Try as we have in our years as developing humanity, we cannot cheat death. We may be healthier now than 100 years ago, have longer lives than 1000 years ago, even have a better quality of life than 2000 years ago, but one thing remains the same. We all die. In the Western world, we have so many diversions from death, Pascal himself would be beyond amusement. We like to construct our worlds in ways that deny death: what we do with our thoughts, time and money. Deny all we want, death is inevitable.
The zombie sub-genre of horror helps keep death in the forefront. Like our other monsters of vampires and slasher bad guys the zombie film is a psychoanalytical product of our nightmares. It forces us to reckon with the onslaught of death.
What once was alive is now dead. But it’s an insatiable death, it wants more and it wants you. Like Miley, zombies can’t stop. They are, of all the horror monsters, the least rational, just pure appetite. They also seem to be amoral and have a solitary mission to create more of themselves.
Their slowness makes them avoidable to a point. They can be out-thought and out-maneuvered. Like death, they offer no new tactics, just an unstoppable force of anti-humanity. Simon Pegg, writer and star of Shaun of the Dead, wrote a great article on the argument for slow moving zombies for The Guardian and we won’t reproduce that here.
Other than death, the zombie film preys upon our fears of cannibalism, or of being a cannibalee, as well as the fear of mobs. Getting eaten alive by your family and friends does not sound like a fun way to spend a Sunday. And as a pessimist when it comes to groups of people gathered together, the fear of the mindless mob makes perfect sense to me.
But the zombie really is about the inevitable approach of death. We survive for a little while, the faster or more clever will survive longer, but in the end we all end up consumed.
Speaking of consumption, one can’t help but realize the parallels between our consumption of products and the zombie horde’s consumption of humans. How many people have seen a group of younger people blankly staring down at their phones and commented on our zombie cultural state? In fact, that’s one of the very points that Shaun of the Dead makes: we are already zombies of a sort, going to work but not alive. Quite literally we are “amusing ourselves to death.”
This is true of most zombie films, or TV shows (can’t get away without mentioning The Walking Dead): are the survivors able to survive only by forsaking their humanity? Must they become lifeless and amoral like the monsters they are trying to fight off?
This brings the knife edge closer to our experience today. Some say surviving in this world means throwing away parts of our humanity. Think of the cut-throat (even that metaphor!) business world. If throwing away pieces of your inner self is necessary, why bother surviving at all? And what is humanity anyway? If all we are are evolved animals from single celled organisms, then it makes sense for us to consume that which is weaker, then zombies aren’t monsters but are the heroes. They survive over and against living humans.
But in reality, nobody longs to become a zombie. Zombies “survive” because they’re dead. And yet many of us zombify ourselves for reasons that we tout as honorable. More money, more security, more this and that.
If the only way you can survive your life is to become a zombie, don’t bother, you’re already dead. Nothing in this world is worth giving up your humanity.
And unlike zombie films, those who are dead can come back to the land of the living. Nothing is worth giving up our humanity, but the problem is we’re a broken humanity. We’ll run to zombify ourselves whenever given the chance. Pascal, in talking about diversion, was talking about zombies years before Hollywood got a piece.
There is One who calls us out of our zombie state, and, miraculously, defies the genre and brings us to life. This is so disruptive that the entire narrative must change, the entire center of the plot must now be centered on this Person.
What do you think? What other things do zombies bring up in our world?
Read other posts in the Theology of Horror series.
Great post. Interestingly enough Ephesians 2:1-2 portrays us as the walking dead before being made alive in Christ. Btw what do you make of the recent trend of torture films like I Spit on Your Grave 1 & 2? Would you put that in with the body section of your post on slasher films?
Yeah, great point, Eric! And torture films…hmm, I’d have to think a little about that, but there’s definitely a slasher element to them. One difference off the top of my head is the typical slasher film thrives off suspense, but the torture genre thrives off gore. Bot have suspense, both have gore, but one more than the other and vice versa. In one we relish the hunt, in the other we relish the (extended) kill. One’s about death, the other about suffering.
That’s one sub-genre I’m not to particularly fond of, but it has been growing in pop culture. Still need to think, but hopefully that will make another post in the future!
I am enjoying this series as much as I hate the entire horror genre. I’ve always wondered why people are so drawn to horror. It is interesting to see some theological implications of that genre.
I have always found the theological implications of the zombie. You took it in a slightly different direction, at least until the end. I don’t just see this is as the relentlessness of death, but also the relentlessness of sin. The Enemy is as relentless in his pursuit of our destruction as God is in His pursuit of our redemption. At times, looking at all that is wrong in the world, it is easy to be overwhelmed by it – like we would be by an onslaught of zombies. Often the goal in zombie offerings is the illogical hope that there is a cure, that those people we love can be saved from death and that we can avoid it. Kind of sounds like salvation. (It also brings to mind the Ted Dekker Red, White, Black series.)
The other thing that I think of with zombies is the link to the Christian belief in resurrection. This line of thought really pops up around Easter, where some have taken to mocking the day with some twist of Zombie Jesus Day. I have always wondered how the world is going to handle the ultimate resurrection. How do they explain the sudden disappearance of millions of people, including the upheaval in cemeteries. The first things I think of alien abductions and zombies. How much of this imagery is in preparation for that day?
Loving the posts and thought they provoke. And did your zombie hipster costume come with a Trader Joe’s bag?
Thanks for reading, David. I didn’t even bring up Christian themes of resurrection, but maybe that deserves a post in itself. No Trader Joe’s but definitely thrift store core.
Great job Greg! Recalling one of your points on the Vampire article, the Zombie reminds me how the early church was persecuted based on various allegations from the Romans, one of them being the charge of cannibalism due to the mention of “eating Christ’s body” and “drinking His blood” among Christians. Also, I recently watched World War Z and got shivers at the climax of the story when the main character sacrifices himself and walks straight through a hoard of living dead to bring the cure to others. I thanked Jesus at that precise moment for His horrific but glorious sacrifice. I hope this wasn’t a spoiler for anyone.
Thanks, Omar- and the way the cure is delivered is very Christ-figure-esque, taking it on himself, etc. Good call on that one!