Imagine the awkward grins and head-shaking when theater-goers emerged from the first showing of Night of the Living Dead in October, 1968, a film that critics initially deemed “ really silly,” and an “unrelieved orgy of sadism.” Variety magazine went so far as to question George Romero’s “social responsibility,” and even noted critic Roger Ebert decried the gory movie’s approval by the local board of censors as evidence of their “incompetence and stupidity.”
Flash forward forty-six years: the Walking Dead is entering its sixth season, your neighbors are putting zombie family stickers on the back window of their SUV, and World War Z just grossed more than $500 million dollars worldwide—the most successful blockbuster of Brad Pitt’s entire career.
To begin to imagine how improbable it must have seemed, in 1968, that zombies would one day become a mainstream obsession, try to visualize something along the seriousness of Sharknado spawning an entire new genre, and forty years from now some swashbuckling A-list star with cool hair playing a marine biologist/meteorologist that must save the world from a swirling, shark-infested waterspout and ensuing mass selachophobia. But it happened. And hey, I’ll admit I’m not above the ilk of Night of the Living Dead myself, having written two books now about a mind-controlling fungus, Cordyceps, (which happens to be real, by the way) that turns infected humans into its crazed, zombie-like hosts. (Yes, that was a shameless plug.)
But more interesting to me—even than the success of the zombie genre itself—is what its cultural popularity reveals. Why do we thrill to post-apocalyptic stories? Why do we love to watch the lights go out, so to speak? Is it merely the thrill of adventure? Do we really think it would be fun to push a shopping cart laden with the last of our scavenged possessions through the ashfall of a bleak post-nuclear wasteland, a la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Or that it would be a rollicking good time to be stuck on the roof of an isolated gun store, surrounded by hordes of the undead, moaning and licking their chops, as in Dawn of the Dead? (Okay, maybe.)
Or do zombies also serve, more profoundly, as a subconscious expression of what we actually believe and dread about our lives—about the culture at large—that the prosperity we have long enjoyed is actually precarious, untenable, and headed for disaster?
A broader look at our society reveals that at some point in the last few decades the apocalypse has become assumed. As a culture, we used to daydream about the future in stories like “The Jetsons” and “Star Trek”: enlightened, techno-savvy, spandex-clad space travelers zipping around the galaxy on a whim; but the new millennium came and went without the levitating cars we were promised, and worse still, we still face the same old dastardly problems of the previous century. The same wars need to be fought again. New terrorists and new tyrants have sprung up from the stumps of the ones we last chopped down. For the first decade and a half of the new millennium, at least, it appears that history is on a treadmill.
In different ways, and with differing visions of the coming mushroom-cloud-demise of humanity,many of us grant tacit concession to our belief in Doomsday, from generalized pessimism about the future economy, to preppers constructing underground bunkers, to academics postulating the slow recovery of nature after the extinction of humans due to their failure to drive Priuses. (If you think I’m kidding, check out Professor Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us.)
Why do we seem to know, intuitively and collectively, that this just isn’t going to last? Perhaps zombies encapsulate more than what sociologists might deem “the latent hostility of urban anonymity:” our ignorance of our neighbors, our existential fear of utter loneliness, finding ourselves the one among the many, the sole survivor among flesh-eating hordes. Perhaps in zombies we express a sense that, for all our supposed 21st century sophistication, our advancements have actually been more quantitative than qualitative. Sure, technology has proliferated; everyone has a smartphone, WIFI is a basic human right along with food and water, and compared to our ancestors we live, on average, decades longer at the behest of new medical devices and treatments. But for all that we still die, uncertain as ever as to what country lies beyond, that “land from which no traveler returns.”
Despite our desire for peace, protectionism gave us World War I, and appeasement gave us World War II. The Manhattan Project gave us the atomic bomb. A half-century of social welfare programs have not made a dent in poverty. The promises of campaigning politicians ring more hollow than ever. We are plagued by social dissolution, depression, and suicide—poverty not just of purse, but of soul. We are the jaded generation of serial killings and school shootings and non-specific protest against corporate profit, a generation that might doubt that even if there were a cure for cancer if it would ever reach the public for the greed of the industries that profit from it. We find that technology makes no real gains against human avarice. (After all, the car has long-since been invented that gets nearly 300 MPG, but have you ever seen one for sale?)
In short, we’re doomed, and we know it.
The interesting thing for me, as both a fiction writer and a Christian, is that my faith in Jesus Christ makes me love zombies all the more. If Christianity and the Bible are true, this sort of culture-wide calamity is exactly what we can expect: that the engines of a world-system in opposition to God are actually engines of destruction rather than progress; that apart from submission to God, all our energies and capabilities and inventions bear the curse of perverted potential: they lead us, not to the greater good, but to destruction more swift, and depravity more deep.
The recent ascendancy of post-apocalyptic literature only confirms, for me, what the bible has been saying all along, that “the wages of sin is death,” (Romans 6:23) and that “there is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” (Proverbs 14:12) It should come as no surprise, then, that Romero’s handful of survivors boarded up in an old farmhouse while plaintive zombies pound against the shutters has become the perfect metaphor for a culture “having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12)
So, here’s to you, zombie hordes. Even if the fear of God in our society has degraded to the mere fictional horror of some gruesome day of reckoning, I welcome the fact that godly dread yet remains; for where there is knowledge of guilt and certainty of judgment, the hope of genuine repentance still lingers.