Saving Us from Ourselves: On Zombies
A few years ago, I went to visit my brother who had been living and working in Japan. One of the cities on the itinerary was a bit of a surprise: Hiroshima. But my brother had spent time there and assured me it was one of his favorite places to visit.
While we were there we toured the Peace Memorial Museum, which chronicles the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the aftermath of nuclear war. As we saw images of the carnage and listened to stories of the survivors, I literally wanted to crawl out my skin. At one point, there was a group of Japanese schoolchildren who stood in front of me while we pondered an exhibit of bubbled human flesh. Some of the children turned to look up at me, as we read the same information placards. I wanted to run; I wanted to hide.
After we’d left the museum, a Japanese man approached us and asked (in Japanese, which my brother speaks fluently) where we came from. I asked my brother what his response was when he learned we were Americans. My brother responded, “He said, ‘thank you for coming here.’”
The idea of the zombie is one that dates back to ancient times, through voodoo, and appears in literature as early as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” published in 1818, arguably even earlier. But the first time zombies appeared in a form closest to the ones we recognize today was in Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, “I Am Legend.” There zombies more closely resemble vampires as Matheson’s hero Robert Neville uses garlic and mirrors to repel them. But “I Am Legend” was the inspiration behind the modern day zombie created by George Romero with his horror classic Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
Though the word “zombie” never appears in Matheson’s work, the 1964 film adaptation starring Vincent Price (where Neville is inexplicably renamed Morgan), The Last Man on Earth, or anywhere in Night of the Living Dead, the zombies, lumbering like sleepwalkers are easily recognizable to a contemporary audience. They’ve differentiated themselves from their cousin the vampire: These zombies are mindless, or rather, they only have one thing on the brain… human flesh. Today, zombies have become so popular that they’ve infiltrated our very culture. There are books and movies on how to survive a zombie apocalypse, endless video games (Resident Evil, Silent Hill), Nazi zombies (Dead Snow), there’s Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, half-zombie detective crime-fighters (iZombie), and of course, romances with zombies (My Boyfriend’s Back, Warm Bodies). One of the most popular television shows is The Walking Dead, based on the graphic novels, currently shooting its eighth season.
With all this overexposure, what do zombies even mean anymore? How do they still scare us?
In Season 1 of The Walking Dead, (spoiler alert) Andrea must kill her little sister Amy after she’s been attacked by a walker. Andrea can’t bring herself to shoot Amy in the head while she’s still human, and instead elects to let her die, become reanimated, and kill her then. This scene has haunted my nightmares since I first saw it years ago. What The Walking Dead understands is what George Romero understood about zombies—the reason they still scare us is because they are us—or, what’s left of “us.”
Like Amy’s demise, Helen and Harry in Night of the Living Dead refuse to believe that their daughter Karen, who has been bitten by a zombie, could be infected. They keep her in the basement under hiding, until the shit hits the fan and Ben eventually discovers Karen blissfully chomping on her dead father’s arm like a dog with a bone. But I’d argue the scene that really takes the cake is when Karen attacks Helen with a garden spade. Perhaps Helen can’t bear to defend herself because she can’t even fathom what is happening—she cannot separate her beloved daughter from her now zombie attacker. Helen’s eyes, searching and pleading for meaning as she dies, is the kind of horror that the zombie story capitalizes on.
In Night of the Living Dead Romero drops hints in the plot, through radio broadcasts and then a helpful television broadcast, that the zombie infection is a result of some kind of radioactive substance from the planet Venus. The key word being radioactive. And when Morgan first hears of the plague in The Last Man on Earth his wife asks “Is Europe’s disease carried on the wind?” The origin of the zombie virus, or the apocalypse, is inextricably tied to war. Other films offer less literal takes on the idea of a virus or some kind of modern, post-war trauma, like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Bruce McDonald’s elegantly scary Pontypool.
When critics analyze Night of the Living Dead they are usually drawn to its unavoidable racial overtones. Ben is a black man—and the year is 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and Night of the Living Dead premiered in October of the same year. Romero claimed that by the time MLK had been shot he was already shopping for a distributor for the film, and that he cast Duane Jones as Ben because he simply thought he gave the best audition… but I remain skeptical of this explanation.
The white militia force that assembles at the end of Night of the Living Dead is akin to a bloodthirsty KKK gang and the (spoiler alert) way that Ben’s body is disposed of once he’s been mistaken for one of “them” are just two bombastic examples of the movie’s political commentary. (For more on the racial politics of Night of the Living Dead and its influence on Jordan Peele’s Get Out, see my previous column here.) Just who are the real villains here, the zombies or the humans?
This open-ended question is also asked in Matheson’s “I Am Legend.” In the 1964 film, Morgan discovers, albeit too late, that his blood contains antibodies that could rid humanity of the zombie virus. But by the time he tells Ruth, she informs him that there are other people like her coming to destroy him—that society has moved on with its own solution, and he’s in the way. As (spoiler alert) Morgan dies, he explains that it’s he that’s become the unbelievable folklore—the one thing that could have saved humanity is destroyed by humanity—his dying words are “I am legend.”
While I was re-watching Night of the Living Dead I was also reading “Hellhound on His Trail” by Hampton Sides, a compelling true-crime account of the manhunt for Martin Luther King’s assassin, James Earl Ray. It was near to impossible for me to believe Romero’s coincidental explanation of the ending of Night of the Living Dead as I read the chapter in which King is murdered standing outside his balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Another eerie and terrifying “coincidence” is that in The Last Man on Earth they change Neville’s last words from “I am legend” to Morgan’s “They were afraid of me.” Which could, I suppose, have been King’s last words. That the savior—or hero—meets his end at the hands of people rather than zombies in both movies is not a coincidence.
It’s no coincidence either, that in many of these films the zombies have a lack of vision (or blindness) which serves as one of their weak points. In Train to Busan, a very well done Korean zombie movie that was released last year, the zombies lose their rabidity when they can’t see their would-be victims. In The Last Man on Earth, they can’t stand to look in the mirror. One of the last symptoms of the plague is that its human victims go blind shortly before death. This literal blindness is an analogy for a figurative (and perhaps moral) blindness or shortsightedness.
The anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima is August 6th, and Nagasaki August 9th. The New York Times ran a rather eerie interactive feature on the atom bomb this week, in which it hangs, suspended in time, with no plane (certainly no manned plane) attached to it, as if the bomb had just suddenly appeared over Hiroshima. The horror of that recreation only became more horrible when I reminded myself that nuclear war had actually happened, and that it was my country—and my countrymen—who had pushed that button. Like Andrea staring down at what her sister has become on The Walking Dead, the scope of history is long and distorted. But it doesn’t change the fact that the monsters were once us.
North Korea continues to push the envelope with its missile tests, claiming they have the ability to reach the United States and begin nuclear war, a terrifying prospect, but not a surprising one. In The Last Man on Earth Morgan asks, as everyone cowers in their homes afraid to venture outside because of the plague, “Is everybody in the world going to die before somebody finds the answer?” Unless we can take a step back from the teeming pack of zombies and take a long hard look in the mirror, the answer may be yes.
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