Zombies are my guilty pleasure. They are my not-so-secret favorites in the usual suspects of horror films. And they are, so help me God, philosophically intriguing.
On February 12, AMC’s The Walking Dead returns for its run (or stagger walk) of spring episodes. I. Can’t. Wait.
I first encountered zombies during seminary. No, not fellow students or faculty! While at Claremont School of Theology, with its wedding cake-like chapel and Hollywood proximity, I viewed George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was heaps better than studying theodicy. The Living Dead made world religions feel tame. Jesus raising Lazarus from a tomb—hmmm?—how about a zombie slogging through a cemetery filled with tombs?
For me, werewolves are ho-hum. Vampires? Been there, done that in so many films. Let’s lose The Lost Boys and cast away the marketing chains of Twilight. The last vampire flick I saw that mattered, and made me squirm on my safe couch, was Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987). After a ride in Dark’s wreck-reation vehicle, I didn’t want to date any more neck suckers.
Zombies? First, doggone it, they do scare me—if done well like The Walking Dead. Of course, there’s more to Dead than blood-riddled, flesh-eating creatures chasing the remnants of humanity. It’s a road movie, the characters on the move from Point A to Point B, ala Thelma and Louise. It’s also one of the endless variations of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians: which character dies next? Lies and cheating? Check. Birth and death? Check. Deceit, bravery and stupidity? All there. Token redneck. Token African-American. Token Korean-American. Yup, yup, yup. A British actor portraying an average American guy? Mark “yes” in that box!
Philosophically, my affection for zombies is simple. Zombies are consumers, a reflection of a capitalism running (staggering) amuck. The best zombie stories hold a gory mirror up to contemporary society and grunt, “This is what you’ve done to yourself.” Zombies have turned away from trusting neighbor and loving God for the worship of More. Do you own a house, or does it own you? The ones with the most toys at the end . . . wins? The Magi’s symbolic gifts of yesteryear is today’s bloated credit card debt. The God of More roams the countryside. The consumer is consumed. Is there no escape?
Finally, most importantly, whether a zombie tale or any Barbara Kingsolver novel, there are transcendent moments in The Walking Dead that take my breath away (er, in a good way). I’ll mention one without spoiling the plot for Dead virgins. For Dead fans, I’ll mention two words and you’ll understand: the barn. Set up over several episodes, a climax occurs where (for me) two reactions simultaneously unfold around a barn. Sympathy. A viewer suddenly understands, and can relate to, a character’s decision. Empathy. Every viewer—I guarantee it is every viewer—knows the personal cost of protecting the one you love. I watch, mesmerized. Something awful has happened, something awful will happen . . . and the past, present and future of awful is borne of and because of human folly.
Me? I’m gonna buckle up and enjoy zombie time. They are my guilty pleasure. They also, when a story is told well, tell me about myself.