Me and the wife watched World War Z last weekend. I love a good zombie movie. So naturally most of the details of this one have already slipped my mind. No, it wasn’t good. Worse, it made me think about the state of our culture, as reflected in zombie movies, of course.
In the old days, when George A. Romero was zombie king and only Lucio Fulci could play in his yard, zombies were slow and the horror was personal. Yes, the world was in a state of apocalyptic nightmare, but the focus was on individuals and the real horror came from seeing someone the lead characters knew and loved coming back to munch on them. Think about the original Night of the Living Dead. The little girl was bitten. They knew she was gonna turn into a zombie long before she did it, but could her parents bash her in the brain before it happened? No. Could they do it even after she rose from the dead and came after them. No. That was the horror of it all.
Beyond that, though, was the subtext of Romero’s films, most evident in Dawn of the Dead. The zombies represented something else, something slow but relentless, insidious, ultimately inescapable. The zombies were symbolic of some dysfunction in our social system and they moved slowly so that we would have time to look at them and see the problem. (And because it only makes sense that a dead thing would move slowly, but that’s another story.) “They are us,” Peter says of the mall-wandering zombies in Dawn of the Dead.
World War Z and that craptacular remake of Dawn of the Dead, on the other hand, give us monsters that aren’t zombies. Yeah, they’re called zombies, and they eat human flesh, but they could be rabid dogs for all it matters. The humanity is gone, replaced with … I don’t know. Flash and bang? They are not us. Instead of seeing Mom’s dead hands and hungry mouth coming at a child who can’t bear to pull a trigger we get millions of computer generated superhuman cannibals chasing pretty people. There are no gut-churning zombie feast scenes. These zombies don’t stop to eat; they bite only to kill and then look to kill again.
There’s a scene in World War Z when Brad Pitt’s character and his family demand and receive shelter from an Hispanic family in an apartment building. When they leave, they try to get the Hispanic family to come with them, but they refuse. Pitt and family go to the roof to meet a military helicopter as the zombies get into the apartment and snack on Mexican food, except for a boy of maybe 10, who escapes and flees to the roof to spend the rest of the movie with Pitt’s wife and daughters. That’s it. There’s no horrific moment when the boy sees his whole family change and turn on him. The boy serves no purpose in the film after that, so it was a waste on many levels.
Romero would have lingered on that scene. We would have seen racial tension, distrust, even if everyone appeared to be getting along we would have known that the Hispanic family feared what the whites would do to them. We would have been with the boy when the flesheaters got to his mom and dad and siblings. We would have seen the internal struggle before he ran away and left them behind.
What do these fast zombie movies say about modern society? I think they say we have created a world that moves too fast. A world where almost everything is superficial. We run for our lives out of instinct, but we’ve lost the ability to really examine what we’re afraid of. The best we can hope for is to take down as many of the nameless generic monsters as we can before they pull us down. There’s not even the fear of becoming one of them; they will simply kill us and move on and the other survivors will take no notice of us.
This is the zombie movie in an age when we don’t know our neighbors’ names, when we buy our groceries from a worldwide corporate chain, when we lock ourselves into the talking points of our political party. A world where most of our friends are online avatars we’ve never actually met.
So, maybe the new zombie movies really do come with more horrific subtext than the classics of the genre.