “Zombie Nation” column or the CDC’s “Preparedness 101” blog uses zombies to reach out and peek the interests of people is certainty of this. Culturally, we are saturated in violence, so we long to sympathize with those who survive situations we would not otherwise want to be in. It is thrilling, in a way: the anxiety that comes with isolation and the inescapability of death. Some of us, though, would rather survive and live to tell about it than have our will to live taken away from us.
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