Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why Zombies are So Fucking Cool

The crowbar is the perfect weapon for fighting off hordes of zombies.  I'm not sure exactly when I decided this.  Maybe it was after reading The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, or maybe it was after watching SHAUN OF THE DEAD for the hundredth time, or maybe it was on that strange and terrible night that Ryebone passed me that crack pipe and I got The Terror and I spent eight hours on the roof of his apartment building trying to explain to the police on the ground below how the faces in my coffee warned me of the impending space zombie apocalypse and that the only person in the universe perfectly equipped to deal with it was some kind of cybernetic being created by surgically grafting components from R2D2 onto Peter Weller and then injecting him with alien DNA from the alien from ALIEN and finally arming him with a crowbar with laser sights.

Most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about the (as far as we know) extremely unlikely event that the planet will be overrun with zombies let alone what would be the best way to do away with this undead threat or if having sex with a zombie (who is technically undead) would technically be considered necrophelia. (Technically unnecrophelia, right?  And therefore not morally reprehensible.)  But these are the thoughts that run through my brain periodically throughout the day or night when I'm not thinking about breasts or STAR WARS or breasts.

 As much as I hate to be lumped in with the popular crowd, it seems as though I am not entirely alone in my (slight) obsession with zombies.  There seems to be an entire subculture developing around our walking dead friends and the entire genre of zombie literature (books, movies, graphic novels) has really become mainstream to the point where zombies now rival vampires for popularity in our collective unconscious.  As soon as some hack of a writer out there churns out some tween novel where the female protagonist falls in love with a zombie then proceeds to cocktease him and his mummy rival for three or four sequels (yes, that was a veiled TWILIGHT reference) then I'll have to start hating the whole thing on principle alone.  Teenage girls are a good social barometer: anything they like I know I have to hate.  Zombies + teenage angst = me strangling myself with an extension cord.

But until Stephanie Meyer or someone with even less talent (Hey, J.K. Rowling, even your shit looks better by comparison) comes along and reduces the zombie to a veiled metaphor for repressed teenage sexuality and uses the idiom of the zombie merely as an excuse to have some angst-filled zombie wander around without his shirt on to show off his six-pack abs I will continue to enjoy me some zombie action.

The interesting part about zombies isn't that I -and so many others- seem to enjoy their gluttonous rampages of disembowelment: it's why.  What makes these these undead fiends so appealing to our conscious and our unconscious?  What makes us shell out hard earned cash to buy the literature and go to the movies?  What is it about these shambling corpses that seems to have captured our imaginations and our hearts (both metaphorically and literally)?  Well, as usual, I have some unsolicited thoughts on the matter.  Without further delay here are a list of reasons why I think zombies are so fucking cool.

#1: Visceral Evisceration

The first reason our culture seems to love zombies so much is pretty simple: we love to watch terrible things happen to people.  We eat that shit up.  With a gore-covered spoon.  There's a certain adrenaline rush that comes from witnessing gruesome events that the entire genre of horror movies is based on.  A lot of people (like, say, your grandma) don't like to admit it, but we -both as a culture and as homo sapiens- are fascinated with the macabre.  We love watching movies about some chainsaw-wielding maniac chopping people into tiny pieces.  We love to slow down to look at an accident on the highway to see if we can see any carnage or destruction.  The best stories we have are when somebody got fucked up.  Think about it.  A story about a car crash where everybody survived is uplifting, yes, but infinitely more boring than a story about a car crash where everybody meets a terrible end and the inside of the car was decorated with somebody's internal organs.

 It's a rush.

 It's a high.

Most fans of zombie literature will tell you their favourite parts are when the human characters get eaten by the zombies.  That's kind of the whole fun of it.  A zombie movie where all the survivors work together, kill all the zombies, then escape to an island paradise, then sit around the campfire and make s'mores and sing Kumbaya would be boring as shit.  As fun as it is to watch the human characters dispatch their undead pursuers in increasingly inventive ways, it's still not half as fun or emotionally satisfying as watching one of the human survivors be ripped in half by a dozen ravenous zombies.  I get so much more (potentially sadistic) pleasure from watching a guy's face get ripped off of his skull in DAY OF THE DEAD than I do from watching some fucking stupid zombie get his head chopped off by a helicopter's spinning blades in DAWN OF THE DEAD.  It's always way more fun when the heroes get royally fucked up.  Deep down, we want the hero to lose.  We want the world to go to shit.  There's something satisfying in believing in some kind of apocalypse.  Like no matter what happens we can always be assured of one constant: things will always get worse.  No matter how hard we try we will grow old and die.  There is no way to escape it.  Which segues nicely into my second reason zombies are so fucking cool...

#2: Shuffle Off That Mortal Coil, Biatch!

I seem to recall reading some essay by Simon Pegg (yes that Simon Pegg) about how zombies are the physical embodiment of death though of course now I can't find it to save my life.  And in retrospect I'm not even 100% sure it was Simon Pegg.  I'm not sure if it's my age catching up to me or the brain damage caused by that small dose of anthrax Ryebone sent me in the mail last April Fool's Day.  Whoever wrote the essay they were right.  One reason our culture is becoming obsessed with zombies over other monsters like sasquatches or gremlins is because zombies represent one of our oldest, most primal fears: the fear of death.  Ultimately any fear is really the fear of death.  There is perhaps no concept more terrifying and intriguing than our own mortality (except maybe waking up in the body of Rosie O'Donnell).

Death is inevitable.  It is also the Great Unknown.  We're terrified not of leaving this life, but of not knowing what -if anything- happens next.  Everybody dies alone.  While you might have some kind of emotional support system dealing with other fears and phobias, once you die you're on your own.  For better or worse. It's not the dying that we have problems with it's the uncertainty of what happens afterwards.  The concept of death is really the driving force behind our concept of Fate or Destiny.  One of the major cornerstones of any religion is how it explains what happens after death.  People need to cling to something.  They want to be reassured that there's something on "the other side."  Not only do people seem to want to believe in an afterlife but a lot of people -particularly in Western society- need to envision the afterlife as Place of Justice where the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.  In reality you probably just end up hanging out with a decaying Micheal Keaton who keeps trying to look under your girlfriend's skirt for all eternity.

Zombies are such a satisfying metaphor because they allow us to personify death.  Along with this personification comes the ability to quite literally fight back.  By giving death a physical body it allows us to crack open the skull of that body with a fucking crowbar.  At the same time as zombies represent the unstoppable force of death, they also empower the survivors in the narrative as well as the audience experiencing the horror vicariously through them.  In the zombie narrative the characters can quite literally kill death.  Humanity can fight back against a physical enemy much more effectively than a metaphysical one.  Until the time comes, of course, when scientists develop a metaphysical shotgun and we can blow Death's brains out for good.

#3: Sweet Zombie Jesus!

Zombies not only represent our own, inevitable (and in the case of zombies, probably quite grizzly) death: in some twisted way they also represent a sort of triumph over death.  What are zombies?  They are the reanimated corpses of dead human beings.  You know what that is?  That's what they referred to in the bible as "resurrection."  Think about it.  Jesus was the first zombie in Western literature.  Now some of you might argue that Lazarus was actually the first zombie who after several days rotting in a cave somewhere in the Middle East was brought back to life by the aforementioned Jesus.  First of all I would respond by telling you to get a life and stop reading the bible in your spare time.  Reciting the ten commandments never got anybody laid.  Ever.  Second I would have to point out that only a zombie can create another zombie and if you allow that Lazarus was a zombie and Jesus was the one who turned him into a zombie, then Jesus would have to be a zombie in order to have turned Lazarus into zombiekind.  Or at the very least he would have to have been some kind of Typhoid Mary-style carrier of some zombie virus.  The entire story of Jesus' death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection is basically a prequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  Jesus is tortured and murdered to death then buried in a cave for three days after which time he comes back to life.  And you know how he proves to the disciples who he really is?  He shows them the wounds in his hands and in his side.  Yes, Jesus now comes complete with authentic battle damage.  The very fact that he still has those wounds tells us that -just like zombies- his body is incapable of healing.  The fact that he is a zombie and can still talk is probably just one in a long list of ridiculous exaggerations that plagues the bible and really keeps it from being taken seriously.

#4: What are the Philosophical Implications of "All You Can Eat"?

Another thing that zombies represent is irrepresible hunger, or if you're Catholic, then gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins (AKA the best parts of being human).  These theme was really driven home by the video game Dead Rising where in an attempt to produce more beef for the American fast food industry scientists accidentally bioengineered the zombie plague.  The resulting zombies in this case become a metaphor not only for gluttony, but also for American (and by extension Western) consumerist society.  In the game this clearly had negative implications, although I didn't hear any stories of anybody selling all of his worldly possessions and donating the money to charity before going off to live in the woods like Survivorman after playing Dead Rising.  Although Les Stroud is pretty fucking cool and I would pay big bucks to see the Survivorman: Zombie Special where he's stuck out in the woods and has to fashion his own zombie-killing instruments using some sticks and rocks and his own shoelaces.  I guarantee that he would find no less than ten invaluable ways to use the defeated corpse of a zombie to survive including using its intestines to lash together a shelter, removing the femur bone to use as a weapon for killing even more zombies and somehow starting a fire.  Dude can start a fire with just about anything.  Sorry, where was I?  Oh yeah, number five...

#5: Cursed By His Own Hubris

Zombies are fucking cool.  I mean, they never lose their shit.  They remain calm and collected.  Even when they sense their prey nearby they don't feel the need to quicken their pace.  Zombies are like the Clint Eastwoods of the horror world.  (Except when they're not, like in ZOMBIELAND where they run around like crazy.  But even when they're running it's not because they've lost their shit.  They've got their shit under control.)  Perhaps the scariest part about any zombie movie isn't the zombies themselves but the human characters who always manage to fuck things up royally.  No matter how good or bad things are going the human characters always manage to make it worse either through malice of intent like the biker gang in DAWN OF THE DEAD, by losing their shit and fucking around like Roger in DAWN OF THE DEAD when he was blocking off the doors with the trucks, or whether through plain, good old-fashioned fucking up like when David smashes the window of the Winchester in SHAUN OF THE DEAD.

For some reason no matter how good the survivors have it they seem intent on screwing themselves over.  The perfect example of this is DAY OF THE DEAD where through infighting, massive personality clashes and a whole lot of pent up sexual frustration these survivors who are safe and secure in a heavily fortified military base somehow manage to allow themselves to be decimated by the zombie hordes.  While it made for a much more entertaining movie than if they just sat tight and had a few orgies while they waited for the zombie thing to just "blow over," it's still frustrating to watch the last hope of humanity (ie. cooperation for mutual self-preservation (and eventual repopulation (ie. sex with all the hot survivors of which there will be many because it's usually the ugly who are the first to go))) go up in smoke like the burning corpses of your family and friends to make sure they don't come back to life.

#6: Can I Get Your Autograph?  Just Make It Out To ARRRRRRGHGGHGGHGGGHH!

OK, here's the part where I kind of feel super clever because this is one insight about zombies that I have never seen mentioned anywhere else and I feel that I came to this conclusion completely on my own (although seeing as my consciousness is merely the conglomerate of countless social and cultural codes and concepts, I suppose "originality of thought" is something of a paradox).  Are you ready for this?  Are you sure?  Here we go.  Zombies represent our modern conceptualization of celebrity.  Millions of mindless drones trying to claw their way towards those bright beacons of light known as survivors.  The zombie/survivor relationship is the perfect analogy for the fan/celebrity relationship.  We -as fans- are like emotional zombies who swarm around celebrities whenever they make a public appearance trying to get a piece of them, usually in the form of an autograph or a lock of their perfectly groomed hair.  Or maybe their underwear.  Or a sperm sample.  Or something personal of theirs that ended up in the trash.  Like a used kleenex.  Nothing too crazy.  Perhaps this idea is best summed up by a quote from an as-yet-unnamed character from an as-yet-finished and unpublished piece of zombie literature (how's that for some meta post modern bullshit?):

"You don't get it, do you?  You still don't know what this is.  Those things out there they want us.  Us.  And nothing else.  They want us so bad they can practically taste it.  They don't even know why.  They see us and they want us.  Because we're special.  And they're not.  They're the faceless masses clawing at the chance for a piece -just a piece- of something bigger than themselves.  We are the bright shining light that they swarm around.  Just like when people used to line up to get an autograph from their favourite sports hero or movie star.  Well I'm not going to turn them away.  I'm going to sign their fucking autographs.  I'm going to write my name in the side of their heads with a fucking baseball bat and a shotgun.  I'm going to sign my name in their blood and they'll love me for it.  This is our time now.  And nobody's going to take that away from us.  We already got our place in history.  We're the survivors."

Alright, there you have it.  My small contribution to zombie historiography.  I think we've all had a lot of fun and even learned a thing or two along the way.  But before I finish off there is the small, but important, matter that we still haven't covered in discussing the cultural significance of zombies: but first, the whores!



          

          

 

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