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What Does Killing Zombies Teach Us About Being Human?

While an undead outbreak quickly devolves civilization to a point of primitive technology, survival nonetheless requires the same rational process essential to technological development.

Walter Hudson


June 21, 2013 - 3:00 pm
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Editor’s Note: This installment from Walter Hudson’s Video Games, Villains, and Values series was first published on May 9. We republish it today with the release of World War Z today. See also John Boot’s review this morning. – DMS


Zombies are all the rage these days. AMC’s The Walking Dead reigns as the top-watched drama on basic cable. Films like Warm Bodies, Zombieland, and I Am Legend stand out among recent entries in an enduring horror subgenre. None other than Brad Pitt will headline this year’s World War Z, which looks to amp up its action well beyond the shuffling flesh-eaters of yesteryear.

That’s to say nothing of video games, where the undead continue to suck cash from willing gamers anxious to live out an apocalyptic fantasy. Whether its Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, or downloadable add-ons to Call of Duty, zombie hoards batter down the doors of our collective consciousness. What exactly makes them so popular?

Like the Nazis we considered last week, zombies provide guilt-free slaughter. No one feels bad about shooting something that’s already dead. Plus, because zombies were once living human beings, they provide a cathartic release for that deeply suppressed homicidal impulse none of us wants to admit to harboring.

Zombies are amoral. They have no agenda, no emotional motivation, no plan. They simply menace. So putting them down presents no moral dilemma. What would be murder were they living becomes a wholly defensible act of survival. The very nature of a zombie marks it for destruction. Since it has no feelings and endures no torment, the acceptable methods for disposing of a zombie are bound only by the imagination of the killer. So zombies enable creative guilt-free violence on a scale limited only by their numbers.

Zombies also serve an adaptive narrative purpose in storytelling. While they more often than not simply lurk around the corner as boogeymen, the nature of a zombie can be tweaked to represent certain themes. In George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, the film which birthed the modern undead flesh-eater, zombies were implied to be the fulfillment of biblical revelation. Writing for the Washington Post, commentator Christopher Moreman expounds:

The zombie apocalypse is often equated with the wrath of God and biblical end times. Though the origins of zombie outbreaks usually remain indeterminate in the genre, most zombie narratives indicate that we brought this upon ourselves. Whether corporations, the government, or the military are to blame, the average person also bears fault for participating in a corrupt system, just as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were collectively responsible for God’s wrath.

Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead took the theme a step further, assigning a decisively anti-capitalist overtone to the narrative. The undead converged upon a shopping mall, retracing the routines of their former lives.

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Having only seen the trailer and read one review of the movie "World War Z," I can confidently predict that I won't be seeing it until I can see it for free. I read the book and the movie doesn't appear to track well with the very good book.

From the book, the one scene that sticks out most vividly in my mind was a scene where survivors adapted Roman military tactics to clean out an area of the zombie infestation. They formed a Roman square, with piles and piles of ammo and long guns in the middle. They worked in shifts of shooters and reloaders and picked off the classical slow-moving targets at a distance. Because the zombies were slow-moving, the shooters were able to prioritize accuracy over speed and thus conserve ammo. The zombies kept coming, climbing over the fallen bodies of their co-viralists and being shot down as they crested the growing ridge. It was a battle of endurance and perseverance and those with brains and patience won the day. Kudos to those who learned from the Romans and adapted for zombie conditions.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I've read the book, too, and will likely skip the movie completely.

What you say is true. However, the powers that be in the US also took lessons from other parts of history. The government became Communistic with absolute control. Perhaps that was understandable given the conditions. However, when they spread back across the US, the tanks and planes weren't used against the zombies, but against groups of survivors who had held out for years alone against the zombies and didn't want to join the government when it came back.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Zombie movies can more accurately describe what will happen after a major disaster and slowly happens under Socialism. In the former, as supplies run out, some begin attacking those with supplies either killing them or by plundering them adding them making zombies of them as they too plunder others to survive. Under the latter, zombies represent government dependents both on the dole and bureaucrats. They exist by feeding on the producers of society. Gradually, but with increasing speed, producers are felled and become zombies (dependents/bureaucrats) ganging up on the shrinking number of producers until they too are gone.

Not all of Romero's movies are that great. Maybe some were meant as anti-capitalist, but it can be seen differently. "Dawn of the Dead" isn't so much anti-capitalist as it reveals how most members of the consumer culture will be trapped, as will many so called survivalists (Spoiler: The mall had no guns but plenty else and the gun store owner had guns and bullets but no food). "Land of the Dead" was more a condemnation of the standard pattern of human history: the elite living off the cream of the land whilst the masses scramble on the edge of starvation.

Lastly, and thanks for reading this far those of you who have, at lot of these survivalists and zombie folks do seem to think collapse of society will be grand. They remind me of the "anarchists" in high school, the ones who were all about chaos and partying and doing what they wanted and thumbing their nose at the system which still kept the lights on, food in the stores and protected them. Humans have spent their entire history avoiding anarchy and seeking stable system to provide safe and comfortable living conditions. We have that now in a way even 100 years ago would have been barely imaginable. It would be far better to do a better job of policing our system to keep the power craving psychopaths out of power, the number of dependents small and forcing government to tell people "no, you can't have other people's money."
1 year ago
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