Calling All Veterans of World War Z

world-war-z-wallpaperI’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.

Spoiler alert!

(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?

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9 Comments

Filed under America, Brave New World, Buddhism, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Film, Laments, Metaphor, Modern Life, Parables, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

9 responses to “Calling All Veterans of World War Z

  1. Thank goodness you didn’t agree with the Clemson English professor– I was worried there for a moment– not that what she said doesn’t have any validity at all– it must fit in somewhere, just not in this particular argument….your theory makes much more sense…..

    Personally, I’m just bored with zombies in general. They’re boring! But I’m also bored with the whole zombie thing in the way that I’m bored with Converse or iPhones or Starbucks or macaroons (what is it with the sudden popularity of macaroons anyway? ) or Instagram, Twitter, Facebook…..

    I think what I’m trying to say is: I agree.

    • dmarshall58

      Zombies are only interesting to me as a cultural phenomenon. I’m told some zombie movies actually play with all the cliches associated with the genre, that zombie movies are more tongue-in-cheek than I realize. I see that in movies like “Shaun of the Dead,” but, most of them seem deadly serious (ouch. bad pun), and that’s my trouble. –D

      • Yes, I also wonder about zombies as a cultural phenomenon. I do think that most people (*most*, there’s always the fringe) look at the whole zombie thing with some humor. The movies that attempt a “deadly serious” (had to say that again) attitude may just get laughed at anyway for all I know.

        You’re right, there must be a reason that zombies in particular are so popular right now, and your theory is certainly plausible. But how to explain the macaroons??? (joking, they’re delicious– who am I kidding?)

        Boring or not, at least your essay on the subject wasn’t boring!

  2. I am not a Zombie enthusiast. The Hubby watches the popular Zombie TV show & always tries to sell it to me, but I have not bought it. I did like this movie though.
    Could be bad, could be good.
    it was entertaining.
    nice read. I have shared it on stumble upon.

    • dmarshall58

      Maybe I should have suspended my disbelief more. I thought the movie was diverting and entertaining. I certainly sat uncomfortably at times wondering what would happen next (which is a good thing) but felt no fear. I’m not big on horror movies in general, but the best ones seem to reach me in different way… they change the way I see the world outside the theater, which was not the case here. –D

  3. I rarely ride a cultural wave so I looked with anticipation to read this bird’s eye view. Thanks for venturing into the Territory and bringing back a report.

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks… it’s not territory I venture into often either, so it was fun to write a piece like this one. –D

  4. Thomas

    So quotable:
    “…they just look like tired office workers, so ready to abandon agendas clearly not their own.”

    • dmarshall58

      If you see the movie, you will recognize that this statement is almost literally true. One of the big scenes occurs in an office park with a bunch of zombies milling around the vending machine area. –D

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