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The Zombie Apocalypse — Ours and Theirs

July 3rd, 2013 - 6:35 am

Sometime in 2011 the total number of film plots with the keyword “zombie” passed the number of film plots with the keyword “cowboy,” according to the Internet Movie Database. One might argue that the zombie has become the great American archetype of the postmodern era, as the cowboy was the American archetype a century ago. With the release of Brad Pitt’s $200 million zombie epic World War Z, what used to be the stuff of low-budget shockers has entered the American cultural mainstream. Therein lies a lesson.

“The history of the world is the history of humankind’s search for immortality,” I argued in my 2011 book Why Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). Human beings can’t tolerate life without the hope of some existence beyond our brief mortal span of years. Cultures that know they have made it past their best-used-by date tend to die for lack of interest. Extreme examples are the neolithic tribes that walk out of the Amazon to encounter modernity, and succumb to alcoholism and other vices in a matter of years. Less extreme examples are the radical Muslims who declare that they love death more than we love life, or the European nations whose fertility rate is so low that their national survival is questionable at the hundred-year horizon. I argued in Civilizations that the so-called Arab Spring was a paroxysm of cultural despair, the prelude to societal breakdown with appalling consequences; watching the dreadful events in Egypt and Syria, few today can dismiss this thesis as alarmist.

Dying cultures are the living dead. Half of the world’s 6,000 languages will disappear by the end of this century. They are zombie cultures. But we Americans are gestating a zombie culture inside what used to be a “country with the soul of a church,” as G.K. Chesterton put it. The hedonistic narcissism that took over popular culture during the 1960s produced a spiritual deadening like nothing in American history. That’s why we are so fascinated with zombies. We identify with them.

Few living poets express this spiritual deadening as eloquently as the Syrian Ali Ahmad Said, who writes under the pen name Adonis. He maintains that the Arabs already are an extinct people, as I reported in my Asia Times column some years ago: ”We have become extinct. … We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world. … The great Sumerians became extinct, the great Greeks became extinct, and the Pharaohs became extinct.” Adonis hauntingly conveys the sense of living death, as in these extracts from his poetry:

Each day is a child/ who dies behind a wall/ turning its face to the wall’s corners.

When I saw death on a road/ I saw my face in his. My thoughts resembled locomotives/ straining out of fog/ and into fog.

“We must make gods or die./ We must kill gods or die,”/ whisper the lost stones in their lost kingdom.

Strangled mute/ with syllables/ voiceless,/ with no language/ but the moaning of the earth,/ my song discovers death/ in the sick joy/ of everything that is/ for anyone who listens./ Refusal is my melody./ Words are my life/ and life is my disease.

Americans don’t read much poetry, but they do watch movies. There is something especially compelling about the image of dead people walking, I wrote in a May, 2012 essay for Asia Times. We understand this more clearly if we consider the opposite, namely the concept of eternal life arising from God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants and embodied in the Temple at Jerusalem. In a brilliant 2008 book, Resurrection, Harvard professors Kevin Madigan and Jon D. Levenson argue:

The ancient Israelites, altogether lacking the materialist habit of thought so powerful in modernity, did not conceive of life and death as purely and exclusively biological phenomena. These things were, rather, social in character and could not, therefore, be disengaged from the historical fate of the people of whom they were predicated.

Contrasting the promise of eternal life with the fear of living death, I argued, helps make sense of our fascination with zombies, as we’ll explore after the page break.

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Top Rated Comments   
As I've mentioned in comments to you before, I maintain that the proliferation of vampire and zombie stories is basically a sublimation of political issues: fear of a political class that feeds on us now; fear of an entitlement class that will continue to feed on the living long after the entitlement beneficiaries have died. The vast income transfer --the greatest act of theft ever recorded-- from the young to the old that is Social Security, et al, is impossible to address politically or often even spoken about. Thus it turns up sublimated into the samizdat of art.
1 year ago
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All Comments   (42)
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Wow. Very nice. How great thou art, Spengler.
..."The survival of only one culture between the Indus and the Nile over the past 3,500 years is the exception."
What a great advertorial talking point!

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1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I Love your take on the zombie phenom.
But I've tended to believe it speaks to a different aspect of our current culture. We want ever more violent entertainment yet we still need to have some justification for the violence so we can sleep with good conscience at the end of the show.
In action films of old Stallone could rack up huge body counts and we could still root for him because they were bad guys and they were attacking him. But the action hero was always limited in his action because he could only kill or maim bad guys, and could only do it in defense of himself or other innocent.

We want more action, more gore, more gratuitous violence, more gruesome ways of dispatching people. How do we get that without having us root for truly evil or monstrous heroes? Enter the zombie.

In zombie movies the hapless zombies are killed off in huge numbers in ways that tax the most creative special effects guys.
There it is! Kill it! the more gory the dispatching the better. And yet we're not being sadistic--they're zombies. We get violent, sadistic, gory, and often gratuitous killing and can still feel good about rooting for it because they're not real people, just disease ridden zombies and walking dead.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We want ever more violent entertainment? Who is "we"? I don't. I actively avoid it. So do most people. That's one reason Hollywood is foundering so badly. They're out of creative ideas and anything genuinely artistic or meaningful. So they serve up violent pap in the hope we won't notice.

The zombies from Hollywood are themselves.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
One aspect of zombie movies is that it gives liberals an enemy that they can engage with moral superiority. Liberals have been telling us that no one is really right, no one is really wrong, we just have different views.

How can a liberal kill someone who just has a different view? No, they need moral clarity to kill and liberals have done their best to destroy moral clarity and moral absolutes. Well, how can they have an enemy then? Answer: ZOMBIES!
1 year ago
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In Athens

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Acts 17:28 From the Cretan philosopher Epimenides
Acts 17:28 From the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus
1 year ago
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To get how this relates to zombies, consider that how greeks did not dispute with Paul until he got to the part about Jesus rising from the dead. How to interpret this? Consider 2 Corinthians 2:14-16

New International Version (NIV)

14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As it happens in World War Z the zombies like werewolves and vampires reproduce themselves by biting humans. however, unlike werewolves and vampires --the zombies are the way they are because of a virus. The way the virus is thwarted is by giving the humans a disease that puts the stink of death on living humans. This works a camouflage. The zombies can't see humans so camouflaged. So humans are not attacked. Its very very unlikely that the writers were thinking of St Paul when the drew up the screenplay for WWZ. But once again consider his words. 15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
A truly wonderful piece, Goldman. Bravo!

You've helped to open my eyes as to *why* so many people have such a love/hate relationship with the Jews.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Interesting analysis.

Zombies also represent the socialist system. It starts out small with a few dependents and could be stopped, but soon it consumes more and more producers turning them into zombies as well. Eventually only a few are left. An often unmentioned trait is just how often dangerous psychopaths are amongst the survivors and they are an even greater threat than the zombies.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
To inject a little politics here, while watching the Democratic National Convention on TV, during the finale the roving telephoto camera's eye came to rest on numerous audience members that had glassy-eyed zombie-like expressions on their faces.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I wonder if the audience for zombie-related entertainment includes any noticeable numbers of people over the age of 30? The last zombie movie I intentionally watched was the 1968 version of "Night of the Living Dead." I did not find that one entertaining, and after watching two minutes of the current TV "Walking Dead" series, still am not entertained.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The original "Night of the Living Dead" is probably the best of the lot. The thing to note is that Zombies were only the driver of the story. The real action and intent is the interaction amongst the people. It is the same with most of Romero's movies, though the last couple of the series weren't that good. Aside from that one and a couple of others, zombie stories don't do much for me either.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Shaun of the Dead is pretty good, too, but it's a comedy and plays the zombies as mostly a backdrop to a sort of rom-com.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
That is some piece of thinking and writing, Sir!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
characteristics of zombies:
they are brain dead
brought back to a false life with a very limited...vocabulary
they will eat you alive
kilt only by smashing their brains out
travel in herds (being predatory & carnivorous maybe they should be called packs)

why we relate to zombies:
every morning crawling out of bed and going to the same job, doing the same thing over and over, day after day, year after year, makes me feel zombyish.

watching the so called elites voting themselves benefits and perks, while exempting themselves for things like the coming obamacare train wreck, makes me feel zombyish.

bloated elites freely borrowing $$ in our name and giving it away to people who deeply despise us makes me feel zombyish.

being treated (by my once proud government) like a herd animal primed for toil and then the pot, makes me feel zombyish.

the fact that a majority of my countrymen are too simple minded to go and watch a video showing how documents were forged. as a congressman said after hearing from the computer expert, 'even a fifth grader could see how they were forged', makes me look around with an eye toward what might be zombyish behavior. obviously, true zombie-like dummies abound among us now.

on the bright side zombie movies can be quite educational. from series/stories like 'the walking dead' I have added to my knowledge of what to do and not do when our systems crash. kinda drives it home, for instance:
1. get food, water, guns and ammo, shelter and not necessarily in that order
2. be ready to kill and in the doing get good at it
3. people will die in the struggle, don't be among them
4. (bitten) loved ones can act very uncivilized and have to be handled carefully
5. find/create a good defensive position and secure it at all times
6. keep a low profile until the worse blows over
7. get some good friends and work together in all of the above
8. mistakes cost lives
9. pray a lot
1 year ago
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