Friday, November 19, 2010

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us: Taking the Train to Zombietown

The Walking Dead has been quite a smash on AMC, which make me gleeful because I think horror is vastly underrated as an art form. But that's a topic for another time. The question is why so popular now? I think one of the reasons is the way that art reflects society, and how society embraces art.

When I was a kid one of the first movies I remember scaring the daylights out of me was 1953's Invaders from Mars, in a which a kid discovers that all the adults he's supposed to trust have in actuality been taken over by aliens. Of course no one believes him. In retrospect the movie is kind of cheesy in the special effects department, but it also has a stark truth about it. There is something utterly terrifying about us not being us.

Elementally, we don't like representations of ourselves that are too close. Ventriloquist dummies, the clockwork Stepford Wives, the mannequins in "The After Hours" from the original Twilight Zone, the inhabitants of the Uncanny Valley. Now take that one step further and hollow us out, fill us with something that is fundamentally not us, or even worse than that, just the absence of us.

In 1968, George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead.  It came at a time when the world was flipping upside down. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movements, the sexual revolution, women's lib. Conventions were being torn down, and all this coming on the heels of the McCarthyite era when there was a commie around every corner, well, people were a tad unsettled. Who do you trust? Your government, your neighbors, your kids, no one over 30?

Night of the Living Dead is an embodiment of the '60s. I take George Romero's word that he pays no attention to subtext when he's making a film. The great thing about subtext is that it sometimes just inserts itself, either by luck, by the quiet working of  the artist's subconscious, or by some unknown machination of the universe. Whatever the case, Night of the Living Dead works as well on a subconscious level as it does on a superficial scare level.  Little zombie girl hacking up her parents with a trowel? She would have just have become a hippie in the Haight, and isn't that really the same thing?  Good ol' boys with guns shooting the hero, who just happens to be black? At a certain point, it doesn't matter what was intended, the art takes on a life of its own.

Romero, the zombie godfather, followed up with Dawn of the Dead, where we  are just shells that consume for the sake of consuming, and Day of the Dead, where the military/industrial complex seems to be the last institution standing, or shambling, if you want to look at it that way.

Romero spawned an entire zombie culture. Without Romero, you have no Sense and Sensibility with Zombies, you have no World War Z, you have no The Walking Dead. Which takes us back to my original question. What about zombies gets under our skin?

Right now, the world is an uncertain place. I was a tiny kid in the '60s, so I don't remember it all that well, but it seems like a lot of the things we thought were settled are unsettled. I sure as hell feel nervous. We have come to divide, to another point in time where the populace has fallen into a "them versus us" trap.

The zombie is an all-purpose monster. It's a blank canvas you can spatter with the guts of whatever scares you the most. You're a right-winger? Why the zombie can stand in for every brown/gay/liberal/foreign invader who's come to wrench away everything you hold dear. There are hordes of them. And they keep coming. The only way to protect yourself is to hole up with your guns. You a left-winger? The zombie is the unthinking/unbending/unreasoning/unempathetic other, who can't be argued with, who can't be swayed with decency, who only acts out of the basest instincts. It only wants to destroy you. And the worst thing of all, the absolute worst thing, sometimes that unswayable alien other is right there with you, it's your mom or your husband or your kid.

Apocalyptic fiction has been popular since the Bible. It's a test run, just in case. It's a release valve.  It's a way to play out our fears and walk away at the end of the page, at the end of the episode. A zombie apocalypse is the worst we can image, because it means we are our own destruction, we will devour ourselves.

There is one single thing that every being on earth shares. We all die. We all are dust in the end. Whatever your religion, whatever your belief system, no one really knows what makes us us. And when we cease to be here, where we go. We're all supposed to be wonderful unique snowflakes, but what if in the end we're just meat puppets?  The horror of severing our "us" from our bodies has been around since we first walked out of the caves and told tales around the fire. It's there in "The Monkey's Paw," it's there when the father buries Gage in the Pet Semetary, even after he saw what happened to the cat. It's there when Boris Karloff's monster utters, "We belong dead."

The fitful dead are with us always, and they're not going away anytime soon.

(Next Installment: There's No Crying in Zombietown)

Pop culture recommendation: any iteration of Ray Bradbury's "Mars is Heaven." If you can find the original radio play, it might actually kill you.

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