Today I got to participate in a zombie panel, and it was awesome. Everyone on the panel was just brimming with information, and the audience was engaged, and we all had a lot of fun.
We started with the Simon Pegg quote from the program: “The fast zombie is bereft of poetic subtlety.” I agree with this statement, and posited my zombie thesis: zombies are not interesting because of what they do, they’re interesting because of what they force the humans to do. This is arguably true of every monster, but more so with zombies because zombies have no personality–they can’t think or reason or choose. Vampires can be protagonists, but the main characters in zombie stories (with very rare exceptions) are humans forced to deal with a zombie threat, and the interest in the story comes from the decisions those humans face. What do you do when the people around you start turning into zombies? Do you save yourself or try to help others? Do you gather survivors to help them or to rule them? If a fellow survivor is endangering the entire group, what will you do? What lengths will you go to to survive? And, worst of all, what will you do when a friend or a loved one becomes a zombie?
So this is a cool thesis, but how does it relate to the Pegg quote? Slow zombies have poetic subtlety because they give the humans, who are more interesting, plenty of time to react interestingly. Consider the scene in Pegg’s own Shaun of the Dead where Shaun and his friend first discover the zombies and have to defend themselves. If the zombies were fast, the scene would be fast–they would attack and the humans would run/escape/die/whatever. It would become an action scene the same as any other action scene. But because the zombies are slow, the humans have time to pull out their record collection and do a very funny scene about which albums they’re willing to sacrifice. This same slowness gives them a host of incredible opportunities throughout the movie, for scenes of comedy and terror and gut-wrenching emotion.
The panel talked about so many things that I can’t even review them all here. We talked about zombies as a reflection of our cultural fears, starting with communism in the 50s and changing, as our fears changed, to consumerism and AIDs and terrorism and fascism. Zombies have always been one of our most political monsters, and it is no accident that the current resurgence of zombie popularity comes at the end of an 8-year term of a wildly unpopular conservative American president.
We talked about the specific definition of a zombie, and came up with three key elements. First, zombie-ism is an infection or corruption that takes a regular person and turns them into an enemy capable of spreading the infection further. Second, the zombie is mindless, lacking will and identity. Third, the zombie is almost inevitably human, which makes their corruption into a mindless enemy all the more terrifying. Taken together, these definitions illustrate very clearly the modern zombie’s roots in the cold war: just like the Red Scare, zombies came into your community and corrupted your friends and neighbors, turning them from a vibrant, free-thinking American into a mindless, brainwashed member of a vast and faceless horde. It’s important to note that this definition doesn’t deal with the specifics of how a zombie works, because zombies have so many different forms: supernatural walking dead, biological carriers of a scientific virus, or even the Borg of Star Trek (the movie First Contact was a very good zombie apocalypse movie, despite the veneer of science fiction, and deals directly with all of these classic zombie issues of corruption, community, and human reaction).
It didn’t stop there: we talked about zombies for 80 full minutes, and every second of it was clever, entertaining, and thought-provoking. This is why I love conventions like worldCon–because the people who attend them are incredibly smart, both panel and audience, and we can have a very deep, scientific/political/literary discussion about zombies as metaphors, and zombies as cultural barometers, and zombies as fun monsters. This is what I love to do, and these are the people I love to do it with.
P.S.: Toward the end of the panel I predicted that the depiction of zombies would continue to change, and that we would start to see sexy zombies inside of three years. I’ve since decided that this was far too loose a prediction, so I’m amending it: we will see sexy zombies in major media inside of 18 months tops, probably less.