The last three blog posts were a post I wrote about zombies way back in 2007. Now a followup. The most obvious thing about my post on zombie horror novels is that when I wrote it six years ago, I didn’t realize it but I was just on the cusp of a massive revival of zombie horror novels. There’s been a zillion new novels and trilogies/series (including two sequels to XOMBIES) since I wrote it, and I haven’t read more than a fraction of them. (And even though I didn’t become a huge Brian Keene fan from his first two zombie books, I’m a little masochistically curious about his alternate zombie disaster book DEAD SEA and his whole Secret Wars/Dark Tower thing in which he seems to be plotting a crossover between all his various apocalyptic novels…)
The zombie thing has become so mainstream it’s been analyzed and pundit-ed by everybody. Most recently, there’s been a lot of critical reviews of the World War Z movie (mine included), including ones from a political angle from very zombie-unfriendly reviewers criticizing its Israel-Palestinian politics specifically (something I also hate about the movie) or its “one white man named Brad Pitt saves the entire world” plot specifically. I do respect George Romero for delivering a leftist, anti-authoritarian political message in his zombie movies, as opposed to the tendency of modern zombie stories to basically come off as survivalist-influenced glorifications of the military and military-grade weaponry (the webcast “We’re Alive”, with its Gary Stu-ish supercompetent military hero, being one example). On the other hand, I think the message of some zombie movies and horror in general, that the military/government/other-people-in-general can’t be trusted and everything sucks, is also knee-jerk and cliched, so it can be refreshing to see a zombie movie or book where human nature is basically good and human cooperation is possible (even if it’s not rewarded… horror is horror, after all). For instance, while I dislike the World War Z movie for several reasons, I don’t think it’s particularly “racist” because Brad Pitt is the One Hero Who Saves Everybody, any more than any “One Hero Saves Everybody” story is racist if that one person happens to be white. (I mean, by this logic, Superman or Doctor Who would be the most racist franchises on Earth, even though they’re actually aliens and just happen to look like white people.) Still, most zombie movies are based on the theme of a small group of people with superior ammunition and/or superior brains defending themselves against a horde of violent and more-or-less mindless monsters. It’s basically the “homesteaders-fighting-off-the-Indians” theme. The “300” theme. It’s a theme which has racist manifestations. But is this idea itself inherent racist?
Well, no. And on that note, let’s talk about ZOMBIE THEME #3: CONFORMITY. One of the core scary ideas of zombies is that they are all the same: if you turn into one of the undead, and the main result is that you have a lot of extra free time to work on your personal projects like some Anne Rice vampire, it’s just not as scary. (For that reason, zombie movies where the zombies have individual personality traits, like acting out routines of their past lives, usually tend towards comedy and are rarely as scary.) The modern idea of zombies is the idea of humans stripped of their individuality and transformed into mindless eating/killing/converting machines, very well-depicted in the insectlike horde zombies in “World War Z”, despite the movie’s many flaws. This sort of pseudo-zombie could be traced back at least as far as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. It’s a fluid metaphor which has been used in many ways; that book and movie, after all, were read as metaphors for creeping Communism as well as the opposite kind of creeping right-wing conformity associated with the ’50s when it was written. A small group of people trapped in an insane world where everyone else is in thrall to some evil power… that’s core Zombie. It’s not necessarily all about the rich guy with the big house and the guns fighting to keep people/monsters off his property.
Interestingly, the very first modern ‘zombie’ story (even though they’re vampires), Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”, already strips it right down to the extreme by having just one survivor, a single person, surrounded by the nearly-mindless hordes. “Last Man on Earth” stories were their own genre before Matheson, but he did it so well, and his innovation was to make the Last Man’s enemies be his fellow humans, possessed by some insane monstrous impulse. Again: core Zombie. (Although now that I think about it, there must have been plenty of earlier, forgettable stories about Postnuclear Last Survivors fighting off hordes of radioactive mutants, savage beast-men, etc…) And fascinatingly, Matheson ALREADY goes all the way into self-critique of this idea, with his core surprise (well, it’s in the title) being that the main character is the one who’s the freak, the new vampire-zombie world is the new normal and HE’S the legendary ancient monster. This subversive idea amazingly survived intact in the original Vincent Price film adaptation but, ironically, was Hollywoodized and reversed in the lame, cheesy, conventionally heroic Charlton Heston and Will Smith vehicles which followed.
But even without the twist, there’s tremendous power in the idea of a tiny minority of ‘normal’ people, ‘good’ people, people that the reader/viewer can hopefully empathize with, trying to survive in a monstrously transformed world where their own former friends and neighbors have turned against them. It’s an idea which is broader than zombies, but the best, scariest zombie stories include it. Decay, Infection, Compulsion and Conformity: that’s what I like about zombies.
On that note, now back to “The Stiff”!
NEXT UPDATE: Friday!