Welcome to the first in our series of cultural examinations – and where better a place to explore life in our society than by taking a look through the rotting eye of the living dead?
That’s right I’m talking about the word. Now unless you’ve been born into a life living off-grid, you’ve no doubt come across a wealth of Z-related content in books, films, comics, video-games – perhaps you’ve even weighed-up if you should procure one of the flashy zombie survival tools, for… y’know when fiction becomes reality…somehow, yeah I’m worried about you too – let’s skip that one…
I think a more interesting question is how all of this came to be. I’ll scrape together some of the better Z source material that’s out there in a follow-up subsection, but I’d like to get something off my still- beating-chest. This won’t be a chronological look at the timeline of ‘Z’ themed stories leading to the present. Instead, let’s deal with the undead elephant in the room. Just how did we become so interested in – and continue to be fascinated with these flesh-eaters?
Far from resembling the authority on the subject, I’m still willing to give this metaphorical zombie-decapitating-revolver of blog content 5 spins and see what comes out the other side:
Point 1: Zombies Unite!
Before you get the wrong idea from the title let’s just make it clear – it isn’t an instruction. It isn’t a pep-talk the undead give themselves before shuffling on – but it can be a welcomed side-effect of their presence for those surviving members of mankind.
A world where the brain-eating cannibalistic hordes are the number 1 predators, is also one where we, as individuals, attempt to put aside our petty differences like race, gender, age, upbringing and class, in order to survive. The prospect of a united mankind – no matter how few is certainly an attractive one.
Point 2: Quenches your Bloodthirst
OK – let’s go dark and be honest. In spite of the fraternal/sororal effect of Point 1, we have to accept the fucked-up side of our nature. A zombie scenario is one which doesn’t just sanction, it beckons us to commit violence. In films/tv shows this can be the mechanism for some OTT comedic moments or outbursts for the protagonists to lighten the mood. Often though, these uber-graphic examples of violence are there to show that we’re really not much better than the brain-eating threat we are trying to rid ourselves of – in fact, we’re frequently prone to behaving so much worse. Exploring the dark side of our psyche holds our fascination.
Point 3: Makes us question our humanity
Following on the cold, dead, decomposing heals of point numero duo – zombie worlds are often portrayed as near or post-apocalyptic.
Therefore, during or after society’s fall from grace – a zombie scenario holds a magnifying glass to our own nature and the belief system that some may still cling to despite the dramatic change that has occurred. It also calls for surviving humans to band together.
Except – as we’re all too painfully aware, we’re not great at playing nice with one another. Cue double-crossing, using the new threat to justify/cover up any human-on-human murder, not forgetting the countless ongoing clashes between individual and rival tribes in their conflict for power within a fragile hierarchy. One that can fold at any moment.
Selfishness, greed, jealousy, lust etc.. – if you can think of a negative human emotion, trait or characteristic from the pre-zombie infested world – then it’s on steroids in a Z-afflicted one!
Point 4: They look a bit like you…
I feel this point was probably more potent during the early days of Z-films braking into pop-culture. Romero’s classics tended to rely quite heavily on this mechanism, it’s still revisited in contemporary zombie cinema and video games and deserves mention.
[It’s also especially poignant in the beginning as the realisation of what has happened starts to dawn on the dead – of course, I mean ‘lead’ protagonists after the zombie situation has first been revealed.]
The fact that any zombie could be a survivor’s mother, father, brother, sister, wife, husband, child etc. – presents the first powerful attribute zombies have over the living after the obvious and uncertain ‘quality’ of being ‘undead’.
Beyond the fear of this type of encounter, surviving humans run the risk of being immediately disarmed by the psychological shock of a 1:1 confrontation with a zombie that was once a person who was dear to them. In fact, unless they are able to recover quickly – this situation puts the survivor in extreme jeopardy.
However, the flip-side of this coin reinforces point 2. If say, Brian was a dick to you in a world prior to a zombie outbreak then, now he has succumbed to becoming one of the undead hordes – you’re probably going to savour the opportunity of dispatching him!
There’s one more point while we’re here. Another compelling reason that zombie stories hold our interest is that the status-quo says that once bitten by a zombie, the victim will join the ranks of the unhygienic shufflers.
Depending on the context, this needn’t be an instant morphing from living to walking dead. For the victim, it becomes something of a ticking clock, where they will likely not be ready to come to terms with their doomed destiny – much less take their own life to minimise the harm to any survivors within their vicinity. More likely, they will opt for a strategy of denial, by concealing the severity of their worsening condition, until of course, it’s too late – doing so usually puts the entire surviving group at jeopardy and is the undead equivalent of sneaking an infected stiff into the living’s bed – or if you prefer having a double-agent get to work in their enemy’s camp. Yeah, let’s go with the second analogy.
Point 5: Ground zero, ready & primed for a hero
If ‘Point 4’ shows the power of consequence that a zombie victim’s way of handling their fate can doom the rest of an entire group’s, Point 5 is concerned with how the entire landscape has changed, providing all sort of new pros and cons in the process.
A zombie infested world is one which presents a hard-reset for the survivors.
Why does this matter? Well, it’s pretty appealing right? I’d be lying if I didn’t sometimes re-imagine or maybe even, long for a world which was simpler and more honest than the one we have today. While I don’t necessarily crave surviving in an era where medicine, running water and electricity are gone or are in short supply – there’s something of an almost romantic craving for a clean slate, a fresh start if you will.
A post-apocalyptic zombie world eases us into a future where we get the blank canvas – but keep the ‘united’ vibe of Point 1 alive (pun very much intended). Having a common enemy while living a little closer to nature, re-learning the skillsets that our forefathers acquired while rebuilding communities that place a greater sense of value on friendship, camaraderie and where a corruptive currency such as money is worthless, does have a broad appeal.
Zombies, after all, are just hungry, not power hungry – one could argue the world would be safer with these flesh-eaters instead of the blood-sucking kind that start wars and add to our daily misery (I’m referring to politicians and not vampires) – although sometimes it may be difficult to separate the two.
Whether – in a world that has undergone a forced re-genesis, humans would make the same mistakes as before – well that’s a matter for speculation – although history would certainly say regardless of the poker hand we are dealt, humans have the ability to turn anything into a bad beat or in a Z world maybe that should be a ‘deadbeat’?
Thanks for your time, will be back with another ‘The thing about…’ shortly. Please leave any comments about this or any other piece. Always keen to know what you think.
Don’t be a stranger….