“They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara:” How Zombies Ate My Weltenscahuung

29 October 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” This was a line from the film Dawn of the Dead, repeated in the 2004 remake. While Zombies have been a part of many cultures, it is the mind of George Romero that has elevated them to the level of cultural icon.

Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, a film that is as campy as it is disturbing. But the film has had a profound cultural impact, establishing an early standard for zombie horror. Now, zombies have made their appearance in Romero’s sequels, the campy Return of the Living Dead series, the hilarious Shaun of the Dead parody, as the frenetic “infected” in the 28 Days Later franchise, and in copious amounts in the Resident Evil film and video game franchise.  Even more recently is the success of the horror comedy Zombieland.  Author Max Brooks has published The Zombie Survival Guide filled with advice on what to do in the unthinkable event of zombie invasion. My good friend Chris Abner (who had come up with half the title to this article) introduced me to the game “Zombie Squad,” where you discuss strategies for survival during a zombie outbreak.

OUR POSTMODERN MONSTER

The cultural fascination with the undead deserves consideration. The original subtitle of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was “The Modern Prometheus,” a story of a mad scientist bringing to life dead tissue in a macabre attempt at playing God. While Frankenstein is very much a product of the modern era, zombies are a product of the post-modern era. It bears noting that Night of the Living Dead was both filmed and received in the context of Vietnam-era America, which serves to highlight the paranoia and mistrust (particularly in its portrayal of the government) strongly depicted in the film.

But on an even broader level, there is something about the reanimation of rotten flesh that attracts a sense of dark fascination. I submit to you that there are several reasons why zombies hold our attention and why they are uniquely the monsters of the postmodern generation.

(1) Zombies represent the ultimate “deconstruction” of man. Zombies represent a fundamental loss of identity while simultaneously losing the capacity for community. Being a zombie is to be part of a crowd – and yet completely alone.

(2) Zombies are not merely alone; they are hollow. They are not merely mindless, but soulless. For a zombie, there is no connection to eternity, no connection to God possible. For a zombie, fate has been time-stamped at the time of infection: there is neither hope of heaven nor dread of hell, only the inevitable passage into decay and oblivion.

(3) Zombies are reduced to their (our?) most primitive instincts. With survival as their only real directive, films invariably depict zombies as violent, deadly and even cannibalistic. Zombies are an uncomfortable mirror of our own depravity – showing us what humans might truly be capable of in the absence of a social and moral conscience.

(4) There is no hope of redemption: only survival. This point was alluded to in the film 28 Days Later. For survivors of the holocaust, there can be no true “happy ending.” This is possibly why so few zombie films (particularly Romero’s series) end on a positive note. With civilization lying in ruins and your close friends dead, survival is your only real option. There can be no return to your former life.

(5) In a zombie outbreak, there is no safety. Zombies can be anywhere, and can be anyone. Again, this is a fear exploited by countless zombie films – the unthinkable notion that your close friend or a loved one might turn to a zombie leaving you with the choice of kill or be killed. Likewise, a zombie outbreak exposes our vulnerability and our lack of preparedness should our homes or offices suddenly come under attack.

FROM OUTBREAK TO RESURRECTION

It amazes me that there has yet to be a “Christian” zombie film, though I suppose it’s worth(?) mentioning the film Living Dead Girl where eating Jesus’ flesh leads to life.

From a theological perspective, what might be said about the zombie sub-genre? Lots.

First, we must affirm the way the Bible describes life. In Genesis 2, man was created as having both a material (created from the “dust of the earth”) and immaterial component – it was the nshmat chayiim, the “breath of life” that uniquely makes us human. Zombies, bereft of this divine gift, lose their humanity and exist only as animated versions of earthly dust.

As humans our souls and bodies are of vital importance. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul speaks of a hope in resurrection. Though we currently bear the image of “a man of dust,” there will come a day when we “bear the image of the man in heaven [i.e., Jesus].” At the final resurrection, “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed.” Our “perishable” bodies will be explained for an immortal, “imperishable” one.

Zombie outbreak? Resurrection? Different. Zombie outbreak merely speaks of resuscitation, or the reanimation of dead tissue. Resurrection means of transformation from death to life, the reason author N. T. Wright defines it as “life after life after death.”

The Christian hope is of physical resurrection. Medieval artists used to portray animals regurgitating severed limbs to restore people to completion at the time of resurrection. There will be a time of wholeness and healing. Gregory of Nyssa, writing in the fourth century, speaks of resurrection as “the reconstitution of our nature to its pristine state.” The gruesome and fearful depravity unleashed in the form of a zombie will have been eradicated by the hand of God.

NEITHER DEAD NOR UNDEAD

This all must seem absurd. But the beautiful reality is that we follow a Savior who already conquered death and whose resurrection body delivers an image of a future far more glorious than any delivered through Hollywood celluloid. In Christ there can be no “dead” or “undead,” but only those redeemed by His shed blood.

And so we live as “sons of light and sons of day (1 Thess 5:5),” living with the hope of this approaching future.

29 October 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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