Zombies!

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.

12 Responses to “Zombies!”

  1. Raethe says:

    I … I don’t even want to know how a sexy zombie works.

    A zombie with the flesh around her breastbone rotting off, hanging in salacious strips down her bare torso…

    Yeah. I can’t make that image not ludicrous. XD

  2. Allison Hill says:

    actually, First Contact already started the sexy zombie thing with the head Borg lady (I forget her name). She wasn’t a full zombie character because she had will and awareness, but she was representative of that and, I think, will be heralded at a later date as the ‘missing link’. Interestingly enough, her sexiness wasn’t really her own (she was kind of nasty), but apparent in the reactions of the male characters around her, fitting in nicely with Pegg’s poetic subtlety.

  3. stacy says:

    There are sexy zombies in YA right now–YA is going through a zombie trend. Also, did The Forest of Hands and Teeth come up? That’s a great example of one fast zombie coming in and changing the status quo. The zombie apocalypse has been over for centuries, and the zombies won, except in pockets of humanity, and you see the aftermath of all the decisions humans had to make that you covered above. Then comes in one fast zombie and changes everything, and those decisions have to be made again and again. You’d love it. (I have it if you want to borrow it.)

  4. DarkEyedBlues says:

    There is a movie called Zombie Strippers. Your prediction has already come true.
    The movie itself is alright, mostly saved by the inclusion of Robert Englund.

  5. Arlene says:

    I liked The Forest of Hands and Teeth (sort of) right up until the end. Not one of my favorite reads.

  6. admin says:

    Oddly, we’ve had sexy mummies forever. What is the essential difference between zombies and mummies that make the latter more easily sexy-able? The wealth/royalty/nobility, maybe?

  7. Steve D says:

    Mummies are associated with more personal power, and reflect wealth and worship.

    Zombies are either random horrors, or the Walmart brand foot-soldier of necromancy.

    All of that said, I prefer zombies, as you know. If I were a necromancer, I would focus on zombies.

  8. Arlene says:

    Forgive me, but what exactly is a necromancer?

  9. Steve D says:

    Simple version: A guy/gal who can bring back the dead. Typical in fantasy novels.

  10. Arlene says:

    Does it apply to how they do it? I was thinking of The Black Cauldron. And is it at all similar to the references to the Necromancer in The Lord of the Rings? I think they called him the Necromancer…

  11. Erich T. Wade says:

    Yes, generally; a necromancer is a person who brings back the dead via magic. Necromancers generally focus on death magic, often called necromancy, and often dabble in other vile/disturbing/dark arts as well.

  12. Grokmeister says:

    For a more scientific look at the zombie threat:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8206280.stm
    with the underlying study:
    http://www.mathstat.uottawa.ca/~rsmith/Zombies.pdf

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