The era of Western supremacy is drawing to an end as the colossal economies of China and India become as technologically advanced as Europe and America . Little wonder, then, that our appetite for apocalyptic fiction is growing. However, it is more than a little surprising to discover that end-times fiction has given an old B-Movie star – the zombie –a new lease of life. And with the publicity generated by last summers’ “World War Z”, zombies became inescapable. Brad Pitt’s notoriously troubled production gave the living dead their first multi-million dollar summer blockbuster. Sequels are a safe bet. Along with “Zs” impressive commercial success, zombies have achieved critical acclaim with AMC’s television series “The Walking Dead” and Simon Pegg’s satire “Shaun of the Dead”. The zombie virus has even infected Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet is retold in “Warm Bodies” as a story about a zombie and a human .
So what explains this unexpected trend in pop-culture? On one level the answer is simple: horror abhors a vacuum. Vampires no longer resemble Dracula, who was driven by an unholy and unclean blood-lust. But no-one believes in holiness anymore and living death seems tempting when we lose our belief in eternity; so the post modern world redefined the vampire as tragic-romantic figure. When a phantom ceases to horrify and begins to fascinate, it’s time to move along to a new ghoul.
Thankfully for Hollywood, there’s very little to redeem a zombie (even in “Warm Bodies” the zombie hero’s humanity is restored.) So they make wonderful cannon fodder for action heroes; you don’t lose brownie points for annihilating an unconscious, barely animate corpse. Horror directors love zombies because audiences can feel repulsion and terror without conscience – and they won’t break the special effects department’s budget. Importantly, the zombie can be given a pseudo-scientific explanation.
A writer must persuade an audience to suspend their disbelief to engage with the numerous improbabilities in any good work of fiction.Twenty –first century audiences have a hard time swallowing possessions and poltergeists. However, the mystique of science, and our terror of biological weapons, provides a plausible candidate for the undead plague: the dreaded “virus” But what zombies offer producers, above all, is blood, guts and gore.
Horror is about the absence of hope. In body horror – the genre where zombies have their roots – our own bodies are represented as grotesque and sickening. Such works of art do not merely teach that death and decay are inescapable. They seek to deconstruct the beauty of the human form as a shell for ugly and nauseating stench. Cinema and television no longer use sex scenes to sensationalise dramas; the autopsy and the torture scene are the primary forms of titillation.
This progression from “porn” to “torture-porn” is logical enough. In pornography the human body is viewed as an object to be manipulated, a chunk of flesh to lust after. In torture-porn the body is lumps of meat strung along bones, a mechanism that can be disassembled and reassembled according to the audience’s tastes. We have become so desensitised to this grotesque violence that blood-soaked carnage is often played for laughs.
Satirists are drawn to the mindless hunger which drives the zombie horde: it seems so similar to the greed that drives Western consumers. Yet they very often overlook a more obvious analogy: there is very little to distinguish the zombies’ mindless, murderous rage and a modern audience’s insatiable demand for cruel death and free flowing gore. Perhaps a little more reflection on what entertains us would be wise. Successful horror must contain an idea that frightens, disturbs and fascinates.
Zombies resonate with modern culture simply because we have come to suspect that there is little to distinguish us from the walking dead. The zombie’s body is a vehicle for a plague; human bodies are vehicles for our genes. In this age of unthinking scientism, free-will, the self, and even consciousness are explained away as the interactions of nervous systems and their environments. We are not embodied souls but mechanised meat.
Thankfully, the scientific reductionism that drives this picture of a human being is deeply flawed. Consider your experience of love. No scientific description of your brain, or the particles which it is composed of, will include what that feels like. Reflect on all the things you have loved. One subject has had all those experiences – you. You are a thinking self who can consider the world from many aspects, turning your mind to think of beauty, children, food or romance. Rumours of the death of the soul have been greatly exaggerated.
What of our bodies? CS Lewis encountered the living dead on the battle field, where the heavy artillery smashed his comrades. He later recalled dying men still struggling towards shelter like “half-crushed beetles”. Yet in The Pilgrim’s Regress Lewis notes we only feel disgust when we focus on a human corpse or some isolated part of the human body, like digestion. When we consider the human body as a healthy, functioning whole, it is undeniably beautiful. Indeed, the elegance of the various systems in the human body (and even the complexity of their parts) can inspire awe in the most hard-boiled positivist.
Whether considered in its detail or as a whole the human body suggests art and design. Moreover, the human soul – our mind, or thought and its capacity for action and experience – suggests the nature of our designer. Scientism insists consciousness and purpose have been constructed from forces and particles; that personality is the accidental side-effect of matter in motion. Theism insists that scientism approaches the universe in a muddled, backwards manner.
Reality only makes sense if the personal is fundamental: the structure, detail and beauty of the material universe can only be explained by the conscious purposes of a limitless power. And Christianity gives us more than an explanation. It gives us grounds for hope, pointing to someone greater than death; someone who can tame our malicious passions and give our souls new life.