Saturday, October 29, 2011

ZOMBIES ON MY MIND by Derek Prior

Zombies have been on my mind a lot lately. Their resurgence started when I was reading Robert J. Duperre’s The Fall for review. I read a few chapters to my son and he did that thing children do so well: got fascinated by fear and and turned it into an obsession. It wasn’t his first encounter with the genre—he already loved the grotesquery of Marvel Zombies, and had come across zombie-like monsters in Doctor Who (The Curse of Fenric, Waters of Mars). We’d even watched the hilarious Zombieland the year before.


He started drawing zombies, producing zombie comics, inventing zombie stories, and even making zombie films on a camcorder. We discovered iMovie and even edited a short film, added a cool soundtrack, and he got to play his own character, zombie-killing cowboy, Elias Trent. My acting training came in handy teaching him to speak like Clint Eastwood crossed with Jesse Ventura’s character from Predator (“Ain’t got time to bleed”). He even got to shoot me a few times. It wasn’t long before he worked out that you needed a head shot to make it permanent.

As zombiemania ran its course, I started to see them around every corner. I’d never watched zombie movies in the past (with the notable exception of Quarantine), never read the genre, but the walking dead had nevertheless snuck into my own work. There were zombies beneath the dirty old cafe in Thanatos Rising (probably still are as far as I’m aware. Harry Chesterton didn’t know about the head-shot); the dead are raised in book one of my Shader series, Cadman’s Gambit, and a whole bunch of characters get zombiefied in book two, Best Laid Plans. I’d even started writing a fantasy novel years ago in which a Templar knight faces off against a village of the dead. It only took the catalyst of The Fall to send all these skeletons clattering out of the cupboard. The contagion had been there all along. Zombies weren’t so much on my mind as eating up my brain.

The first thing I do when I get interested in something is hunt out and soak up every bit of information I can on the subject. My son’s the same. He’s already chewed up and spat out Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Doctor Who, James Bond (regrettably), and it was inevitable we’d do the same with zombies.

We started with a Google search: “Romero”, and within minutes were watching Night of the Living Dead on Youtube, swiftly followed by Day of the Dead. A Resident Evil game was picked up from Ebay, and we watched one of the related films. A hunt through the local used DVD store turned up Dawn of the Dead (2005 remake) and Land of the Dead. We trawled through the clips on Youtube (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, and a host of “How to Survive a Zombie Attack” shorts). Then I remembered Shaun of the Dead, which we watched a couple of times. It was even funnier now I could see all the references.

I started to wonder what it was about zombies that had got us hooked. The more I looked into the genre, the more crazily popular it seemed. Part of it stems from the human fascination with fear, but it’s not a simple matter of being horrified at the dead coming back to life. I’m not denying that’s a huge part of it (I remember being just a little traumatized by the corpses clawing their way out of their graves in Thriller), but I would suggest that it’s more to do with fear of contagion, coupled with the loss of personal identity.

The contagion thing is easy to understand: it’s not enough that the zombies keep coming at you inexorably (I always think of that epic Magog attack in Andromeda where the hairy nasties just keep piling on until the crew are overwhelmed). Zombies have been doing that for years. With the older (slow, lurching) kind, they need weight of numbers to have any chance of cornering and overwhelming you. They speed up appreciably in the most recent Dawn of the Dead, which made them a damned sight scarier.

The problem with contagion is that you can be putting up a good fight, pulverizing your way through a phalanx of flesh-eating zombies, and then you take a single bite, nothing more than a flesh wound, and it’s all over. How many characters in this situation either turn their own guns on themselves, or get someone else to do it for them? Once you’re bitten, there’s no hope, and virtually everyone gets bitten sooner or later. Not only that, but the bitten then die, rise up, and add to the aforementioned weight of numbers. Heck, it even happened in Marvel Zombies. The Silver Surfer arrives to herald the coming of Galactus, Eater of Worlds. The undead superheroes pull him off his board and chomp into him. Galactus duly turns up to eat the Earth and finds scores of super-powered zombies ready to take him on. It’s a big meal, for sure, but they make short work of him.

But what’s so terrible about the contagion is what it does to you. Ultimately, it’s about losing one’s identity, losing awareness, cognition; humanity. The victim of a zombie attack is as much a victim of an attack on the concept of human personhood.

And yet we live in an age of the diminishing value placed upon the human person. In spite of the hyperbole of Western societies, people are reduced to commodities, consumers, units of production. They are manipulated to desire rubbish they don’t need, follow trends, parties, customs that produce safe, servile, and utterly predictable social groupings. Occasionally a “mad” person sticks out from the crowd (think of Michael Douglass in Falling Down) but usually this is a flash in the pan and zombie life is resumed without too much unrest.

It’s seen on a larger scale in revolution: the hordes of undeath are temporarily defeated as new ways are violently imposed, but gradually (that word “inexorably” again—it’s the zombie writer’s best friend!) the zombiefication process starts over. It’s no accident the French Revolution was followed by the Reign of Terror.

But what is this personhood that’s so terrifying to lose? If R.D. Laing is to be believed, it’s a very common fear. In his phenomenological and existential analysis of the schizoid personality (The Divided Self), he explains how depersonalizing the other (Laing says petrifying, by which he means objectifying, or turning the other into an object) is the default defense mechanism of those seeking to avoid being objectified. In short, we turn others into zombies so that we can maintain our sense of being a real person. Whilst the example is intended for a specific personality disorder, the essence of this skewed way of relating to others is a danger for all of us. It’s symptomatic of Nietzsche’s dog-eat-dog world: the will to power.

Martin Buber addresses a similar issue in I and Thou where he describes the typical human relationship as a subject viewing an object. The ideal, for Buber, is inter-subjective communication: person to person. Naturally this involves a degree of risk. The zombie-making defense has to be dropped, but there’s no guarantee we won’t be zombified ourselves.

Zombies have even insinuated their way into philosophical discourse, where they are used as a challenge to purely functionalist views of consciousness, such as Dennett’s computational model. The contentious issue, though, is whether zombies can conceivably exist, with the physicalists saying a resounding “no” and zombiphiles appealing to the conceivability argument:

1.        Zombies are conceivable.
2.        Whatever is conceivable is possible.
3.        Therefore zombies are possible.

Sounds a whole lot like Anselm’s ontological argument to me. Whatever the case, the acceptance of the possibility of zombies (like humans in all respects, except consciousness) implies a Cartesian dualism.

George A. Romero examines these ideas in Day of the Dead, where the zombie “Bub” seems to retain some residual memories and is capable of re-learning. He takes the idea further in Land of the Dead when the zombies not only have an enraged leader with a sense of the injustices perpetrated against zombie-kind, but they also have the ability to communicate, learn, and seek revenge.

Anäis Nin had a wonderful description of Antonin Artaud running around Paris waving a walking stick and shouting at people to wake up.  Artaud perceived the masses as walking dead, and his Theatre of Cruelty was one way of bringing them back to life. He wanted to use the theatre in order to ignite a spark of religious ecstasy in his audience and bring them back to life. Artaud’s ideas of cosmic cruelty are exemplified in the Romero canon of zombie movies: gratuitous flesh-eating, exaggerated violence, and the evocation of our primal fears. In the zombie genre, though, it is not religion, mystical experience, or peak experience mediated through the performing arts that resurrects us; it is the zombies waking us from our own zombiefied state. There’s nothing like an apocalypse to shake us out of our lethargy. The characters in these movies are never more alive than when they are being overrun by the undead.

Romero takes the process a step further in his later films when the zombies appear to have pretty much won the day (Land of the Dead) and seem to go about setting up their own society. The zombies have reclaimed a degree of their humanity. How long will it be before they succumb to the same lethargy and need a new bunch of zombies to wake them up?

Social commentary is rife in the genre, not so much as a criticism of the kind of uniformity fifties SF saw in Communism (later epitomized by the Borg in Star Trek TNG), but more as a critique of the semi-conscious existence many seem to live as consumers within the servile state (see Hiliare Belloc on the subject). There are frantic attempts to fill that “god-shaped” hole at the centre of our being described by Augustine (Artaud calls it a void) with experiences, thrills, gadgets, the acquisition of things. Like David Gemmell’s Bloodstone character, this only fuels more hunger. We are insatiable, but not necessarily fully human.

Russell T. Davies comments on this in his cyberman stories during David Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor. The masses are shown as utterly dependent on new technology, whole crowds stopping dead in the middle of the street to receive new downloads on their ear-pieces. Technology is constantly upgraded, but the zombie parallel is at its strongest when humans are fully upgraded to cybermen. It is at this point they lose their personhood. They retain many of the physical actions (and all the language) of humans, but no emotions, no self-will, no freedom. They become automata. They become zombies.

But to return to the idea of zombies as the living dead, we are still faced with the absence of person. Zombies are not at all like the resurrection described by St Paul, St Gregory of Nyssa, or St Augustine. Yes, it is the same body risen, but it is a body presumably without a soul. Zombies are more often than not reanimated corpses driven by an insatiable hunger. They have no freedom from this basic drive. They don’t quite qualify as human.

Even where there is no coming back to life, when zombies are created through Voodoo or mutation, the same holds true. Without consciousness, without the ability to imagine, override concupiscence, when there is an absence of the human quality of freedom, they are essentially no different to the walking dead.

Fantasy author David Dalglish has a thing about zombies. It’s as close to necrophilia as you can get without some sort of major desecration. If Robert Duperre is the arch-connoisseur of all things zombie in his The Rift series, Dalglish is probably better thought of as Dr Zombie. They’re everywhere in his Half-Orcs books, so much so that he should consider renaming the series Year of the Zombie Hordes (and a couple of half-orc geezers). His zombies are most definitely of the living dead variety, but with one interesting difference: some of them retain their consciousness, but are deprived of the active use of their wills (by either Velixar or Qurrah, both of whom are necromancers). It creates a terrific dynamic of the enslaved undead desperately wanting to break free, but utterly powerless to do so.

Something similar happens to one of the priest characters in my own Best Laid Plans. In that case, the necromancer, Dr Cadman, simply can’t tolerate such dissent. A conscious zombie? No thank you, sir! Zap!

In The Fall, Robert J. Duperre explores a bit of zombie/wraith point of view, where the supposed automaton retains some residual memories in the manner of Romero’s Bub.

Generally, though, the norm is for mindless flesh-eaters who just keep coming at you, no matter how many you shoot in the head. They are as inexorable (!!!) as time, and just as hard to stave off. And the worst thing is, due to the high risk of characters being infected, the zombies come to foreshadow what most of them will ultimately become. In Zombie Land, there is no exit (to throw a nod to Sartre). As Roy Harper would no doubt say, “No one ever gets out alive”.


In closing, I should apologize if my ramblings don’t do justice to this vast subject. I’m relatively new to the subject and have no doubt failed to mention key texts, films, and novels. From my limited exposure to indie books that feature zombies, I’d like to point you in the direction of the following. I know there are bound to be countless others, but I seldom cast my net beyond the realm of fantasy.

My Thanatos Rising features zombies beneath Aberystwyth:

And finally, my Shader series has hordes of zombies in book 1, Cadman’s Gambit, and book 2 (to be released in October), Best Laid Plans:

Derek Prior (D.P. Prior) is a freelance editor (Homunculus Editing
 Services), reviewer (Indie Fantasy Review), and author.

Homunculus Editing Services: http://homunculuseditingservices.blogspot.com/


For all news on the Shader series of fantasy books by D.P. Prior, please visit: