The current deluge of zombie product washing over the cultural landscape is a good reflection of this particular time and place in our history. Vampires are overdone, superheroes feel decidedly less than super, and western gunslingers are a dull anachronism. Additionally, since the fall of the Berlin Wall spying has morphed from a black tie-and-martini ballet into the endless pounding of drone strikes and pimply technological advancements. Even robbing a bank is now so difficult to get away with that it’s barely worth smuggling a million in non-sequential twenties through Bahamian customs. From the Internet to facial recognition technology to the Patriot Act, crime as a sport or pastime is doomed. No matter what the angle is, you’re going to get nabbed eventually, so you might as well put away your safe cracking kit and take that IT consulting job after all.
Zombies, on the other hand, continue to have (putrefying) legs. From the golem to Lazarus to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, revenants have remained stubbornly popular in the popular imagination. Z did inexplicably disappear during the early 90’s, but that can almost certainly be chalked up to the Reagan hangover, where a misguided national rallying of subsidized greed and reactionary ignorance fed so unapologetically upon the carcass of the nation that we needed a full decade to recover before it was funny again.
Some would point to the Z resurgence stemming from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and then seven hundred and thirty days later, the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Those movies, along with a multitude of subsequent imitators, spawned the revolutionary and possibly heretical idea of a “rage virus” being the precursor to apocalypse, supplanting the long-accepted zombie ontology that the dead began to rise once hell became standing-room-only.
This is an important distinction and evidence of a massive societal shift. It’s the nexus where fears of syphilis, AIDS, and mad cow disease finally trumps the B-movie old guard. There may indeed be monsters, but there is no Black Lagoon. The wretches are inside of us, microscopic terrors. And we are them, unwitting petri dishes just waiting to be grown out under an agar bath and a heat lamp.
This new breed of amped up shamblers are most often cast as a result of science gone wrong, delivering a state-of-the-art dystopia that’s more a result of ironic laboratory failure than Final Judgement or theological dictate. Just as big pharma justly celebrates the miracle of the four-hour erection, it is condemned as the source of an infectious monkey fury that (may already be) transforming us into ravening ghouls.
The Rapture will indeed come, but it will be rapture-less. Instead our devolution will be genetically modified, chemically saturated, largely untelevised, and fought just as often in test tubes as on the lawns and fortified rec rooms of middle America. In any case, this cutting edge apocalypse will almost certainly be secular, a winnowing of the overall population that the overall population thoroughly deserves. Given the fact that our global growth numbers have now reached epic and unsustainable proportions, this seems less a coincidence than a sublimated collective plea for more elbow room and better sea views.
The opportunity to cull millions of the weakest/least armed is a very Randian/Ryan notion. If Atlas Shrugged posited John Galt as a diseased shambler, there would be no question that the elite’s repair to a mountain redoubt was not only the compassionately conservative stance, but an essential post-apocalyptic maneuver.
The zombie craze collectively recognizes that humankind has wallowed in largesse far too long without the fear of a true predator. Especially one so efficient. The new breed of rage-zombie runs at full speed, making them nearly impossible to elude no matter how well armed. Which may make for snappy edits to a Pantera soundtrack, but in reality means once the Zomb-a-Pocalypse dawns, humans will have no chance at all. An interesting admission. We’ve doubled down against ourselves. The easily avoided lurchers and moaners of yore doing the zombie shuffle were our only real advantage. The ability to sprint through a mall full of droolers without being tackled from behind at least gave us a glimmer of hope. But there is hope no longer. This unsustainable acceleration of Z lore and movement reflects a deeply sublimated cynicism and hopelessness that has only accelerated during the pixel age. It’s the sum of a growing awareness of the impotence of our weaponry to keep us safe, either on the sidewalks of LA or the roadsides of Iraq. Drones continue to drone, the Pentagon continues to build billion dollar planes that can’t actually fly, and dirt-poor Afghani poppy farmers succeed in knotting up the world’s greatest fighting force with nine cents worth of pipe, ball bearings, and roadside explosive.
So while zombies have recently become both a hip joke and titillating scare-source, in reality they may be indicative of the subconscious fears we all have about a planet that soon will no longer be able to accommodate us all. The larger truths of drought, food shortages, dwindling antibiotic stores, wealth disparity, and a general anger that manifests itself from our politics to our driving habits are doom-memes that seem to have settled into the national shallows.
But some things are too painful to consider. Which is why zombie product, be it books, films, graphic novels, or a cable TV series based on graphic novels, continues to sell apace. A zombie is nothing but a mindless shambling duffel bag for us to hide all our fears and gym clothes in. It’s cathartic to imagine oneself backed into a (nuance-free) corner and de-skulling the random undead, since even the most virulently patriotic among us still recognize that Iraqi soldiers have wives and children and little choice. Why lose a moment’s sleep as a C-130 drops a load of Daisy Cutters on greater Basra, when you can fantasize about dropping a cinder block on a frenzied chomper? Not only are Z no longer human, they’re not even alive. So killing isn’t killing, it’s more like deactivating. Zombies can’t be talked to, negotiated with, reasoned against, prayed to, appeased, bribed, or seduced. They have no ethics, fear, or reticence. They are single-minded in their needs. Especially since it’s really a need. Flesh. Yours. Now. Which comprises the most primal brand of survival. It’s a political stance that’s easy to get behind: live.
Zombies allow us to constantly imagine and re-imagining scenarios in which we respond to our (suddenly hungry) neighbors with maximum (and pent-up) violence, but with no moral compunction to get in the way of the (cartoon until it’s actually happening) slaughter. It’s a compelling fantasy indeed.
But the bottom line question that we keep asking ourselves is: when the Zomb-a-Pocalypse comes, will we have what it takes to survive? Or will we just give up and join the horde? A zombie, in the end, just wants you to dress and shuffle and shamble exactly like they do. They are walking homogeneity. They are committed anti-individualists–one nibble and you’ve joined the Dull Club, moaning and drooling and rooting in the offal no matter how expensive your shirt or how shiny your septum piercing was just moments before.
But of course, there’s the sexual angle as well. A cigar may just be a cigar, but cannibalism is the final taboo. When any given traveling husband can check into his conference and fulfill even the most deranged kink with a mere click on Craigslist, the collective sexual pomp needs something radically more transgressive. In a world where everyone knows and has seen everything, being eaten alive might be the last true erotic frontier.
But what’s even better than release? Free swag. Sure, when the apocalypse kicks off it’ll be great to have a final end-of-the-world hump, but it’ll be way more fun to have free reign to loot Costco. Stealing cars and blowing up buildings and firing shotguns at everything that moves will be awesome, but grabbing armloads of three-packs and four-packs and special offers while smashing windows long into the night will be nearly Caligulan in its pleasures. Looting, as any looter knows, is vastly more satisfying than even the best furtive congress.
In any case, we all know the Zomb-a-pocalyse is coming, so pretty soon there won’t be room for books or blogs anymore anyway. It’s priority time. Which means as soon as you finish reading this, you should steal your mother’s Visa card, buy seventeen copies of a certain Z survivalist novel, and then start reinforcing your bedroom door with concrete firing posts and razor wire.
It’s go-time, people. Look out the window. Could it be any more obvious?
Only a fool fails to recognize the first early stages of End Times.
And that fool is always the last one to start hoarding canned beans.
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