I’ll be honest: On the whole, I dislike the Zombie genre. I’ve never watched more than five minutes of The Walking Dead, I’ve never been shot in the tail with George Romero’s movies, and I roll my eyes at Zombie Game advertisements. There are exactly one stand-alone film, one film series, and one television series featuring zombies that I enjoy. The film series is the game-base franchise, Resident Evil. Of course, anyone who’s ever watched any of the RE movies knows that the zombies aren’t the main thrust of the film; they’re just something for Milla Jovavich to punch, like the English in Luc Besson’s The Messenger.
The stand-alone film was Shaun of the Dead, and the television series is an anime called (in English) High School of the Dead. What they both have in common is something you don’t find in Zombie media—hope. Admittedly, the hope in Shaun is that weird kind of black hope found in all British comedies, where the hero’s only allowed to survive because God needs someone to crap on, and the anime expresses an ephemeral hope that many Japanese films and animes express: the characters themselves refuse to give up, and that allows them to press on in the face of overwhelming odds. Because of that hopeless hopefulness, you, the viewer, find hope in their situation. If anime had been popular during World War II, we would probably have let them have China because they’re so darn plucky. (In the interest of honesty, I also like HOTD, because I find their constant attempts to fulfill some expectation of cheesecake in all animes to be hilarious–especially the opening credits which seamlessly blend scenes of Zombie atrocities with cleavage shots and naughty schoolgirl softcore porn.)
So, yeah, I don’t really enjoy the Zombie genre. I also don’t enjoy the self-important diatribes of Rachel Madow, but i watch her on occasion, just the same. I’m an information junkie, and I never turn down a source of information, even if the interpretation of verifiable facts is wrong (she actually reports accurate facts, when you can differentiate between the facts and the opinions stated as facts). Anyway, I watch Zombie shows, and have been known to play the odd Zombie game. If it was okay to avoid something just because you found it repugnant, no one would know math.
That brings us to the actual topic of today’s rant: I’ve noticed a lot of Zombie movies over the past several years, more so even than the late Seventies and Early Eighties when the Zombocalypse first became popular (yes, Night of the Living Dead was released in 1969 or so, but it spent a lot of time languishing in the midnight showings at drive-ins before it was revived by its sequel, Dawn of the Dead).
I remember reading over on Cracked, a few months ago, that this is because zombies represent gays, or Tea Party Conservatives…something (I get a little hazy when people try to apply an archetype to a single group of people based on spurious psychology). I also remember thinking how wrong the explanation felt, but not being able to put my finger on the exact reason. I think I have it now, but to explain, I have to go back and explain other things.
For a long time, there were three major archetypes in horror: The Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Golem. These archetypes eminently express visceral fears that people carry about the world around them. Respectively, they can be seen as The Evil Without, the Evil Within, and the Evil of Our Own Making. For a fascinating rundown of how the first two work as archetypal expressions of fear, read Stephen King’s non-fiction work, Danse Macabre. I added the Golem to his two original archetypes, because it fits and, if you count vengeful spirits as a precursor to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it takes a fear of the-sins-of-our-pasts-returning-to-haunt-us all the way back to the dawn of history.
So now we have a new archetype (okay, not really new…the Zombocalypse goes back to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but what fear does it represent? A cursory glance may lead one to believe that zombies are nothing more than a general xenophobia; I mean, the basis of every zombie movie is clearly overpopulation—all those people, mindlessly pressing into you and taking you over. With the state of the world (over 300 million people in the US alone) how can they not be an expression of our fear of overcrowding.
Except that sort of falls down when you realize that India and China, the two most populous nations on the planet, don’t produce many zombie movies at all. Well, then, I can hear you asking, because I can hear your thoughts, what do they represent if they don’t represent Sartre’s sentiment that “Hell is other people” (by the way, that’s actually an incomplete quote, but I’m not ranting about Misquoted Philosophers at the moment).
I’m glad you asked, let me respond with a question: What do all of these movies have in common besides rotting people stinking up the neighborhood? They have Attrition, Hopelessness, the Overwhelming Force of Things Greater Than Ourselves. A zombie may be anything you consider mindless and threatening. Zombies gathered in an unstoppable horde are society itself, or more accurately, the breakdown of societal systems. What’s more passive-aggressively indefatigable than a zombie horde? If you said, that officious little prick at the DMV who sent me to the back of the line because I forgot to sign my application instead of just lending me a pen, then you’re on the right track.
One sure sign of societal breakdown is the appearance of bureaucracy. Okay, not entirely; some bureaucracy, like a mild, but recurring, case of athlete’s foot, can be tolerated because it reminds us to wash the bottoms or our feet. What I mean, is when a society gets to the point that they can’t (or won’t) trust each other so much that they have entire hierarchies devoted to the enforcement and categorization of minutiae, when “Don’t cross on red,” becomes “File form R-31D at window F to get for 27AL and get back in line to receive formal permission to cross the street if and when the light next turns green on these specific dates,” that society (not government…governments thrive on bureaucracy) is in breakdown.
And, like a zombie horde, a bureaucracy sustains itself by feeding on and accelerating the destruction of the society that originated it. Like the perverse incentives I discussed last time, bureaucracies have an erosive effect on societal function. People are encouraged to depend on the bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the nature of the bureaucracy itself makes it more difficult to act within the law and easier to find yourself suddenly a criminal. It wears you down like the endless stream of undead shambling forward.
In every zombie movie, you can clearly see the failures of a society that will no longer settle a difference with an apology and a handshake. You see the death throes of a people who think wildflowers on a lawn are a sign of indolence. You see the inexorable march of a bureaucracy that replaces reason with rules and equality with minutiae.
It’s oppressive. It’s overwhelming. If you let it, it can become hopeless.