You may have noticed an increasing number of films and games sharing a common theme: a virus or chemical leaks out and turns civilization into the walking dead – zombies with a hunger for human flesh. In this post you’ll find out why this trend is on the rise and what it means.
Right now I’m playing a Japanese PS2 game. The heroine is a girl in a bikini and high-heels, slaying hordes of the undead with a Samurai sword. Lots of blood and guts and enemies who are vicious but slow. Later I might go see 30 days of night, or I am legend; two new movies that also feature the undead (or a near variation). Sub-human, not quite human enemies…
Why are the undead so popular? I’ll tell you: It is super cool to kill people. It must be. In every great action movie, the hero has to kill a bunch of bad guys or vicious animals. This is because plot is driven by conflict. If there weren’t people out to get the Hero, then there would be no story. The story is made up of short battle scenes between the Hero and his enemies. This is the standard formula for action movies of all kinds. But there are limitations. First of all, if the hero is human and the enemies are human, the hero can only overcome one or two at a time or else it gets completely unbelievable. Like “Shoot’em Up”, a recent movie about serious ass-kicking. It was amazingly cool, and also unbelievable (but it worked anyway because it had a comic-book-esque quality.)
Killing people is super cool. Every culture has always enjoyed good media of violence and bloodshed, and we are no different. However, in recent times war movies are out because we can no longer make any specific foreign culture our enemies. We can no longer demonize an entire race and rejoice when we slaughter them – as we could previously in great cultural fictions, like the Old Testament. Samson slayed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass; an ancient Jewish Shoot’em up story. Nowadays, we have to consider stuff like ‘gee, the philistines are human too’. We no longer face Germans or Russians, but conglomerate bad-guy forces with individuals from many different countries. And even then, we have to make them really bad first before they die. Modern war stories like Jarhead often go in the opposite direction: humanizing the enemy so that the protagonist can sympathize them, redeeming himself as a virtuous hero. This much is clear: modern movie-goers are too smart and well-informed to rejoice in genocide or the slaugher of individual human beings.
Except if they’re zombies. Zombies are slow, ugly, and mean. You can kill thousands of them and it’s still just cool. Killing is only bad when we make the Other into the Same – when we sympathize with the other. Movies that want us to feel bad about killing make us sympathize with the “victims”. Movies that want us to revel in the glorious bloodshed (300) make us sympathize with the hero.
What it all means?
Traditional Interpretation: Humans are born into sin and are going to Hell.
My Interpretation: Struggle, action, excitement, is the engine of story-telling. Stories of conflict and murder make all stories interesting, even Bible stories. “Ethics” or “Morality” can pretty much be thrown out the window as long as whatever’s being killed is de-humanized as Other.
So relax, eat your popcorn. Enjoy. You can still go to confession later if it makes you feel better.