My Favorite Monsters: the Zombie

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I don't know why, but it took a long time to admit this to myself: I really love horror movies. Sure, there are legions of schlocky crap-fests hardly worth fast-forwarding through (as with any genre), but every once in while you find the one that tickles just the right nerve -- exactly where you didn't realize you were vulnerable -- and I just really enjoy that. When I was a kid it was all I read: Stephen King's entire catalog I consumed one hot summer; I even wrote ghost stories and spine-tinglers of my own (hidden forever in a very deep drawer, along with everything else my pen produced in the eighth grade). So it was only natural that one day, despite a years-long detour into "serious" literature (darn English major) I should again be fascinated by warlocks and werewolves and things that seek brainy sustenance in the night.

But the zombie most of all. It's strange, because zombies don't have nearly the range of personality that werewolves or vampires have (or even Frankenstein's monster, for that matter), and they don't do very much aside from shamble about and search for living folks to munch on. But there's something so very other about them (to use an overused pseudo-academic term); they're a walking incarnation of death, who not only threaten to kill us but confront us with the fact of our own mortality in its most gruesome form. (They're also usually a harbinger of societal collapse, as in 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and so many others ... and I love me some end-of-world scenarios.)dead.jpg

So why is that so very fascinating, to me and millions of other zombie flick fans? In his 400-page non-fiction book on the subject of horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King floats this idea: that horror movies "allow us to regain our childish perspective on death." He tells a story about he and his childhood friends finding a dead cat, which quickly became an object of intense interest and experimentation. Will anything squish out of it if we drop a brick on its head? What'll it look like in a week? They kept returning to the cat as it went through its stages of decay, like twisted little scientists trying to understand the face of death.

In zombie movies, we get to do just that: look at dead people, in every state of decay. Usually this is a device used to make the movie more horrific as it goes along; in Dawn of the Dead, for example, the longer those people are trapped inside the mall, the more decomposed the zombie horde massing outside becomes -- and we get plenty of lurid closeups to drive that home (especially in the recent, more graphic remake). And the gross little kid inside of us coos: neeeeeaaaaaato ...

DAWN-OF-THE-DEAD-006.jpgThe second childhood proto-urge that zombie movies satisfy, I think, is killing lots of stuff. By which I mean, most kids (boys especially) enjoy killing lots of stuff in one form or another, be it in a video game, in a game of cowboys-and-indians (bang, you're dead!), with plastic army men, or by frying ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass or shooting at sparrows with that BB gun they got for their birthday. Zombies aren't people -- they're not even really animals. They're slow-moving, gore-filled targets, and killing lots of them is encouraged. Every zombie movie has that sequence where the protagonists launch their attack on the undead horde, and invariably waste scads of them in an orgy of (supposedly fun) blood, decapitations, etc. Once you're done studying the dead thing, the kid in you gets to blow it away -- and then a hundred more like it. What could be better?

Anyway, that's just my two cents. I'd love to hear what you think: is there another reason to love zombies ... or hate them? Or do you find another species of movie monster more compelling?

February 28, 2008 - 2:52am
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