I’m no zombie fan. I don’t dust myself with powder, smear on fake blood, and plod along in “zombie walks” that, I hear, draw as many as 4,000 participants. I’m not devoted to The Walking Dead and haven’t even seen the granddaddy of all zombie movies, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
And, honestly, zombies don’t interest or scare me much. They’re relentless and contagious, sure, and their lax dress and hygiene is unpleasant to be around. Their stubborn refusal to just-stay-dead-already is problematic too, absolutely. Yet they seem so lost, so remote, so one-tracked, so barely with us. It’s as if they’re trying to operate heavy machinery—and any tool seems heavy to them—while opiated. We sober folk know no good can come of that, but zombies don’t worry. Self-awareness and planning aren’t their strongest assets. Living people have some decided and winning advantages.
Given my perspective on the undead, I was surprised to find myself in a darkened theater as World War Z engulfed the planet. There I was, watching zombies chasing panicked pedestrians through Philadelphia, zombies amassing like Amazonian army ants to surmount a wall outside Tel Aviv. There I was scrutinizing a zombie face impotently clicking its unflossed, unbrushed teeth outside a bulletproof window. Though the movie is diverting, suspenseful, and exciting, not a moment of fear passed through me. The zombies of World War Z are meaner and stronger and faster than most, but they’re still dead—which is to say, not living, not conscious, and really not at all smart. They don’t have a chance against Brad Pitt… which, to me, says a lot.
Sarah Lauro, an English professor at Clemson, writes about the zombie phenomena. Just as paranoia about communist infiltration brought us body-snatchers, and HIV pathogenic human blood returned our attention to vampires, Lauro believes zombies say something about contemporary anxieties and obsessions. For her, the current zombie fascination began with dissatisfaction over American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It was a way that the population was getting to exercise the fact that they felt like they hadn’t been listened to by the Bush administration,” she says.
I have a simpler theory. Those zombies are us. Their restlessness, their overwhelmed and frenetically purposeful purposelessness, their over-caffeinated focus? All seem terribly familiar. Their expressions say, “Now, why the hell am I doing this again?” and, when they’re not eating people, they just look like tired office workers, so ready to abandon agendas clearly not their own. If they were self-conscious (at all) and spoke (at all), they might yell, “What a nightmare! I’m dead and still can’t get any peace and quiet!”
In World War Z, Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former UN operative who gave up his important, dangerous, and prestigious job for some homeland tranquility. He wants to be a family man. In the opening scene he’s making pancakes for his wife and daughters—and they say that’s all he does. He answers, “But I’m good at it.” I haven’t seen many zombie movies, yet I know enough to say that anyone who tries to hole-up the way Gerry does is eventually going to face serious home-invasion issues. And he does. Later he tells one zombie-besieged family that survival depends on moving, that “Movement is life.” No one can stand still, zombies or their victims, and domesticity is out of the question …at least until we get rid of these pesky zombies.
When the military makes the inevitable pitch to Gerry’s special skills and experience, when they say in effect, “The whole world depends on you, man,” Gerry replies, “You’re asking me to leave my family,” then, “I can’t leave my family.” He wants so desperately to cocoon, as do many of us.
He can’t, of course. The naval commander tells him, “Don’t pretend your family is exempt when we talk about the end of humanity.” Only the collective demise of humankind can pull him from the griddle. Even so, along the way, he fusses over his loved ones and picks up strays. We hope that’s what makes us different from zombies, after all—we know what matters, who matters, the purpose behind all our mad activity.
(Though not actually because you can guess what happens)
Gerry Lane figures out how to battle the zombies. Once the store of victims shrinks, the zombies don’t do much but stand around like train passengers waiting for the big board in Grand Central Station to tell them where to go (like most urbanites, zombies aren’t interested in one another). Lane, reunited with his family in the Thoreauvian wonderland of Nova Scotia, putters up in a slo-mo inflatable boat and hugs them (for, like, half an hour) while a voice-over intones, “This isn’t the end, not even close.”
No rest for the weary, I guess. Yet the end of humanity, it turns out, is really the beginning of a richer, more purposeful humanity, one that spares us the zombies and, we hope, our own zombie-like tendencies. Now we have a reason to live—to kill zombies!
Okay, so my theory doesn’t cover everything. To those of you dressing up in tattered clothes, creating pretend wounds, artfully dabbing red glycerin in order to sleepwalk authentically down city streets, I can only say, “Have fun!” Maybe being a zombie is a relief. At least you’re not confused about why you’re here. And, if there truly is no way to prevent becoming undead, why not embrace it?