Friday, January 17, 2014

The Quickening of the Dead

The dead occupy a special place in human community, physically absent yet retaining and sometimes changing their reputations until they finally vanish like all memories. The undead, however, are not members of the human community. Antisocial animals with uncanny resemblance to the living ("Don't go near him! He's not your brother anymore!") they seduce us to become victims of violence that would initiate us into their ranks and remove us from the role call of humanity. Only a further act of violence, say a stake to the heart, can return the undead to the forgiveness of God, meaning the human community of the dead.

Or so it goes with vampires, whom we first met in the form of a suave aristocrat preying upon a middle-class lawyer and his family in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Vampires organized into crime families, such as in the Blade movies, begin to threaten humanity at large by scheming in the shadows, gaining strength that's never fully released. We see a mirror society of vampires with CEOs at the top and dim-witted bros at the bottom. In these times of diminished sentimentality, we no longer expect redemption for the undead who now burn, explode and splatter, receiving no more benediction than a "So long, sucker!" These monsters were seductive for a while in their undead form, but there is no longer any question of reinstating their humanity.

Preceding the vampire in irredeemable loss of humanity was the zombie. George A. Romero"s Night of the Living Dead ends with a shot of a mass pyre of dead zombies. They are trash to incinerate. Significantly, one of the bodies is not of a zombie but of the hero of the movie, a black man who has been mistaken for a zombie and killed. Released in 1968 as the civil rights movement still pioneered and  the Vietnam War hastened , the social commentary of this film's ending was poignant: whole groups of people in fact are written out of the human community. The zombie's destiny as vehicle for social commentary was sealed.

The 1960s zombie evolved to represent many classes of people. Romero, in his sequel Dawn of the Dead for instance, used zombies, pawing their way into a shopping mall, to satirize mindless consumers . Today the zombie seems to have replaced the mafia family and perhaps even the serial killer as the most obsessive subject in video. Another important feature of the zombie movie is that the humans in them form an isolated community. In Night of the Living Dead the humans are besieged by zombies surrounding a farmhouse. As the genre developed, the process of becoming a zombie tended to involve a fast-acting virus, and the world became threatened on a scale vampires had never managed. In these movies humanity only exists in isolated pockets of health and resistance.

Zombies conquered the media, and as they did so they gained speed. Romero's zombies could barely walk. Their lethargy, horrifying as a trait ascribed to human-eating monsters, led to problems of credibility. How does one willingly suspend disbelief movie after zombie movie when the humans could solve their immediate problems by walking away? The conscious seeds of this problem were planted in Night of the Living Dead. The film's very competent hero warns others that holing up in the farmhouse basement, a place with no means of egress, is a deadly option in their situation. He recognizes that a mobile defense is the best.

Fast forward a little over 40 years to the movie World War Z . Brad Pitt, playing the role of a combat journalist caught up in a zombie apocalypse, advises frightened people that his experience tells him you have to keep moving in order to survive. This advice is offered in a magnificently unprecedented situation. Not only does it involve zombies, but  the zombies have gained tremendous speed since the 60s, and they have also acquired a hive consciousness that allows them to act in mass coordination that rivals that of the closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. With such zombies, yes, it seems you have to keep moving. And, yes, maybe a combat journalist would use constant movement as a rule of thumb in a war zone. But moving in all situations?  And why have movie producers created zombies that move so very fast? Perhaps we can write off the speedy zombies  to a desire to create more spectacular special effects in order to sell more tickets. No doubt such a factor entered into the decision, but maybe we can break it down in another way.

The cost of becoming a victim of a zombie apocalypse is that of becoming one of the undead. To become undead is to be excluded from the human community. Pitt addresses frightened people with his advice, people who will either overcome their fears, move and remain human or who will stay put in hiding and cease to be human.  We might sniff out a parable here, one that involves our own anxieties. This is no longer a dilemma of resisting the seductions of the slow undead with their resemblance to those who used to be a part of our community, the ones we loved. Only forward motion will save us now!

In a very competitive world the motto increasingly on our lips is "Keep Moving!" Forty years ago  "Keep Moving," literally enacted in direct protest marches, advanced human rights by wearing down the barriers of prejudice consigning others to an inhuman status. Today, as we compete harder against each other, brand ourselves (a mark once given to slaves) and fight for our families, we may feel that some kind of doom rapidly approaches from behind, one that will take away our competitiveness, our jobs and finally our full status within the communities in which we find value. The ability to keep moving and competing in and of itself becomes the criterion for our humanity in this scheme of terror, and we look at the zombies in horror and want them gone because we fear what we will become if we slip up.

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