Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Observation - Rise of the Dead

Remakes of classic old movies are not a big deal any more, except when they resonate with us on a personal level. The remade Star Trek was cool, but it was better for those of us who watched William Shatner before he was a tubby, tiny, gray-haired old man. Remade Superman, remade Dredd, remade Evil Dead - and those are just recent past and near future. So Red Dawn shouldn't be especially impressive, because it's just another remake.

The interesting thing, though, is that the original Red Dawn was created when we were all half-certain that we were going to have to start learning the cyrillic alphabet before we finished high school. The Cold War was at its hottest, and a communist invasion was actually credible. Hell, every third movie that came out was about how dangerous those damned Pinko Commie Soviets were, and how we all operated under the constant threat of nuclear obliteration. I can name a half-dozen Cold War movies off the top of my head that dealt with the terrifying global instability that had us either quaking in fear or planning for the invasion.

But that threat is gone. Nobody believes we're going to be invaded any more. What, is Al Qaeda going to raise an army that could deal with a hundred million armed civilians? Is Canada going to invade, so the next movie can be called White Dawn? Military invasion has become a negligible threat, a far-fetched idea so absurd that it's relegated to silly teen-flick remakes and only made remotely plausible with secret weapons and giant suspensions of disbelief.

Ironically, though, we seem to need something to worry about. We need something to keep us occupied, some threat to overcome, some cultural boogeyman to make us fear and plan. For most of the second half of the last century, we had the USSR, and before that, it was the combined threat of Japan and Germany. Hell, America couldn't even exist until we threw off an outside enemy. We've always had the threat of invasion to keep us sharp, keep us mean and ready to rumble, and some part of us wants that threat. Some part of us wants to be scared. Some part of us wants a reason to keep a rifle in the closet and a revolver under the pillow. But what do we do when there's no sweeping monster to unite us, to scare us into remembering that we actually could get along, if we had a good enough reason?

Enter the walking dead. By God, if we can't find a plausible enemy, we'll make one ourselves. Remove the looming sword of Damocles presented by opposing governments, and we'll substitute our own implacable foe. We need an apocalypse, and if we can't find one that makes sense, we'll just fall back and make our own.

It's not like zombies are a new phenomenon. Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, and we've had zombie movies ever since. Zombies made appearances in video games, printed fiction, even the odd quirky TV show. But they were a closet thing, practically a nerd fetish. Normal people had actual things to worry about. We didn't need the undead in our popular fiction, because we had Russians.

The zombies are out of the closet now, though. The Walking Dead on AMC isn't just successful, it's popular with people who never read a comic book in their lives. Zombieland featured a cast of actual movie stars, instead of the usual D-listers who get scrounged up for cheesy horror. World War Z was a New York Times best-seller, and now they're making it into a movie - and it stars Brad Pitt. At Halloween, the local library actually sponsored a zombie walk. You can't swing an undead cat without hitting zombies any more, whether it's Last Night on Earth or Left 4 Dead 2.

So with zombies becoming the new Communist threat, take a second and honestly ask yourself if you've ever made plans for the zombie apocalypse. Have you ever considered buying a gun, just in case your neighbors came over to eat your brains? Have you spent time thinking about where you would go if the dead started walking? Have you concocted your escape plan, which roads you would take to avoid the chaos of mass evacuations? I have, and it is absolutely absurd.

Look, dead people are not going to get up and start walking around. They're dead. They don't want to eat your brains. They want to rot in peace. And yet the idea is so strong, and the need to create an enemy is so powerful, that we have concocted an entire mythology out of thin air. You even know the rules - head shots, don't get bit, and if you're a little neurotic, beware of bathrooms. We've built these enemies with complete disregard for the fact that they are beyond fictional. They are impossible.

We have built zombies into our cultural mindset because Americans need a looming threat. We have built a national spirit out of overcoming our enemies, be they British or Spanish, French or German, Japanese or Russian. We have routinely united our disparate people against a common foe. We build victory gardens, write slogans, support the troops. And when the danger becomes so distant and benign that our supporting response is reduced to bad country music and ribbon magnets, we cast around until we land on an enemy we can all agree would be bad - hungry, dead Aunt Edna.

Of course, our need for a common enemy isn't the only reason for the growing popularity of the walking dead as the faceless antagonist. When we were young, we knew who the enemy was, because he had a thick accent and regularly asked, 'vere is moose and sqvuirrel?' He was over there, and we were over here, and sooner or later he was going to come get us. But now, with the emergence of our ludicrously titled 'War on Terror,' we're worried that the next-door neighbor might be a bad guy, or the guy at the sandwich shop, or the gas station attendant. In zombie movies, they have to shoot that nice old cookie lady because she's turned dead; in real life, we might just have to shoot her because she's going to poison the water supply or blow up the post office. We don't need Cubans to invade. We've got capital-T Terrorists to worry about - and they're as scary and implacable as a dead guy who wants to eat your shoulder blades.

It is fascinating to me to watch the silliness of zombie invasions become a part of popular culture. It amuses me that normal, average sports fans actually consider zombies part of their lexicons. And while I realize that I have made some sweeping generalizations, that's what societal norms are. Not everyone cares about zombies. But more people do than ever have before, or Hollywood wouldn't crank out zombie movies and video game publishers would go back to shooting digital Arabs.

So what does that say about our mindset, when we are more interested in seeing zombies than actual, human enemies? Are we overconfident and soft, just looking for any reason to stay lean and mean? Are we so sure of our military might that we imagine it would take a biological impossibility to present a credible threat? Are we just trying to identify with the potential destabilizing effect of an terrorist attack? Or are we just so used to being scared of something that we will latch onto anything to maintain our psychological status quo?

Honestly, I don't know. I can't even say with any certainty that our sudden interest in zombies is tied to our improved national safety. I do know this one thing, though: I love it. I was a zombie fan when we were all worried about Red Bears, and I was a zombie fan after Glasnost told Reagan he could take down that wall. I've seen all the Romero movies and most of the remakes. And now that I'm not the outsider geek, now that everybody else is talking about last night's episode of The Walking Dead, I feel a sense of vindication. I've got more zombie entertainment than I can consume, but I sure do try. For an old-school zombie nut like me, this recent swell in popularity is more than welcome. Long live the dead!


Guru Sweet Pickle said...

Zombie games are more fun than you can shake a femur at.

Enrique said...

Zombies are better people than us, think about it.

Doppelbock said...

Great article! Dare I say I enjoy reading your stuff even more now that you hsve branched out from doing 100% game reviews? Yes.