NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The (Zombie) GUIDE: Zombies in popular culture [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Zombie week continues here at Teddy's zombie lab!  Today we'll look at zombies in fiction and media.  Wednesday we'll talk about the fictional and practical ways of defeating zombies, and finish up the week with what's behind the notion of "Preparing for the Zombie Apocalype."

Austin, TX roadsign, January 2009, Photo by Eddie C
The idea of a zombie apocalypse is one that has taken on a life of its own in popular culture. Granted, post apocalyptic fiction is always popular: many action movies essentially specialize in the apocalypse-in-progress, as well as classic examples of post-apocalyptic in which the story concentrates on life after disaster. However, in recent years it has become common to see references to "preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse" as an analogy general emergency and disaster preparedness. A perfect example is the Zombie Squad which teaches first aid, home survival, firearms safety, discusses disaster preparation activities as food and water storage in the context of natural disasters, and participates in community service and assistance. The idea is, if you're ready for zombies, then you're ready for just about anything! Fighting zombies is also very popular in the shooting sports, as evidenced by the popularity of paper targets featuring zombies attacking innocent civilians.

Apocalyptic fiction is hardly new, it ranges from the bleak (On the Beach) to the triumphant (Lucifer's Hammer) with many levels of pure survival (Alas Babylon) in between. So, to what do we owe the popularity of the zombie theme? Essentially, zombies are very popular in fantasy and horror genres; however, in recent years the idea of a "zombie outbreak" has moved from fantasy to science fiction as more speculation regarding the "cause" or source of zombies begins to take on a more scientific tone (or at least a pseudoscientific one). Current literature and movie themes reflect this, and will be the subject of the rest of this blog.

Zombies in TV film and literature fall into approximately 3 categories with some overlap between them:
  1. Zombies are magically animated dead creatures
  2. Zombies are dead creatures that have been brought back to life through a combination of science and/or  mysticism; 
  3. Zombies are essentially living creatures that have been infected with a disease, virus or spell which turns them into a basically dead creature.
Interestingly, the current concept insatiably hungry, killing machines is a fairly recent development in literature and can largely be attributed to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968).  This movie clearly falls into category number one above. In this instance, the zombies are corpses which have been reanimated; hover, there is a considerable element of the "ghoul" - a creature which may or may not be dead, but which inhabits graveyards and eats human flesh.  In contrast, the classic monster Frankenstein, is basically a zombie, in that it is composed of cadaver parts and animated by a mad scientist, but lacks the modern concepts of "hunting" and feeding on humans.  Consider, for example, the "humorous" zombies of Piers Anthony's Xanth series:  The Zombie Master is a human sorcerer who reanimates corpses as servants.  The corpses are constantly losing parts, and present no real danger to humans, but only one individual can repair or even create zombies in the first place.

The hybrid crossover produced by Romero in Night of the is very important to the more modern notion of a zombie craving "brains" or feeding off of human flesh.  The Resident Evil video games and movies feature category two zombies which are dead humans brought back to life after being infected with a virus. Max Brooks's classic book World War Z is an example of category three, in which the victims of the mysterious virus first fall into a deep coma and seemingly "recover" hours later, but as a mindless, virtually unkillable creature. One of the common features of the zombie story both in film and print is that the "zombie infection" is spread by a bite. This is one of the main causes of crossover between the different categories of zombies, as in the Will Smith movie Legend in which it's not clear whether the zombies were precisely dead creatures reanimated, were living creatures infected with the "zombie virus."  Of course there's always fun movies such as Bruce Campbell's Army of Darkness, which to be honest, is not really a zombie movie, since the primary creatures are reanimated skeletons and not corpses per se.

While it is not my intent to go into a full analysis of horror movie psychology, the essence of a zombie movie is to play on both fear of the unknown, and fear of the unkillable. The basic concept of a zombie, is a creature that can be hit, shot, sliced, or even set on fire, without stopping it.  In Larry Correia's recent book Monster Hunter Alpha, the reader comes face-to-face with the rather infamous character Joe Buckley, who survives being shot, sliced and even blown up and still comes back to menace the protagonist not once but three times. The idea of a creature that can be run through with a sword, and still keep advancing means that most means of defense would not work. Hence the appeal of "preparing for a Zombie Apocalypse" implies preparing a defense that can deal with situations that are seemingly indefensible. Again, psychologically this plays into combating the "helpless" feeling of nightmares.

A discussion of zombie books and movies is not complete without discussing types of  zombies.  The classic shambling, (barely) animated dead - or shambler - is the most scientifically "logical" based on the idea that the an animated corpse has no source of energy, no way to recover from broken bones, amputations, and no mental facility.  On there other hand, if one allows magic, the animation need not concern itself with such mundane matters (i.e. Harryhausen's animated skeletons).  No, it is the fast zombies that are problematic - the ones in Zombieland which chase down their prey, or the "Ax-man" in Resident Evil: Extinction.  For a zombie to exhibit strength or speed, we must posit an energy source, and the most likely explanation is that the zombie virus or drug consumes the remaining tissues of the body. Then there is the hunger for "braaaaaaiiiiinzzzzzz" that is prevalent in the genre.  Perhaps lipid-rich neural tissue provides the perfect energy source despite the fact that brain tissue contains little to no glucose, glycogen or sufficient fatty acids to actually constitute a metabolic energy source!  Ah, maybe it's just the drive to spread the Z-virus that accounts for all of the behavior.  Finally, once you get to the horror-movie elements of  creatures in Resident Evil (First movie or Extinction), you're not talking about zombies at all. 

All of which leads to the idea that being prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse might not be such a bad thing after all!  That way, you will be prepared for the worst, so anything else can't be quite so bad.  So next blog, we'll talk about the humorous and serious means of defeating zombies, including a careful scientific look at the curious notion that brainless creatures must be defeated ... by destroying their brains! Finally Friday, we'll talk some more about preparing for that Zombie Apocalypse.

Until then, remember ladies - if a guy likes you just for your brain... he must be a zombie!

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