The 2014 premier of ‘The Walking Dead’, a TV series about a post-apocalyptic dystopian world filled with zombies, was one of the most watched cable shows in history, with 9 million viewers. There have been a slew of popular zombie films such as ‘Dawn of the Dead’, ‘Day of the Dead’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘28 Days Later’, ‘I Am Legend’ and of course the perennial favorite ‘Frankenstein’.
The zombie films Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) and Zombieland (2009), grossed over $100 million each. There’s even a recent flick titled Zombies vs Vampires, no kidding. So great has been the enthusiasm for shuffling, groaning, glassy-eyed corpses that the US Center for Disease Control cheekily called their 2011 disaster readiness document Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.
Zombie flicks have always been around, like the vampire craze of the 50s and the 60s, that made actors like Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff big stars. But it was only after the Michael Jackson video, Thriller, that zombies exploded on the scene and became a whole new genre.
So, why are we so hung up on zombies?
Maybe we are intrigued because zombies are ‘in between’ creatures – between human and non-human, animate and inanimate, conscious and comatose. Maybe we like to think of them walking our midst, even as make-believe, because our lives have grown dreary, devoid of thrills. We no longer have the continuous live action that those bloodthirsty hordes of nomads on horseback, Thracians, Assyrians, Goths, Huns, Mongols and conquistadores invading pillaging, burning, raping and looting. Placidity has brought boredom upon us.
For the first 59800 of the 60000 years since the last surviving human species, homo sapiens, has been walking the earth, there has been unspeakable brutality that man has wreaked upon man on a day to day basis. If you were a man, chances are that before you attained the age of twenty you would be either killed in battle or captured and enslaved. The Geneva Convention was signed only in 1929.
It is therefore easy to understand why humans by nature have always been programmed to view the world with an apocalyptic anxiety.
Then almost all of a sudden, all the bloodletting screeched to a halt the past two hundred years. Except for localized hot spots, there have been long stretches of peace and individual security (the two world wars were short affairs and far more ‘civilized’ in comparison). Civilization and the rule of law have virtually wiped out random violence, especially in the developed world. But the absence of gore has spurred in us a fascination for gore.
There is another feeling, besides fascination, that modern civilization has robbed from us – disgust – the nausea triggered by slime, drool, snot, blood, feces and rotting flesh. In England in the middle ages, you had to walk along the center of the road because folks were simply opening their windows and emptying out their bedpans and ablutions onto the sidewalk below. There were no rules or concepts of hygiene, no toilets or sewers. Getting your butt kicked by a passing horse was deemed more acceptable than having someone chuck his shit down on your face.
In contrast, everything today is nice and clean, dusted and sanitized – so much so that we are now actually drawn to disgust. And zombies are disgusting.
Naturally, when any phenomenon explodes on the scene, behavioral scientists add their own spin to it and the zombie phenomenon too has attracted a lot of scrutiny from the PhDs. They say that it all began with those newsreels of hapless Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, staggering around in a zombie-like trance, their skins peeling off their backs, their bodies covered with blueish white blotches brought on by radiation sickness.
Explaining the mass murder of innocents with the shaky line that ‘if we hadn’t nuked them, it would have prolonged the war’ could not have fooled an upright individual’s conscience. Nothing justifies the killing of innocent non-combatants and the line that you should have forced your government to surrender is a particularly hollow one. Deep within, Americans have always known this and cannot have helped thinking guiltily (if not right away but decades later) – look what we did to them.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed something within, not only Americans, but all of us. For the first time in history, people all over were faced with the real possibility of an apocalypse, should nuclear weapons proliferate unchecked. That anxiety was even more among Americans, brought on by both, the guilt from the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the threat of the new phenomenon known as the Cold War.
Is that why zombies are essentially an American obsession? Possibly. They don’t salivate over zombies in Europe or India or China, do they?
The threat of annihilation has skyrocketed over the decades. The possibility of a nuclear device falling into the hands of a terrorist outfit like the ISIS is a very real one, since the technology is no longer rocket science. These days when I enter a supermarket, my eyes are alert for anything out of the ordinary – a man suddenly breaking into a sprint, a guy reaching inside his jacket, a bag left unattended, a woman in a burqa – just about everything makes me paranoid. A pivotal moment in The Walking Dead is when the protagonist proclaims, “We are the walking dead!”
We are all, in a sense, the walking dead, waiting for the next mall or theater shooter or a disgruntled and suicidal Pakistani General obeying the ‘command of the Allah’, commandeering a truck and carting away one of their 20Kiloton nukes to put it on a freighter bound for New York City.
So obsessed are North Americans with zombies that most major cities hold an annual ‘Zombie Walk’ which is wildly popular and thoroughly enjoyable to watch (that is, if you don’t feel disgust too easily). We had ours yesterday and as you will note from the pics, it was a blast.
When a voluptuous Miss Red Riding Hood pranced by, I naturally stopped her for a pic and asked her what made her dress up and do the zombie walk.
“It’s more than just a zombie walk, “ she said. “It gives you the chance to let your hair down and be plain creepy. Can you imagine how exhilarating it can be, staggering around and still not being seen as obnoxious?” With that she laughed and I fell in love with her.
“Yes and the looks you get from the kids,” I gestured toward a little girl who had come up and was staring up at Ms Hood.
” Yeah, that knows-its-make-believe-but-still-panicky look that is typical of kids,” she laughed and bent over and gave the little kid a menacing look and then quickly gave the toddler a hug before she could begin bawling.
Then she flashed me a smile and a wave,” Bye now, I have to get home and make wolf’s head soup for Granny – that is if she is still alive,” she giggled and shook the wolf’s head at me as she danced away. I would have loved to take her home and peel off her face paint…among other things.
What can I say – zombies turn me on.