By 1968, George Romero’s classic, low-budget Night of the Living Dead had reversed this dynamic. Now it was up to the film’s human protagonists to distinguish themselves from the marauding bands of flesh eaters—and to keep from being eaten. Racial conflicts among the film’s living characters end up costing them valuable time and resources; against the backdrop of attacking zombies, the racial tension of the late 1960s seems positively ludicrous. The film’s African American hero survives the night but is mistaken for a zombie and shot dead the next morning.
The film’s sequels had survivors holing up in places like shopping malls, through which zombies would wander aimlessly all day, as if retracing the steps of their former lives as consumers. Of course, the real consumption begins when the zombies find humans on whom to feast—an irony not lost on one tough guy who, as his intestines are being eaten, has enough wit to shout, “Choke on ’em!” What makes the humans for whom we’re rooting any different from the zombies by whom we’re repulsed? Not much, except maybe cannibalism, and the technical distinction that our humans are living while the zombies are “living dead.”
State-of-the-art zombie films—most notably 28 Days Later from 2002 and its sequel 28 Weeks Later—now use the undead to explore today’s hazier ethical climate. Instead of fearing magic or consumerism, we are scared of the unintended consequences of science and technology. Perhaps that’s why rather than reaching zombification through magic or rampant consumerism, the undead in this film series have been infected by a man-made virus called “rage.”
Playing to current apocalyptic fears, the zombies in 28 Days Later wipe out the entirety of England, which has been quarantined by the rest of the world in a rather heartless but necessary act of self-preservation. Like the hilarious but unironically fashioned book The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), here’s a zombie tale for the 9/11 era, when fantasies of urban chaos and duct-tape-sealed apartment windows are no longer relegated to horror films; these paranoid scenarios became regular fare on CNN.
In 28 Weeks, well-meaning American troops attempt to rebuild England by putting survivors in a protected green zone and even firebombing the innocent in a desperate attempt to quash a zombie insurgency. (Warning: Spoiler ahead.) The movie’s undead ruthlessly attack anyone for flesh, and its weaker characters choose to save their own skins instead of protecting their wives and children. The film’s heroes distinguish themselves and redeem our view of humanity through acts of self-sacrifice. It turns out, however, that they’ve sacrificed themselves on behalf of a child who carries the virus and goes on to infect the rest of the world. Humanity, like civil liberty, is no longer a strength but a liability. It’s not a totally cynical or unpatriotic outlook: At least this Iraq war satire assumes America has the best of intentions.
Leave it to the truly soulless medium of television to bring the zombie archetype full circle with CBS’s Babylon Fields, an hour-long series the network describes as a “sardonic, apocalyptic American comedy-drama where the dead are rising and as a result, lives are regained, families restored, and old wounds reopened.” Sounds positively heartwarming. According to early reports, the undead are now trying to reconnect with old friends, jobs, and romances. If they succeed, television will also have succeeded in broadcasting its ultimate message: “Melt into that couch: You’re dead already.” Consider it the new voodoo potion. They don’t call the stuff on television “programming” for nothing.