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.

I Hate Zombies – Because Braiiiins…

In honor of the recent conclusion of this season of The Walking Dead, I offer you this thought:

Zombies are stupid.

I don’t mean they’re mindless, shambling creatures of pure appetite, although there is definitely that to take into account. Rather, I mean that they are the result of very lazy storytelling, resulting in plots and themes that are full of more holes than their antagonists!

Now I should mention that most of my ire here is going to be directed at zombies as they appear in popular culture, movies like I Am Legend or 28 Days Later, or written fiction like World War Z (which, admittedly, I really enjoyed) or Feed. And, of course, The Walking Dead is a TV phenomenon about zombies in the “modern” vein. These modern zombies are supposed to be disease carriers, or possibly druggies, as opposed to creatures created by magic, evil spirits or other supernatural forces. I dislike supernatural undead, too, but this isn’t the set of posts for that particular gripe.

So what, exactly, are my gripes with the zombie plague horror story?

Let’s start with the zombies being disease ridden plague carriers. At some point, and I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it was some kind of reaction to the incredible campiness of The Evil Dead franchise (DISCLAIMER: I’ve never watched these movies but there are stories…), it was decided that zombies as the result of sorcery or other supernatural meddling wouldn’t be taken seriously anymore. So people settled on this disease idea.

And that’s probably not a terrible idea, since people with rabies are likely the source of the zombie/vampire/ghoul/wraith ur-legends. The problem is, people insist on keeping the trappings of sorcerous zombies, like the person actually being dead, impervious to pain and not having body heat (to name a few). Problem is, these “more real” zombies are actually less believable than zombies that result from occult forces.

You see, moving takes energy. Living people get the energy to move around chemically, by metabolizing sugars from the food they eat. Zombies get energy by… well, no one ever bothers to think about this, because zombies are the result of writers being lazy and their audience letting them get away with it. Seriously, they don’t have a working metabolism so they can’t actually eat food or burn body fat. And if they did burn old tissue for fuel they’d quickly run their bodies down to nothing, because they never do more than sink their teeth into a victim before they run off after something else and a new zombie rises to take their place in the ranks of the horde. A “real” zombie would have to strip it’s victims to the bone to get enough calories to keep going, there wouldn’t be anything left to add to the ranks.

Which brings me to another aspect of lazy writing: with the exception of Feed, I’ve never read a zombie story where zombies went after anything other than humans. Why is that? There’s all those calories out there, waiting to keep the zombies going, and they ignore them! Likewise, how can zombies tell that other zombies are already plague carriers and should be left alone? Why not eat them, too?

At least drug addled zombies theoretically keep enough of their wits about them to recognize that they need food and water, but that doesn’t explain why they would desire to add to their ranks or why their drugs would spread to people bitten by them. The endless swarm is one of the defining characteristics of zombies, you can’t make one without the ability to spread the plague. I think that’s why you see so few plots with drug zombies in them.

And that reminds me of another thing. How do dead things move around, anyway? A juju zombie is a puppet for whatever evil is keeping it going, but a zombie that results from a disease? Most viruses and bacteria only have enough room in their DNA for mechanisms that allow them to replicate themselves and infect hosts to help them do it. Zombie fiction frequently tries to foist off zombie behavior as part of the infection’s reproduction drive but that’s just ridiculous.

It’s one thing to say that a virus can cause increased mucus production by settling in the sinuses, as a cold does, as part of it’s survival process. Rabies is the same – it infects nerve tissues, eventually causing inflammation of the brain that leads to violent behavior and biting attacks (which infect others) and death. These things are the results of the body’s normal attempts to fight off the disease, processes that just so happen to result in the disease spreading to other people as well. But when the body is dead there are no natural processes to spread the disease.

The zombie virus has to be doing all the work itself – firing the neurons that make the limbs move, processing visual and audio input to locate prey and then telling when you’ve successfully bitten the victim and it’s time to move on. The virus has to do all of that, and still be a small enough organism to be transmitted from one person to another by saliva. Are you starting to see why I find this idea so absurd?

Oh, and let’s not forget zombie resilience. Another thing that makes no sense. The human body is fairly delicate, people. Cut a muscle and all those around it become strained. The muscle fibers around the wound become overworked, pull apart and stop working and pretty soon you have a chain reaction that leaves the body immobilized. Sure, zombies won’t feel the pain – although I’m not sure why they won’t since they can still see and hear and sometimes smell – but that just means they won’t realize the body is breaking down, not that it’s still functional. Because it’s not.

And then there’s the 100% infection rate. No one ever survives a zombie bite. Why? It makes no sense. No one ever tries to justify it. We’re just told that’s the way it is. The writing is so lazy it’s infuriating.

I could go on. (Why don’t zombies get infested by maggots?) But the fact is, people are going to go right on creating novels, TV shows and movies based on zombies and ignoring the fact that they make no sense because they keep making money. Only a very few people will be turned off by the absurdities of the concept because a story with the right themes and good technique can overrule both logic and sense using style and humor.

My real problem with zombies runs a little deeper than that. Hopefully you’ll come back on Friday, when we dig a little deeper into the problem – maybe deep enough to bury it for good.