Saturday, July 18, 2009

Why We Zombie

As we were sitting around the other day, drinking some oat sodas (some of us literally), the topic of the walking dead came up...again. It's no secret that my circle of friends has a somewhat inexplicable fascination with zombies, but my friend Suzanne asked what the deal was. "What's the deal?" she queried: she meant, why zombies? Why not ghosts? Why not a plague? What's going on here?

The supernatural genre has never been unpopular. Anne Rice's legacy was taken up by those hideous Twilight novels. Shows like Lost, Fringe, The Listener (big ups to a Toronto-set show!) aren't exactly The X-Files, but they do have a strong and distinct undercurrent dealing with the spooky and unusual. Even the Harry Potter novels - you know, for kids! - were all about casting spells and hitting puberty (I stopped reading those monsters around book five - can anyone tell me if the perpetually sexless Potter ever got to use his magic wand on anyone?), which are both events requiring one to suspend credulity.

But, like the recession and the cyclist, zombies have reached this zeitgeisty place in pop cultures. It does beg the question: why zombies? Why now?

Zombies as an intellectual construct have always been about death; they are, after all, reanimated corpses that feed on the living. In the same way that ghosts deal with the spiritual realm of un/death (what happens to a person's soul after they die?), vampires address the sexual link with death (all that blood and penetration), and werewolves take up the primal, animalistic nature of man (we did evolve from beasts, no matter what Arkansas teaches its kids), zombies deal with our discomfort with death as a physical event. The walking dead aren't transformed into a different creature. They don't grow extra legs or fur or something.

In most representations, zombies are slow-moving, covered in gore, and utterly empty in the brainpan. They are physical husks, designed and desiring only to prey (slowly) on the living. With ghosts, we lose the body and keep the soul - the essense of what we think makes us human. Zombies takes that and flips it right on its head. Only the meat suit remains.

So why now? There are comic books, movies, spoof movies, guides, faux-memoirs, fashion, parades...I'm surprised that there isn't a children's television character named Zombo. While the first wave of zombie pop culture came in the 1970s with George Romero and his brilliant film Night of the Living Dead, there's been a recent resurgence in the last few years. Zombies have shuffled back onto the radar.

As a culture, we have incredible anxiety at this point about many, many different things. We have collective body issues: we're too fat and we worship too skinny. We don't deal well with death. We're losing the primal modes of social interaction to substandard technological replacements (talking on MSN doesn't count as having a conversation!). We are constantly innundated with messages that try to make us feel special when we do the same thing as everyone else. Most of us have no idea how to live off the land, shoot a gun, or even throw a punch. Our highest-paid jobs aren't physical labours, but rather mental and monetary somersaults. In short, we're a bunch of soft, lonely, citified, lazy-ass sheep who are scared to die. Not to mention that some of us already think we're living in the End Times....

So what could possibly be more appealing that a figure who cuts a wide swath through the very embodiement of death, brandishing a machete and living on the run? That person would be ridicously bad-ass. In the case of widespread zombification, we would lose much of the high technology that relies on electricity. We would lose creature comforts like tampons and cold beer. We would be tired, stressed out, and alone.

I would argue that we're currently tired, stressed-out, and alone: we just do it in condos and in offices, instead of while fighting ghoulish enemies. A zombie invasion would allow us to face some of our death-related neuroses, reconnect as families and communities, and tone us into a leaner, meaner fighting machine. That's pretty appealing.

It goes without saying that a zombocalypse wouldn't be all fine wines and fancy cheeses, but the secret belief that fighting off an army of the undead would actually be kind of cool stems from our desire to have the lifestyle it would force us to create. Not since the fall of the Roman Empire has humanity had an opportunity to recreate itself: we ended up, a thousand years later, with Lady Gaga and cheeseburger in a can. We want to connect with each other; we want to be physically fit; we want to feel special. Are we so collectively stuck in our ways that the only way to achieve this is to literally raise the dead?

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