“I think Zombies have always been an easy metaphor for hard times because they’re this big faceless, brainless group of evil things that will work tirelessly to destroy you and think of nothing else. (Seth Grahame Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)
“The term clinical depression finds its way into too many conversations these days. One has a sense that a catastrophe has occurred in the psychic landscape.” (Leonard Cohen)
“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones”. (Stephen King)
Growing up here in the Northern Hemisphere, I have always relished this bittersweet month of October, with its botanical blaze of glory preceding our inevitable and decidedly less colorful November snows. Arriving with the season, are age-old Celtic festivals of harvest, Halloween and kids in costume seeking candy, along with other events with a somewhat darker agenda. This year however, our national mood is less than festive and in some respects decidedly grim. This may, in part, help to explain why the current zombie meme seems to be so all-pervasive.
In Haitian culture, zombies (zonbi = spirit of the dead) are believed to be animated corpses, raised by magical means, controlled by another, and used as slaves possessing no will of their own. In the popular milieu, the term has expanded to describe an unaware person just moving through automated motions of daily life, as well as the drugged, commercially brainwashed, sleepwalking masses, hypnotized by their Ipads, cell phones, social media networks, corporate sponsored “infotainment”, and other external controllers.
In a political sense the term can also apply to a mindless adherence to authority. Cultural critic Henry A. Giroux, author of Zombie Politics in the Age of Casino Capitalism (2011), writes in terms of dystopian nightmares, political and corporate walking dead, as well as intellectual zombies engulfed within a pervasive moral coma. (Truth-out.org, op.ed. September 25, 2013)
Over in our commercial sphere, it seems that the undead, along with post-millennial doomsday scenarios, have become quite lucrative. Pop-culture zombie themes abound throughout TV series, books, comic books, video games, action figures, web sites, bumper stickers, tee shirts, and organized flash mobs. A strip mall in Orlando, Florida, not far from Disneyworld, has a newly-opened zombie survival store whose owner insists that his shop carries everything a customer might need in the event of an undead apocalypse. Such wares include: Army and Navy surplus gas masks, books, camouflage gear, backpacks, ready to eat meals, and machetes. “Zombies get people excited”, his salesmen claim, “It’s a craze right now”. Merchandise is selling well, including zombie targets that bleed when hit as well as zombie garden gnomes. (Orlando Sentinel, 9/27/13).
World War Z (2013) a dark tale and blockbuster hit starring Brad Pitt, depicts a time in our not too distant future when a mysterious disease infects vast numbers of the human population turning them into rampaging, mindless, zombies with a ravenous appetite for chaos. Suddenly, anyone can turn into a brain-dead, marauding, insatiable predator at a moment’s notice. Almost as suddenly, zombies have now become both creepy and cool. This big budget movie event is (very) loosely based upon Max Brook’s novel World War Z (2006). The author, son of Ann Bancroft and Mel Brooks, who is also a talented humorist, followed this publication with a satirical “Zombie Survival Guide” and parody of Civil Defense disaster preparedness manuals. In that vein, Brooks suggests that “zombies are the monster of choice for the lazy, because they come to you while you are home minding your own business”. He further suggests that anyone who doesn’t believe in zombies should just tune in to any mainstream media network’s talking-heads delivering messages disguised as news. To that I would add that further research might involve those paralyzed smiles found within just about any beauty pageant as well as numerous clips from Mitt Romney’s campaign speeches.
Brooks turns quite serious, however, in his artistic debt to filmmaker George Romero’s low budget masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead (October 1, 1968) which basically started the modern zombie genre infused with social commentary. Brooks continues this tradition by explaining zombies as a metaphor for exploring notions of the apocalypse, as well as realities of societal collapse, “you pull a few threads and the whole thing gets unraveled”. People have been scared since 9/11, he maintains; Iraq, Afghanistan, anthrax letters, D.C. sniper, global warming, financial meltdowns, bird flu, and SARS, have people feeling like it’s all breaking down. And, he continues, there was Hurricane Katrina; with neighbors killing each other for clean water, women raped, cops not showing up, starving kids, no sanitation, the elderly and disabled neglected and dying in their wheelchairs. Now in 2013 we are forced to contend with programs like an anti-intellectual Common Core curriculum, which seek to transform our national school programs in order to raise compliant, unthinking citizens. Just last night, I observe, our U.S. Government imploded and shut itself down as a result of the fears surrounding universal health care. We are now living within a civilian divide between the people, and those who are supposedly mandated to be keeping them safe.
Max Brooks seeks to emphasize that, unlike Godzilla, zombies are slow moving and stoppable. However, as his message makes clear, human survival absolutely requires a willingness to engage. Stage one of any crisis is denial, which is then followed by panic and the willfully ignorant are easily conned. Head in the sand is a precarious posture. Better to remain awake and aware from the earliest onset of any perceived danger, gather any and all resources, as well as a realistic assessment of necessary and available options. Forewarned is forearmed and we would do well to study and learn from the multiple mistakes well documented throughout history. This, of course, is not likely to happen anytime soon. And so, as Professor Barry Vacker suggests, given the state of our current cultural conditions, zombie memes are more than likely to continue to replicate. (The End of the World Again: Why the Apocalyptic Meme Replicates in Media, Science and Culture, 2012)