I Hate Zombies – Themes That Eat Your Brain

It’s part two of I Hate Zombies week. Here’s part one, in case you missed it.

If you were wondering, this post is not another screed of geeky nitpicking on why zombies are stupid, lazy plot devices that exist only to create irrational fear in the back of your mind. All that is true, but it’s kind of true of all plot devices and anyway it’s not what I’m on about today. Also let me say that it’s not related to my intense, longstanding, deep seated hate towards vampires, even though vampires and zombies probably share their origins in the bizarre behavior of people afflicted by rabies. I hate vampires for totally different reasons than those that drive my hatred of zombies. Maybe one day there will be time for I Hate Vampires week.

But this week, we look at zombies.

I’ve already hashed all my problems with zombies as the plague on Wednesday, so I’m going to ignore all the things that make zombies patently ridiculous. Anyone who’s seen a solid action movie knows that the patently ridiculous can actually be a selling point of a good story, so the real question is less, why are zombies ridiculous? And more, what keeps them from having redeeming value?

I’m going to pick on The Walking Dead again, or really a lot of the people I’ve heard talking about The Walking Dead. These people, from the reviewers on the internet to the guy I share my apartment with, insist the story is not about the zombies or fighting them, its about the characters and how they survive.

I’ve also noticed that The Talking Dead, a talk show which follows The Walking Dead, always contains a one to three minute slow-motion recap of all the zombie deaths that occurred in an episode. I take their assertions with a small salt shaker.

Now I’ve not watched this show, but I’ve read a volume or two of the graphic novels they’re based on. I’m hardly an expert on the series. But I’ve noticed that, just like most zombie stories, the general rational for people’s behavior is: “They do what they have to in order to survive. It’s a different world.”

And if you pay any attention to these stories, anyone who tries to stand on anything higher than pragmatism tends to wind up as zombie fodder quick. And as survival becomes more and more the goal of the characters they loose perspective, loose the ability to plan for anything but the next zombie attack, where their next meal is coming from. Sure, the logic holds up but what does it really offer the audience? It’s nifty that the writers have thought of all these ways to stay alive in unrealistic circumstances but you’re not really bringing anything relevant to day to day life and the typical zombie story doesn’t really uplift the audience, either, but leaves them with a grimmer, more selfish mindset.

Yes, the central characters of these stories often try to behave with generosity and decency. But by the end, nine times out of ten, we’ll find they’ve “accepted” the reality of the situation – everyone’s going to be a zombie in the end. Even if you die a natural death most zombie stories don’t let you stay down. Everyone’s just an enemy waiting to happen, and you can only coexist until they turn on you.

Which brings me to the next thing I hate about zombies, and that’s the blatant encouragement of violence. Now I love action movies as much as the next guy, and I’m particularly fond of stupid kung-fu flicks due to the pure athleticism the display, so I’m not saying violence has no place in storytelling. But the violence in zombie stories? It’s in a dimension all its own.

Beating zombies in the face with road signs until eyeballs fly, stabbing them through the mouth and into the brain with a sharpened wooden stake, blowing their skulls into fragments with a shotgun – zombie violence is brutal. Now you can say that they’re just dead bodies, not people anymore (and you’d be wrong, because your body is a part of you, whether it’s functioning or not) but the fact is this violence inevitably spills over onto the living people as arguments arise or people betray the group. Witness the brutal violence between the Governor and members of the central group in The Walking Dead, particularly the emasculation that takes place in the comic version. It doesn’t take long for the philosophy that everyone’s just a zombie waiting to happen to pour out into violence. Witness the brutal final fights between the newsies and the conspirators at the end of the Feed trilogy. And these are the examples from zombie fiction at it’s best. These are the stories that try their hardest to have some kind of meaning on top all the other mess. I’m just not sure it carries convincingly over the din of violence and nihilism, that it’s really worth hearing we’re just zombies waiting to happen, but at least before we become the rotting dead we can do something that the living will remember fondly for a time.

And perhaps that’s ultimately the thing I hate about zombies. It’s the implication that we’re all just mindless drones waiting to happen, at worst tearing one another down and leaving nothing but suffering and emptiness in our wake, or at best leaving a hollow happiness for a short time, that I really dislike about zombie stories. I write to try and make people a little more aware, a little more thoughtful, a little more devoted to God and one another. Could you do that with a zombie tale? I don’t know – maybe. But the tone and conventions that seem to run through them makes me doubt it.

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2 responses to “I Hate Zombies – Themes That Eat Your Brain

  1. I confess that I avoid zombie movies like the plague (ha!)…although I did find “Sean of the Dead” somewhat amusing, even if I had to look away from the screen quite often. However, I’ve heard there is redeeming moral value in “I Am Legend”…and since I’ve neither read the original story nor seen any film version, I cannot comment. Your thoughts?

    • Ah yes, “I Am Legend”. Gonna have some spoilers here but it doesn’t sound like you’ll mind. In a lot of ways, the ’07 film version actively subverts zombie themes and tropes. For example, Robert Neville (Smith’s character) is immune to the plague that created Darkstalkers (the movie’s equivalent of zombies) something you’re not going to find in many zombie stories. He also manages to cure the disease, resulting in his “becoming legend”. Finally, rather than pure pragmatism he chooses to sacrifice himself on behalf of others.
      I only watched the film, I haven’t read the story, so I can’t say how accurately that matches the original story’s intent.
      While the story is definitely different than typical zombie fare, I’m still troubled by the messages. The movie is so bleak in the first two acts that by the end it feels more like Robert is choosing suicide now that he can hand a functioning cure off to others, almost like he’s giving up. The character struggles with guilt and loneliness through the whole film and it feels like the ending is his giving in to those things, rather than triumphing over them. This is made worse by the fact that, as many will quickly point out, he could have easily survived if he wanted to.
      It’s certainly a complex and emotional tale, but I’m not sure it really leaves us any better than we were before we started it.

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