Zombies are my number-one existential fear. That sounds preposterous, I know—the idea of an apocalyptic uprising of ravenous, flesh-hungry undead is more than a little silly, and scientifically implausible besides. But the fear is still there, ever-persistent, lurking on the outskirts of my subconscious and rudely brought to the forefront of my mind every time I hear the wail of police sirens, or see a helicopter buzzing overhead, or hear the latest breathless proclamation on the nightly news about how civilization is near the breaking point, for reals this time. This all began with one movie: zombie auteur George Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead.
I’ve thought about this a lot, probably (definitely) way too much for my own good. On its face, the concept of the zombie signifies the end of everything—the arrival of the walking dead means the end of the world as we know it. But more than that, the zombie is the ultimate simplification of us-vs-them Manicheanism, the supreme expression of apocalyptic tribalism. Zombies are the ultimate “other,” and they must be slaughtered indiscriminately if any semblance of civilization is to be preserved.
Which is why Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are such powerful films. Night was one of the first overt cinematic critiques of the Vietnam War, tapping into social anxiety over human beings being turned killing machines, and whether the violence taking place in seemingly far-away locales would one day return to consume us. And Dawn, conversely, explores the idea of human nature being subverted not by violence, but by the things we love—the idea that the spiritually-deadening effects of consumerism can destroy us just as easily as any war. It’s one of those films that seems more and more prescient by the day.
I’m always a little bit unsettled by the overt glee that accompanies any given discussion about what people would do were the zombie apocalypse to actually happen: plans to fortify apartments, deck out cars with heavy machineguns, and ride out the end of the world from a safe vantage point. Only, that wouldn’t happen. If zombies actually showed up on your front porch, thirsting for your gray matter, you’d probably end up dying a quick and painful death. Or starve from lack of food and water. Or commit suicide.
Zombies are a secular eschatology—our own deity-less Armageddon, Ragnarok and 2012 rolled into one. They allow us to indulge in the fantasy that, somehow, we can count ourselves among the elect and be spared the gruesome fate awaiting the hoi polloi when The Shit Hits The Fan. With untold social, environmental and economic disasters and unrest seemingly lurking around the corner, they allow us to excise our own anxieties without actually confronting the ills of our age. A vehicle for critique has become a vehicle for escape, and we barrel onward, trying not to let the message get in the way of the entertainment.
So really, if the zombie apocalypse actually goes down and I survive it, I think I’ll be more afraid of my fellow survivors than the zombies. Which is the main point of the best zombie flicks, now that I think about it.