Friday, October 29, 2010

The Problem With Zombies

Tomorrow, "The Walking Dead" will premiere on AMC, the latest in what seems to be an endless wave of zombie-focused horror. Ever since 9/11, it seems like our cultural outlet for the sense of wrenching shock that hit us when the World Trade Center collapsed has been the endless variations on the zombie apocalypse story; it seems like the common thread to all of them is the main character waking up to suddenly realize that overnight, Things Have Gone To Hell In A Handbasket.

That theme runs through the "Dawn of the Dead" remake, "28 Days Later", "The Walking Dead"...and even in stories where the character is awake and active through the zombie apocalypse, it always seems like events move a little faster than the perception of them (as in "Planet Terror" and "Cell", for example.) You can never stay on top of a zombie apocalypse, anymore than you can keep up with events in a world where the Official Enemy is Al-Qaeda one day, the Taliban the next day, Saddam Hussein the day after that, and the entire religion of Islam a few years later. It's a potent symbol, a mythic pool that keeps on welling up as we express our nation's trauma.

But the problem is (yes, I'm getting to it, now that I'm done being pretentious) that what makes emotional sense doesn't always make literal sense. One of the big set-piece sequences in "The Walking Dead", one that they're replicating for the TV series, is the hero's trip into zombie-infested Atlanta. You see the endless hordes of zombies overrunning the city, complete with a crowd of them clustered around a deserted tank.

At which point, the logical brain rebels. (Or at least, mine does.) "No," it says to the emotional brain, "that is not a potent symbol of the impotence of traditional military power in the face of a terrorist fighting force that can control the grounds of engagement! That is a potent example of the dumbest fucking tank crew ever, because short of running out of gas in the middle of downtown Atlanta, there is absolutely no way on God's green earth that a tank could be stopped by any number of zombies you care to name! It's a TANK! Teeth and fingernails have about as much chance against a tank as Bambi does against Godzilla! It does not matter how many zombies there are--more zombies just means more time hosing down the tank treads after the inevitable victory! Gah!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Because that's the problem with zombies. No matter how potent they are as a mythical symbol, no matter how many movies and books and TV shows and comics and audio plays portray them as an implacable, undying, endlessly patient force of primal killers, the fact remains that they are, at heart, a bunch of slow-moving unarmed and (for the most part) unarmored humans who don't use tactics, strategy, ranged weapons, or dodge attacks aimed at them. Ask the US military if they would trade off "has to be shot in the head" and "can turn their victims into members of their fighting forces" for "no weapons, no armor, no strategy, no tactics, no ranged capability, and oh by they way they don't know what the word 'duck' means", and the US military would say, "HELL YES!"

Basically, the only way the zombies win is if everyone is colossally stupid. And while it's fun to imagine a world where zombies have won, and will remain so, the other reason that the stories always start with the hero waking up to find out that the zombie apocalypse has already happened is so that the writer doesn't have to explain how the military loses to unarmed people walking slowly towards them.


A.J. said...

That's a viewpoint I share, and have been telling people for years. If any sort of zombie outbreak happened in real life (suspend disbelief for a bit), the US, Russia, EU, and so many other countries would have that shit taken care of in a week. They're not even comparable to any actual army or plague because even if there there's millions of them in one spot, that's what bombs are made for.

I've thought it'd be fun to write an episode for a one-long drama/sci-fi/fantasy show where a zombie outbreak occurs, and the military's response is a perfunctory "Right, then", and solves that shit in 44 minutes. After all, that's essentially how 'Shaun of the Dead' plays out, which is one of the (many) reasons why I love it so much.

Rob Bartlett said...

By the way, the recent Captain Britain run showing Dracula's prejudice against muslims had me thinking how funny it is vampires became cuddlier versions of themselves around the same time anti-Mulsim sentiment exploded.

Mory Buckman said...

Maybe someone in the tank had already been bitten!

Chris said...

The notion of using bombs to stop the zombie outbreak leads to a completely different notion of "zombie apocalypse". There aren't any zombies walking around, but unfortunately, most major cities are bombed-out wastelands.

MatthewMG said...

THANK YOU! I was beginning to think I was the only person in the world who thought like this!

Lovecraft In Brooklyn said...

Try living in gun-less Australia. i don't think our 'military' would be able to deal with them, and almost all private citizens are unarmed

anyway, zombies are a physical manifestation of the inevitability of death. so they still work

as for the tank, eventually it will run out of ammo. or fuel. and the crew will need to eat. or sleep

A.J. said...

In any reasonable situation, you would never have one solitary tank versus an onslaught of zombies grossly sizable enough to be capable of overwhelming or outlasting them, though. That's why they call them armies.

Unknown said...

And yet, each popular zombie show/movie/game/comic is filling a void that would otherwise be populated by a VAMPIRE show/movie/game/comic, so I say " bring on the NON-ROMANTIC living dead ". :P

Servo said...

This is a very similar sentiment to the "Top Ten Reasons there would never be a Zombie Apocalypse" over at