Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dead Meet

I discovered the zombie genre in kind of a sideways manner a few years ago, after Friend of the Blog Glenn Greenberg (whose opinion I highly respect, and whose site I highly recommend) spoke its praises and thus piqued my curiosity.  Although I started somewhat inauspiciously with the '80s horror/comedy mashup Return of the Living Dead, by the time I worked my way over to the George A. Romero corner of the zombie movie-verse, starting with 1968's Night of the Living Dead and working forward from there, this resolute non-fan of blood-and-guts was utterly hooked (while simultaneously being frightened out of my wits).

That fandom quickly carried over to books (having made the mistake more than once of falling asleep while listening to the audiobook of Max Brooks' World War Z -- really bad idea!), and comic books, with the terrific Walking Dead series from Image and Robert Kirkman, and it continues with the equally-terrific AMC series it inspired.  So, after all this, the question is why?  What's the appeal of the zombie genre, not just to me, but to all the other people who've enjoyed it in all its many iterations?  I've had more than enough opportunity to ponder this (including as part of the Big Secret Project I've been working on -- announcement coming soon!), as apparently has writer Olivia Collette, who's reached some of the same conclusions I have.  Says she:
If I’m transformed into a zombie, I don’t suddenly scour the neighbourhood for non-dead brains. I just stop…being. I don’t do anything, really. I don’t move around or think things or want things. I am nothing.
There's something about that basic fear -- existing without existing -- that sci-fi and horror have always portrayed well, whether we're talking about the pod people of Body Snatchers, the mute animal humans of Planet of the Apes, or the mindless walking corpses of the various Dead series (and, as an aside, that's the reason I find the Romero model "shambling" zombies far more terrifying than the running-jumping versions that have come into vogue of late).  When you come down to it, your identity is the most precious commodity you have, and the notion of having it ripped away and turned into...nothingness.  That's pretty darn scary.  Collette goes on:
Zombies force us to deal with death. They even force us to look death square in the face: warts, decomposed flesh and all. Zombies differ from vampires, monsters and aliens in that we can’t assign them any sort of “otherness”: they’re us. Not now, but soon enough.
And it’s a bleak future. They weren’t rescued by a forgiving god or a noble scientific process. They just laid there rotting in the ground until some unknown source animated their bodies. But they’re not sentient. They’re not really beings. They’re just piles of worthless flesh that we don’t even pity once they’re shot dead(er).
If zombies took epidemic proportions, we probably wouldn’t have much of a chance against them. We’d all die, but not just because zombies would kill us or turn us into them. Zombies’ food supply would eventually run out and they’d just starve to death. In other words: Buh-bye human race!
Like with all good fiction, the appeal of a good zombie story can be found in asking ourselves "What would I do?"  They're less about the horror in which our protagonists find themselves than about how they react to that horror.  Given the foregrounding of blood and viscera that comes hand-in-hand with any zombie flick worth its salt, it's easy to see why the genre is so polarizing (watching Zombieland last year, my brother-in-law walked out five minutes in, before the "Directed by" credit" even came on), but there's also something much deeper going on underneath that makes it worthy of analysis -- not just our fear of dying, but an even more pressing fear of staying alive that goes right along with it.

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