“Peak oil”: the point at which the world’s oil supplies go into irreversible decline (from Financial Times Lexicon )
I’m not expert enough to decide if peak oil is simply a depressing fact or a myth needing to be debunked. But I will say this: we may have reached the point of Peak Zombie.
“The Walking Dead” on TV; Zone One by Colson Whitehead and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in books; The New York Times dividing the world into figurative zombies and vampires, as though Myers-Briggs can now add a Z/V to its inventory of personality dichotomies.
At the movies, beyond the Final Destinations and the 28 Days and the multiple reanimated George Romeros, even a movie like Contagion is a quasi-zombie movie sans actual zombies, Pirates of the Caribbean a de facto zombie movie even if the thing you remember is Johnny Depp’s larf an’ teef. You’ll be relieved to know that there is a Zombie Movie Database, so you can look up, say, Klown Kamp Massacre, to say nothing of the thousands of other zombie websites, including this one, that I used to zombify myself (apparently it’s a transitive verb) for the swell pic above.
Exhilarating, yes, but there’s a dark side: we’re in desperate danger, not from zombies, or in running from zombies, but from running out of zombies. Too many years of drilling already-limited and well-mined material must lead to irreversible decline.
So why zombies, and why now? There’s not a single answer. In fact, I believe that zombies have overrun the cultural landscape because all of the explanations have infected and colluded with each other, creating the conditions for the perfect storm of zombies.
Consumerism: This was Romero’s earliest hobbyhorse, with his mall zombies interchangeable with its usual clientele, later perfectly depicted in Shawn’s, of Shawn of the Dead, inability to tell the difference between the zombies and his usual neighbors (“She’s so drunk!”). Zombies are like holiday shoppers: thoughtless, impulsive, unselfconscious malcontents driven by the basest instinct to do nothing but seek the next object of consumption. It’s hard to question one’s own consumption, but easy to pick on zombie’s fixes. Certainly Zombieland presents the post-apocalyptic world as one in which the survivors can raid any car or house—or just trash a souvenir shop—because, well, there’s no on left, so why not?
Globalization’s literal and metaphorical infectiousness: Look at the recurring zombie motifs: pandemics, undocumented movements of people across quarantines and borders, the possibility of infiltration by the dangerously infected or affected: zombies are a perfect proxy for the fear of insecure boundaries of every kind. (I wrote about this in much greater detail here.) Compare zombies to Frankenstein’s monster. As a reanimated corpse, F’s M was a proto-zombie, but badder: seven feet tall, intelligent, super strong, super agile, impervious to bullets, frost, and fire. (Go read your Shelley and stop Whale watching if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) But F’s M wasn’t CONTAGIOUS! His whole hangup was that he was the only one of his kind. Zombies don’t have that hangup. They don’t have any hangups.
Technology: Back in the day, zombies were created by magic. But for a few decades they’ve been formed by radioactivity and viruses, especially scientifically engineered viruses and bio-weapons. And the solutions tend to be old school and low tech: baseball bats, bludgeons, and medieval style-weaponry. Many movies—and World War Z and Zombie Survival Guide—specifically suggest that hand to head weapons are more effective than guns and projectiles. How many times have you tried to solve your tech problem by whacking something—and it worked?
Apocalypse: 2000, 2001, 2012: the end has been near for some time now. And who better to bring about the end than zombies? But each version in its own way allows us to rehearse the end one more time, so if or when it ever arrives, we’re better prepared. Scared of the end of the world? Anyone who doesn’t know how to respond to the apocalypse has no one but himself to blame at this point. You’ve had practice. You’ve been warned.
Political and racial polarization: People who don’t think and just merge with the hordes are considered zombies. Unfortunately, it’s only people who are opposite one’s own political preference that confers the brainless, conformist zombie label. For conservatives, it’s Obama Zombies; for liberals, it’s Republican Zombie Defense online game (apparently removed). Anyone who doesn’t agree with you must be a zombie. The Obama Zombie label, though, seems to have been far more used, possibly thanks to its assonance and consonance. But it also has an undertone of racism—the word and concept were Haitian, derived from Africa, which is why the old Bela Legosi movie was White Zombie. Until then, the assumption was that zombies were black—another latent fear of globalization, porous borders, and those different from one’s self. Max Brooks nods to this origin in World War Z, and Romero has always been interested in the relationships between zombies and race as well.
If you add the last five reasons up, you get this:
Permission for violence: in film after film and game after game, you see an unambiguous, unmitigated invitation to unself-conscious carnage. There’s no diplomatic solution, no treaties, no peaceful protest possible. There’s no Occupy Zombieland movement. There are only blows to the head or else your brains are eaten. Zombies may be dead, but unlike Frankenstein’s monster, they’re beyond sympathy, and unlike vampires, no one actually wants to be one. Ever.
Which leads us to the last factor:
Twilight ruined vampires for a while. So zombies it is. So if being a vampire means being all emo and sparkly and not getting to do anything cool and spending the rest of your life in high school and the best part is like climbing trees or playing baseball—crap you can do without being dead—then maybe we don’t want to be vampires anymore anyway. And part of the allure of the monster is its Otherness, the ways in which it simultaneously both is and isn’t like a person. But once the vampire becomes the object of conscious and able-to-be-consummated desire, it loses its taboo allure. But as of right now at least, no teenage girl fantasizes about marrying a zombie. Zombies, unlike the Cullens, remain Other, but an Other so close to the original as to be terrifying rather than potentially enticing, the Uncanny Valley of Monsters.
Of course I could be wrong. I would have thought we’d reached Peak Zombie in 2006. In his book Understanding Movies, Louis Giannetti says that all film genres begin with a primitive stage, move into a classical stage, see a revisionist stage, and end in a parodic stage. It seems clear enough that White Zombie is primitive; Dawn of the Dead is classical; I Am Legend, with Will Smith and Hollywood production values, is revisionist; and Shawn of the Dead is parodic. Yet here we are, with zombies more popular than ever.
But all that could change. Or if we have not reached peak zombie, it’s because we have yet to see the Twilight-ization of the zombie genre; striving to see, and love, what remains human in the zombie is still relatively untapped (unless you count the end of Shaun of the Dead). The one place I’ve seen an attempt to humanize the zombie is the trailer for the video game “Dead Island,” which is more emotionally affective than a trailer for a zombie video game has any right to be [warning: graphic violence]:
Notice how, through its Memento-esque backwards chronology, we see a chilling reminder, one that even a taut, literary thriller like Zone One is afraid to depict: that if we see ourselves in zombies, it is because we are already always potential zombies, and zombies are already us. Perhaps, then, zombies offer a sustainable, renewable resource, and though the era of the zombie may peak and then ebb, it will not run out after all.
So sleep well, knowing that zombies may be around for a long time to come.
Time: 90 minutes! Gaa. Fourth entry and I’ve already broken my rule. I did waste 10 minutes looking for, reading, adding, and deleting links about peak oil, though. Then another 10 minutes to zombify my picture. It also took me about 10 minutes to remember which video game trailer I wanted. So it’s sort of an hour. The funny thing is, this was supposed to be a review of Whitehead’s Zone One. Another time.