Zombies are alive, well, and flourishing in American movie theaters and bookstores. Since George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) turned a new generation of writers (Stephen King – Cell and Pet Semetary ) and film-makers (Sam Raimi, Evil Dead and non-zombie Spider-Man movies) into horror fans, zombie films conquered cineplexes across the U.S. in 2004, a year that saw the release of three high-grossing zombie flicks: Resident Evil, Shaun of the Dead (the first “zombie romantic comedy”), and a remake of Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead. Max Brooks’ “non-fiction” handbook, The Zombie Survival Guide, was released in paperback that same year, becoming a top seller and a staple of bookstore humor sections. While the above-mentioned works have used the “living dead” as a source of fear or comedy, the film 28 Days Later and the novel World War Z use the plot device of a zombie epidemic to engage in a not-so-subtle critique of the culture their fictional ghouls threaten to destroy.
Filmed in 2000 and early 2001, but not released until 2002, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s 28 Days Later introduced the world to a new, post-modern twist on the zombie genre. Instead of the typical shuffling, vacant-eyed undead of Romero’s template, the zombies of 28 Days were truly fast and furious. Where previous zombies lurched, these run; where old-school zombies shambled and groped, these attack and gobble human flesh with bloodthirsty vigor. Given the cinéma-vérité treatment with hand-held cameras, their frenetic actions edited with jump-cuts and plenty of spewing bodily fluids, these hyperactive ghouls seem perfectly suited for the 21 st century. As a matter of fact, they aren’t really “undead” at all: Boyle’s zombies are victims of a “rage virus” unleashed by unsuspecting eco-terrorists while liberating infected monkeys from a lab. As images of AIDS, famine, religious extremism, terrorism and other sources of global dread flash across the screen during this sequence, audiences are prepared for seeing the doomed monsters of 28 Days as a symbol for, or possibly a culmination of, all the terrors that plagued mankind at the turn of the last century.
So begins Boyle and Garland’s cultural critique: rage is the infection, and human beings are the device of transmission. Its effects are eerily void of gore; the central image of the next sequence is a haunting one: the buildings of London are standing but everyone is gone, as if the city was hit by a neutron bomb. There are no crowds in Trafalgar Square, no rushing traffic beneath Big Ben: only Jim (Cilian Murphy), wandering bemusedly through vacant streets. The zombie epidemic, which we later learn has been confined to England and Scotland, occurs quickly – the title alludes to the fact that barely a month elapses between the time that the rage virus is released and Jim wakes up in a deserted hospital. While the images are eerie, Jim’s behavior is not: he raids an overturned snack machine for a Pepsi. The message is implied by the circumstance: mankind is obliterated, yet the products of his creativity (the city) and his gluttony (mass-marketed and processed food) live on.
After several tense run-ins with the running and gobbling ghouls, Jim and a small group of survivors make their way north to the only safe haven they’ve heard of (via radio), an estate that is protected by only a tiny remnant of the British military. There, they discover that the zombies aren’t the only thing they have to fear. The commander of the troops plans to use the uninfected females lured to the compound as breeding stock, and to kill Jim after he attempts to free the women in his group. The worst aspects of mankind, or at least “male-kind,” are emphasized at this point. Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) epitomizes the heartlessness, lack of humanity, and by-any-means-necessary expediency that characterized the way that most people viewed the upper levels of government and the military prior to 9/11. Imagined at the cusp of the millennium, 28 Days seems to insist that we are our own worst enemy — that human monsters, especially in the form of governments that would sacrifice human dignity for mere subsistence, make mindless zombies look like a more beat-able foe. In the end, the ghouls of 28 Days are neutralized by their own wanton destructiveness: they run out of fuel because they run out of victims. By the film’s end, all healthy (i.e. “eatable”) humans are either out of reach — the heroes seem to find the one spot in Scotland that is zombie-free — eaten, or zombified.
Like 28 Days, Max Brooks’ post-apocalyptic zombie novel World War Z (2006) is a re-imagining of the zombie sub-genre. Written in the form of an oral history compiled ten years after the end of a decade-long global struggle between mankind and zombies, World War Z is not only an engaging read but a thoughtful critique of the post-9/11 “first world” — a hi-tech oriented society where individuals and small nuclear families have become increasingly isolated from their communities. Brooks’ zombies are more akin to Romero’s shuffling and uncoordinated ghouls, and the fear they create is initially, by 28 Days standards, much less intense. “Patient Zero” is a young Chinese boy who is bitten while fishing near a dam; his infection, and subsequent attack on five unsuspecting villagers, is hushed up by government health officials. Undeterred by borders — human traffickers and airlines are equally guilty — the “African Rabies” (as it is initially named) spreads worldwide in a matter of months, aided by porous borders, secretive governments, and a world media that sees the disease as “just another health scare.”
As the novel moves from interview to interview, with speakers ranging from a mid-western suburban mom to a Russian Orthodox priest, Brooks takes aim at numerous cultural targets, from the Internet to the cult of celebrity. One of the book’s most vivid chapters is the description of a celebrity-hosted “End of the World” party, told in the voice of a high-paid celebrity bodyguard. The mansion in the Hamptons is equipped with web-cams and the party is broadcast world-wide. The gate is, of course, crashed, and the celebrities killed, not by zombies but by the hordes of “regular” people fleeing New York City ahead of the rampaging ghouls. Another particularly affecting story is that of Tamiko, a Japanese teenager so obsessed with the Internet that he doesn’t realize when his family, and the rest of the inhabitants of his high-rise apartment building, are killed or transformed into zombies. He spends day after day without real human contact, keeping up with the disease’s progress online, devoting countless hours to hacking government databases, collecting information and blogging about the zombie-related data he’s discovered, while in the real world his online “friends,” as well as his actual family members, disappear. Tamiko is forced to become a physical person — escaping from his apartment, making his way to the country-side, and learning how to defend himself and “purify the land” — and at the same time finds his identity in the real, physical world.
Brooks’ major point seems to be that technology and many of the other aspects of modern life ( e.g. dependence on fossil fuels, over-specialization and professionalization) have made mankind weak and susceptible to attack. It matters very little whether the opponent is bird flu, terrorists or zombies — as a species we are unprepared, especially those of us in the developed (“first world”) countries. He emphasizes this point by making air bombardment, lasers, nukes and biological weapons — key elements of today’s high-tech military — either ineffective in fighting ghouls or so counter-productive as to provide a greater risk to the survivors than the living dead. Low-tech methods, such as direct rifle shots or sword blows to the brain, are the only effective options.
OK, all that’s well and good, but let’s see what the author thinks about fast vs. slow zombies: Max Brooks break it on down for you.