I’ve been thinking a lot about zombies lately. The concept of zombies and how this whole bizarre culture surrounding them has formed over the years, mainly thanks to the AMC television series, The Walking Dead.
Not just with this series, but with zombie movies in general, there are some serious flaws with the concept. We’re talking zombies: formerly living, healthy humans who, through some type of virus, or being bitten by another zombie, become this “undead” type of being who may have technically died, but has “come back” as this crazed, flesh-eating zombie with apparently no flicker of its former humanity, no ability to communicate, just this permanent, blood-crazed haze where the zombie exists only to find normal human beings to eat their flesh, particularly their brains.
Got that? It was a pretty cool concept when George Romero first came up with it way back when, my favorite example being Dawn of the Dead, which perfectly sent up the relatively new shopping-mall culture by setting the flesh-eating frenzy in an abandoned mall turned fortress for some desperate, ass-kicking humans trying to stave off the zombie hordes. Hard to believe that was 1978 … I took special pride in that movie as it took place at a shopping mall outside of Pittsburgh that some kids I went to Penn State with actually shopped at back then.
In the context of those first few zombie movies, what was happening made perfect sense. The action took place in a matter of hours or days, and the audience got a real sense of the humans fending for themselves in the here and now, fighting desperately for their lives against overwhelming odds.
But … we eventually got into the concept of 28 days later (after the zombie apocalypse), then 28 weeks later. Bear with me on this. A zombie appears to be nothing but a human body, with the mind completely gone or replaced by this animalistic mind that exists only to hunt down uninfected humans to eat them. The zombies still have human bodies. Put your mind in another context, bereft of zombie culture. The human body will cease to function without nourishment, zombie or not. Eating is part of it, but without water or some other type of fluid, the human body will perish in a matter of days.
When’s the last time you saw a zombie in a zombie movie drinking water? Craving water? Having anything to do with water? OK, they crave brains and flesh. The same way I crave, say, frozen yogurt or pizza. The reality is without water, I would be dead within a week, much less 28 days later, much less however many weeks, months or years are supposed to be inferred in the plot line of The Walking Dead. Presumably, zombies would die in a matter of days without water as their bodies are essentially the same as when they were alive. Their minds are gone. They no longer have human sense enough to turn on faucets or pull beverages off supermarket shelves. Even if they did, we never see that as the viewing audience. I know, movies don’t dwell on seemingly mundane trivialities like drinking water, or taking a shit. (Besides, unless you’re really quirky, do you really want to watch someone taking a shit?) But we’d be dead inside of days without these “trivialities” … God help you if you ever go a week or two without shitting, you’ll surely be hospitalized if you’re still alive.
That’s one major problem with zombie culture. The other major problem is food, i.e., in the case of zombies, normal humans. I don’t quite grasp this. Zombies in these movies don’t seem to grasp the fact that they could eat each other … they’re human flesh. They only respond to the “warmth” of humans as they’re somehow cold and dead? I don’t know … I can eat a cold turkey sandwich the same way I’d eat roasted turkey on Thanksgiving. Turkey is turkey. Flesh is flesh. Maybe zombie flesh won’t taste as good, but it would be sustenance, wouldn’t it?
Still, as portrayed in movies and television, living humans are the only food that zombies can eat. Never mind that they could still eat the food they once ate as normal human beings. It doesn’t seem as though they crave that sort of thing. But in lieu of a rapidly diminishing human population, wouldn’t they? If I’m a zombie, maybe some flicker of memory plays in my mind, and as I walk past a supermarket, I go in, pop open a bag of potato chips and start mushing them into my slobbering, gaping mouth. I groan. Good, I think, even if I can’t formulate the word. Not as good as a nice warm human brain I’ve just gnawed out of someone’s skull, but this will do. Seeing as humans flee zombies or try to blow their brains out when they see each other, wouldn’t my mute zombie mind think, this is so much easier, I should hang around this place and break open more bags. So I’m not eating at the zombie equivalent of The Four Seasons. I’m getting by. Nobody’s trying to kill me (again). I’m already dead. And these chips taste pretty good. Not brains. But I’ll make-do.
So we have this unrealistic, unsustainable mass of zombie hordes, always traveling in hordes, it seems, chasing after these few remaining humans in hopes of eating them. A vast army of zombies. Think about armies roaming the land. We don’t have that concept in our minds anymore because that sense of warfare doesn’t exist. We have occupying forces, like in Afghanistan and Iraq. But not vast, roaming hordes of warriors like there used to be in military history. Think the American Civil War. Hundreds or thousands of soldiers walking the country side, looking to engage and defeat opposing forces. When not doing that … these men need to be fed. They need water. Every day. A few times a day. There’s a lot of work involved in doing just that, whether it means carrying around enough supplies to at least have a base level of sustenance, or pillaging the land, killing local cattle, confiscating local harvests, finding clean water supplies in terms of rivers or lakes.
Hundreds or thousands of zombies clawing at the gates or windows of some temporary fortress the remaining humans have set up? That’s a very real moment. But it’s not a very real week. Or month. Or year. If those humans just sat still and defended their ground for a week or two, most of those zombie would be dead-dead from lack of sustainable nutrition and water. No need to waste ammunition on them. Their bodies simply would stop functioning. But then again, wars of attrition, while often more real than war itself, don’t make for good movie and television viewing.
Those are the physical issues I have with zombie culture. Let’s get into the mental ones. The whole zombie culture may have started with the Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend, from back in the 1950’s. One of my favorite childhood movies was based on this novel, 1971’s The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston as one of the few survivors of a plague that had turned most people into strange, nocturnal zombies. Not vampires or even flesh-eating zombies: sentient beings with greyed-out hair and eyes who couldn’t stand the daylight. Heston holed himself up in a townhouse in Los Angeles and spent most of his nights shooting at the zombies with a high-powered rifle and his days trying to find their nesting places in hopes of wiping them out.
As usual, Heston is cast as the tragic hero who goes down fighting in the end, trying to save the rest of whatever unaffected humanity remains, with the hope that a serum he’s developed can be administered to the zombies to bring them back to normal humanity.
I never read I Am Legend, but from what I gather, there’s a stark, shocking difference to how the protagonist ends up in that novel as opposed to the movie. (I’ve never seen Will Smith in I Am Legend and can’t vouch for how that movie plays out.) He comes to realize that it’s not the zombies who need to be exterminated … he needs to go. For whatever reason, even if it’s some type of plague, disease or fallout from nuclear war, these zombies now represent the mass of humanity, with isolated humans like him fighting for their lives. He’s spent so much time feeling threatened by the zombies that he can’t unravel his memories and emotions to realize that his horror and revulsion were conscious choices he made when first faced with these zombies. Chances are, they had done nothing to him. He just saw groups of them after dark, felt threatened as he knew there was something “wrong” and not traditionally human about them, and most likely started killing them as a defense mechanism. Naturally, like any threatened beings, they came to hate him and defend themselves accordingly, knowing that they had to kill him before he killed them.
That’s not the sort of thought process that makes for good movies. Self realization rarely is, as the clouds parting that way always occurs as voice-overs or montages leading up to the protagonist staring off into the middle distance while this new wisdom sinks in. It’s bullshit from a movie and television point of view. But it’s something I can relate to as a relatively normal, thinking human being. I’m surrounded by nocturnal zombies. Hundreds or thousands of them. How long can this go on before they kill me? How much effort will it take for me to kill all of them when it appears there’s no end in sight for how many of them there are? What’s the point? All wars end. This war would never end, or at least not in my favor.
That’s how my mind would work in that scenario. In other words, I’d let the zombie bite me. I’d become one of them, the slobbering, stumbling, stinking, flesh-eating shit bags waiting to be blown away by someone who hasn’t grasped how the world has turned. Probably wouldn’t like it, but I’d look at the big picture and realize, man, do I want to spend the rest of my days fighting for my life? Fighting for a past version of the world that no longer exists and will never exist again?
(I often get the same feeling on the rare occasions I watch cable TV now and see ads for survivalist reality shows … I think I’d rather die than live in a world filled with these people. Then again, if I’m being totally honest, I’d rather die than live in a world filled with reality-show people … and it’s too frightening to contemplate how vast and close to every-day reality in America circa 2014 these fucking awful shows are. Wait a minute ... are these d-bags on reality shows, the overweight, tattooed, shaved-head, bad-facial-haired, do-ragged, white-trash jackasses ... the zombies ... and I am the Omega Man in this scenario? Sometimes I frighten myself.)
This makes me want to read I Am Legend because I can sense that when it was written, the world was changing fast, in that post World War II haze of the 1950’s, just before the 1960’s kicked into high gear, and there were surely a lot of people hankering for “the old days” much as many of us do now as we age. Imagine a world ravaged by war, millions of Jews exterminated, millions of people, soldiers and civilians, killed and maimed in an insane war that had to be fought, countries decimated and destroyed by bombs … you get a sense of what Matheson was shooting for in his novel. That your perspective must change with time, whether you like it or not, whether you understand where the tides will carry you (and no one ever does). This really rings true to me now that both my parents are gone, and that orphan sense one develops without those very real guides in one’s life. I’ll always have the past, but there’s no fighting for a world that no longer exists, just the realization that I have to step into this new world and find my way. Sure, the memories of them walk with me like comforting shadows, every day. But in effect, I become a zombie, forget the complexities and desires of the old world, the myriad number of ways I felt I had to justify my existence, all that matters now is brains. No worries. No legacies. Just now.
Food for thought? Or have they already eaten my brains? For the love of God, if anyone receives this transmission, I’m running low on ammo!