I am conflicted about zombies. We are presently saturated with them. But have we lost sight of their true purpose? Let me define ‘true’…
In accordance with Romero’s original vision.
I speak having just watched Dawn of the Dead – George A. Romero’s original 1978 version. I haven’t been particularly interested in watching it before – zombies, flesh-eating, blah blah blah. But then I read Simon Pegg’s autobiography not so long ago, in which he speaks of the profound effect of Romero’s undead flicks upon him, leading ultimately to his respectful parody, Shaun of the Dead.
I picked up from a carboot and watched a remastered DVD of Night of the Living Dead a bit before reading Pegg’s autobiog. I watched Dawn the other day (and of course I watched Shaun pretty much upon release, being in awe of everything Peggish). I was surprised, entertained and affected by Dawn.
My conflict arises thus…
Zombies are everywhere! Not literally – we are not actually in the throes of a zombie apocalypse – but in every conceivable media. TV, films, comics, teen novels and perhaps most popularly, videogames (I am especially familiar with the latter, as the children at the school where I work can’t get enough of them). But what do they mean? What are they about? Why are we obsessed with these consumers of the flesh? One could, no doubt, compose reams on The Socio-Political Significance of the Modern Zombie Phenomenon, but to really get to the bottom of their true (Romero-esque) significance…
One has to return to Dawn.
Accounting for my apologies at flitting back and forth between different sections of the film…
One (that is, I) is (am) struck throughout at the ease with which these seemingly weak, feeble-minded, shambling creatures, manage to bite, rip and tear at the flesh, innards and musculature of their victims, with what one presumes are, after all, merely human (albeit undead human) hands and teeth. This can, to some extent, be put down to the limited effects technology of the time… or it could be put down to a lack of thought with respect of the ‘realism’ of such scenes… but considering my increasing respect for the film and its primary creator, as the film approaches its denouement, I refuse to believe that either of these potential limitations negate the intentionality of this apparent ‘error.’ Because after all, throughout Dawn (and doubtless Night, but I’d have to watch it again to be sure), there seems to be an overarching intention to not explain just why the American nation (or some unspecified part of it) has become overrun with zombies.
It’s not about the intention (particularly).
It’s not about the purpose (entirely).
It’s all about the metaphor!
And if high school (or more likely, above, on account of the BBFC ratings of the films) English students were ever to study Romero, one would surely find his works riddled with it (metaphor, that is). To whit…
Perhaps most obviously, the zombies themselves represent what humanity has become (generally).
At the start, and at points throughout Dawn, folk seem more concerned with reporting on and commenting on the phenomenon than dealing with it… which says a lot about the state (in 1978 and now) of the ‘media.’
There is a themic thread throughout regarding the dichotomy of freedom vs self-imposed internment. This is most clearly expressed through the choice of the protagonists to set up home in the shopping mall, surrounded by legions of the undead, rather than seek a less restrictive but less psychologically secure zombie-free existence elsewhere.
The whole film and concept is about rampant consumerism. The zombies are consumers, literally, who mindlessly return to the mall, guided not by thought but by an animalistic adherence to routine. Also the non-undead protagonists become self-appointed kings and queen of their consumerist domain, fighting literally or virtually to the death to protect it. And they actually end up losing their domain, and partially their lives, in the culmination of their possessive greed.
And then there’s the easy rending and tearing of flesh. How fragile are we, that we can be torn apart, even by the dead?
There is doubtless much more to Dawn than I have touched on above. Why were the two survivors a black man and a pregnant woman? Why did the Hell’s Angel insist on getting his blood pressure measured, even when surrounded by the zombies who were the ultimate agents of his gruesome demise? What is the significance of the tennis ball?
In generalising the modern zombie, which saturates the media of 2015, one can apply the metaphor that they represent our collective desire to return to the primal, along with the simultaneous need to assert out humanity by destroying it. Granted, this is simplistic and certainly not a patch on the complex extended metaphor of Romero – but if one is awash with the undead and multitudinous simulucra thereof… may I suggest a cleansing at the hands of the master? Be enlightened by the light of Dawn! (um… or something…)