Zombies seem to be de rigueur these days, which is fine by me. I love just about anything zombie-related, plus I am convinced that the surge in zombie popularity the past few years spells very good things for our culture at large.
Wait. What? Yes. Zombies are good!
For one, zombie themed movies and books tend to be pretty clean. Sex isn’t much of a priority when your friends are being eaten alive. Of course, they do tend to be heavy on the violence, but “violent” here means lots of blood spatter and fake limbs, very little of the actual violence that could be experienced or emulated in the real world. You may have heard of kids imitating violent video games, or music, or movies, but you never hear of kids trying to chew each others’ arms off. The sort of violence encountered in the gangster or revenge genres may disturb, but that is usually because they can reflect reality. After all, gangsters do exist and can do bad things. Your chances, however, of encountering a wrestling match between a walking corpse and a shark are pretty slim.
Zombies also remind us of what is truly important. In zombie fiction, you see the same theme over and over: when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, people return to the simple things. With the distractions of modern life destroyed by the ravaging hordes, the survivors cling to what is, after all, really important: family, friends, loyalty, courage, faith.
It goes deeper: modern materialists tell us that mankind is nothing but the sum total of our parts: blood, cells, synapses, muscle. No zombie aficionado could fall prey to such a line of thought. The zombie fan knows that we are not just the sum total of our parts, we are something more. When your girlfriend has been bitten, you hold her in your arms and tell her you love her. When her eyes glaze over and she stands up despite her multiple wounds to lunge for your neck, you cut off her head with a machete. It’s simple common sense. Your girlfriend’s body contains the same physical properties both before and after her demise. Even her mind continues to function after a fashion, as it is a known fact that the only way to stop a zombie is by destroying the brain. Despite all of these things, the zombie connoisseur knows that the girlfriend, in her essence, is gone. The body is reanimated, but the soul has fled; this tells us something vital, something the materialist has forgotten. As a collection of muscle and bone, there is nothing stopping us from eating each other alive. It is our souls, that nebulous, invisible, unprovable thing that makes us human. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, but it could happen. What is certain is this: there are no materialists in the audience of a George A. Romero marathon.
Finally, zombies remind us of an important and hard to face fact: our own mortality. Momento Mori the monks of old used to inscribe over their doorways and walls – remember your death. “Remember that from dust you came and unto dust you must return.” (Gen 3:19) The world is not permanent for us, and it is a good and healthy thing to keep it in mind so that we may train our focus on the things that are permanent. On the other hand, though, it is frighteningly easy to allow the fact of our own deaths to drag us into despair. Thinking of our own deaths, it is a short journey to forgetting that death does not get the last laugh. If you believe in life after death,though, death must lose some of its horror and all of its permanence. This is an easy thing to think but a hard thing to feel, especially in regards to loved ones who have gone on before us. Zombies, with their lumbering (or sprinting, depending on your zombie proclivities,) their groans, their hunger for human flesh, take something scary and turn it into something a little bit silly. They are wonderfully, hilariously ridiculous and they provide an outlet to release our mortal anxieties.
Death, where is thy sting?
Night of the Living Dead – a classic!
Shaun of the Dead – a lighthearted twist, but still good zombie action
World War Z – the best zombie book, period.
28 Days Later – fast zombies! Brilliant.
note: This article originally appeared in my Examiner.com column in 09. I am choosing to believe it is not at all a bad sign that I’m already recycling posts on my two-week-old blog.