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, AMCâ€™s The Walking Dead returns for its run (or stagger walk) of spring episodes. I. Canâ€™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 Romeroâ€™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 tombâ€”hmmm?â€”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. Letâ€™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 Bigelowâ€™s Near Dark (1987). After a ride in Darkâ€™s wreck-reation vehicle, I didnâ€™t want to date any more neck suckers.
Zombies? First, doggone it, they do scare meâ€”if done well like The Walking Dead. Of course, thereâ€™s more to Dead than blood-riddled, flesh-eating creatures chasing the remnants of humanity. Itâ€™s a road movie, the characters on the move from Point A to Point B, ala Thelma and Louise. Itâ€™s also one of the endless variations of Agatha Christieâ€™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 â€œyesâ€ 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, â€œThis is what youâ€™ve done to yourself.â€ 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 Magiâ€™s symbolic gifts of yesteryear is todayâ€™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). Iâ€™ll mention one without spoiling the plot for Dead virgins. For Dead fans, Iâ€™ll mention two words and youâ€™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 characterâ€™s decision. Empathy. Every viewerâ€”I guarantee it is every viewerâ€”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? Iâ€™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.