When Wade Davis published The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1985, describing his experiences in Haiti with a real-life zombie and suggesting this powerful voodoo was mostly drug-induced (as Zora Neal Hurston already suspected back in 1937), not everyone was particularly impressed… least of all fans of George Romero’s zombie movies. Compared to the Hollywood zombie hoards, the “real” zombie Narcisse from the book was a wimp, victim of an extended date rape without the rape and with a lot more of the ropie. Didn’t even crave human brains, apparently. Puh-leeze.
Romero is credited with creating “the rules” of movie zombiehood with his classics Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). Such basic rules are by now well-known: zombies are cannibals, only a headshot will stop them, and zombie bites make you zombie. Since then, we’ve been around the zombie block in every way, shape and form, but never far from the basic narrative of the individual human spirit versus the mindless contagion mob.
In their African voodoo origins, what made zombies scary was people’s fear of the magic that controlled them, and, more importantly, of the person wielding that magic. The zombie itself was just some poor bugger who happened to run afoul of the wrong people; a reminder of the dangers of messing with certain folks and their black powers.
So how did the village dimwit zombie transform into hordes of flesh-eating mindless fiends scratching at the windows, and why can we never seem to get enough endless variations on this theme? Well, that is subject of great debate, but it is clear that Romero tapped a deep vein in the collective psyche with his American zombie concept. The eternal battle between Life and Death found new expression for modern times: now you could blow death’s head off with a pump-action shotgun. Eat that, Poe! It’s not very subtle, but we don’t live in particularly subtle times.
But who are these zombies we so merrily blow to bits in our movies and games? Before being undead, they were simple townsfolk, neighbors, school buddies, short order cooks, ex-girlfriends… salt of the Earth, Main Street, the fabric of society. They had names, went to the bathroom, fell in love and watched the Sunday game. And now they are drooling undead and you’re mowing them down like they want to suck your brains or something.
What part of us resonates with such a scenario, fictional as it is, to continue elaborating on it ad nauseam for over 40 years and counting? Fear is a deep and primal emotion with strong ties to the unconscious that often bypass the rational mind altogether. Zombies make the deep fear connection in a way that other “scary” things do not. This is because in zombie flicks we don’t only identify consciously with the human characters, but unconsciously with the undead ones too. And that’s where the real endorphin-releasing and addictive horror lies. Darn mirror neurones!
Zombie See, Zombie Do
If you have ten minutes and thirty-nine seconds to invest in data adquisition, the clip below on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilisation is absolutely and totally recommended. The fantastic hand-drawn presentation by RSAnimate is like having it explained by your brilliant buddy during an informal coke-snorting session. Which is appreciated, because the topic is of transcendental importance for our future as a species and well worth ten minutes and a dutch gram.
Dog Whisperer of TV fame, Cesar “Your Dog is Dangling From My Testicles” Millan, says humans are the only animals that follow unbalanced leaders, and he has a point. Our natural gift of empathy is easily tainted by fear and anger, and that has been used against us by psychopathic leaders throughout history. Psychopaths share common traits with zombies: both are incapable of empathy, operating on a lower reptilian level devoid of mirror neurone development. They thrive on the fear of others, because that is the only power they understand. And they both feed on your brains. The only real difference is that psychos are smarter than your average zombie and a very small minority compared to the general population. That’s why they prefer to get others to do the dirty zombie work. Make no mistake, the undead hoards are NOT the psychos, but their mind control stormtroopers. That’s the reason only a “headshot” will stop them. Get it?
It may dress as fiction, but the fight for survival against the zombies has been underway for a while now. Sixty years ago, Pogo took a look at McCarthy’s America and stated “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Today, this prescient oppossum might say “We have met the enemy, and he is dear uncle Edgar risen from the grave to feast upon our brains.” To which Albert the Alligator might add, racking up the shotgun: “Remember the golden rule, kiddies. Aim for the head!”