One of my favorite zombie movies is Revenge Of The Zombies, made in 1943. It stars John Carradine as the mad scientist and Gale Storm as the female ingénue. It’s not a great movie, in fact it’s not even a very good one, but it has an ending that still disturbs me to this day. John Carradine has turned his beautiful wife into a zombie. He’s also trying to breed a race of zombies for Hitler. But his wife still has some free will. She takes control of the growing army of zombies (well, only four or five) and they take Carradine down to the spooky swamp, where she faces him, holds him by the shoulders so he can’t escape, and they both sink down into the quicksand. He struggles, she doesn’t. The rest of the zombies sink down with them. What’s disturbing about this ending is the thought that if zombies never die, then they’re all still down there, waiting, brooding…and maybe some night will come oozing and squelching out of the swamp…?
Zombies were not a big staple in horror films until 1968 when George Romero made Night Of The Living Dead for $114,000. At the time of its initial release, it was dismissed by critics for its explicit violence and overlooked by most audiences. But only a couple of years later, it was a regular item on the late-night movie circuit. I first saw it in Greenwich Village at a midnight showing. As with Rocky Horror Picture Show, the audience was filled with regulars and their virgin guests. You can watch this movie on TV, but to really appreciate the sheer visceral impact, you have to see it very late at night with a large audience. None of the remakes or sequels have ever come close to the same gritty horror of the original. What I remember most about that first screening was that the first thirty minutes were so relentless that the audience actually breathed a gasp of relief when Ben (Duane Jones) the hero hammered the final board over the last window. The rest of the picture was similarly punctuated by gasps of horror as each new atrocity occurred. Up till that time, blood and gore had been kept mostly offscreen. The horror was in the suggestion, not what was shown. Night Of The Living Dead changed that.
Flash forward to 1992. A state of the art computer had a 386 processor running at 33mhz, a megabyte of RAM, a VGA video board, and a stereo Sound Blaster card. The top games are Flight Simulator and Wolfenstein 3D. Wolfenstein 3D was a good test of the power of your system. If you could run it full screen, you could run just about anything else. The game was created by Id Software and published by Apogee. As with previous Apogee games, the first ten levels were free, you paid ($15 if I remember correctly) for the next twenty. The game was the most successful game that Apogee had ever published. It not only popularized the first person shooter, it also introduced hundreds of thousands of users to the shareware concept.
Wolfenstein 3D takes place during World War II. You’re playing the role of B.J. Blazkowicz (Duke Nukem’s grampa?), and you’re trying to escape a Nazi prison. As you go through the levels, any qualms you might have about shooting other human beings can be quickly dismissed. These are Nazis, after all—they deserve it—and when you reach the final boss level, you get to shoot mechano-Hitler, who’s armed with four Gatling guns.
Graphically, Wolfenstein 3D was primitive. The levels were flat mazes laid out in a square grid. The characters were cartoonish sprites. But the game was genuinely interactive. Gamers could explore a three-dimensional environment in real time, collecting guns, ammunition, treasures, meals, med-kits, and keys to locked doors. Despite the crude graphics, you could feel as if you were inside a real and knowable space.
In December of 1993, Id released Doom and gaming has never been the same. Wolfenstein 3D was just a warm-up. Doom introduced variations in lighting, stereo sound, jumping, and a true three-dimensional environment. Environments had stairs, terraces, shelves, balconies, elevators, pits, towers, and chasms. The graphics were smoother and more detailed than before, although the characters were still sprites.
The game took place on a Martian military base where something awful has happened. Some experiment has gone terribly wrong. This time you’re a space marine and you start out fighting other marines—ones who have been zombified. But very quickly, you’re up against alien monkeys who throw fireballs and pink pig-things and various other alien demons from Hell.
The environments in Doom were (and still are) genuinely terrifying. Every time you came to a door, you had no idea what horrors might be waiting on the other side, what dark corners you’d have to search, what puzzles would challenge you. The first ten levels taught you various tricks—listen for a door, that’s a clue. Maneuver through the strobing darkness. Jump from this shelf to that one. You start out with a meager pistol, quickly followed by the iconic shotgun (which is just one of the most fun weapons in the game), and eventually you work your way up to the BFG-9000. (BFG stands for “big fucking gun.”) Doom had it’s own uniquely disturbing mood—helped in no small part by Bobby Prince's appropriately monstrous score.
Doom was one of the most successful computer games of all time. It dropped people into its malevolent Martian landscape and sucked their brains out through their eyes and fingers. Many gamers played obsessively for hours at a time—and then reported dreaming Doom environments while they slept. Rumor had it that one teenager even had a psychotic breakdown and had to be hospitalized. Other players found the game environments so disturbing that they had to stop playing for a while. (I was one of those folks. I was playing too many hours a day. One night, I was walking down a dark unfamiliar hall, and I noticed that I experienced genuine anxiety as I approached the corner at the end. When I did come back to the game, I limited my time at the keyboard.)
Looking back, it’s clear that Wolfenstein 3D and Doom spawned the whole first-person-shooter genre. There have been a lot of other noteworthy games since then, but none have ever had such a widespread and sudden cultural impact.
Trying to capture a piece of that same market, a lot of companies invested hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, into developing their own powerful 3D gaming engines. Not all of them got to market. Even fewer succeeded. But it was clear that gamers wanted a certain kind of first-person interactive environment, they wanted interesting enemies, and they wanted to shoot them. The balance has always been tricky, but companies that have found the right balance have profited enormously.
One of the issues in any game has been finding the right enemy, so you don’t have to worry about that troubling little commandment about how thou shalt not do something or other. Even committing a vicarious murder carries a karmic price. Recreating the great conflicts of history—especially World War II—often works well. You can almost justify the battle action as “educational,” because the player gets to experience the circumstances first hand.
Nazis have been terrific villains for movies and books, because you can portray them as completely without redeeming qualities of any kind. There are no good Nazis, therefore revenge is justified. It’s all right to hate them, and shooting them is a good thing, because you’re stopping them from further atrocities. But aliens are even better than Nazis. Aliens are giant bugs or slithery reptiles or gigantic machines that fire death rays. You don’t have to justify shooting bugs or snakes or machines. You’re human, they’re not. That’s all the justification you need.
But one of the best enemies for games and movies has turned out to be zombies. They’re not human anymore. They’re mindless. They’re dead. They’re either slow and clumsy or fast and vicious. It doesn’t matter. If they’re slow, they want to eat your brain. If they’re fast, they’re infected with rage. And the best part is, you don’t have to justify shooting them. It’s just self-defense. You’re still human, they aren’t.
The uncomfortable question is whether or not this kind of gaming is psychologically healthy. Does it have an effect on the player? I’ve seen this argued both ways. If television doesn’t influence how you behave, then why are there commercials?
Do the game environments you explore affect how you see the world or deal with other people? My son loves driving games, the faster the better. He plays them obsessively, even more so after he got his driver’s license. And he used to sneak out at night and go racing on the freeway to see how fast his car could go. One night, some dudes pulled up alongside him at a red light and tried to carjack him. He out-drove them and lost them in two blocks. (In another circumstance, a state highway patrolman told my son that he’d never seen anyone handle a CRX so well. Don’t ask.)
In a more controlled environment, it has been demonstrated that children do emulate behaviors they see on TV. One remarkable experiment portrayed two different reactions to a frustrating toy. A child was shown one tape or the other, then given the same frustrating toy to play with. The pieces didn’t fit, it didn’t work. The children who had seen the angry portrayal of frustration tended to behave the same way, they got angry and shouted too. The children who had seen the actress just shrug and walk away from the toy were more likely to emulate that response. Again, if television doesn’t influence us, why are there commercials? Why are there Batman costumes in the Halloween stores? And why did it take nearly six months to get my son to stop saying “All righty, then!” like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective?
So I think it’s fair to examine the cultural effects of any meme, of anything that is portrayed in films and on TV—especially when it becomes a hit. Why has our culture become so fascinated with zombie threats, and is there a deeper subtext that bears examination here? Books, movies, comics, TV shows—this meme shows no signs of fading away.
In 1956, the classic film Invasion Of The Body Snatchers gave a lot of people sleepless nights. Some reviewers have put forth the theory that the movie was contemporary a metaphor for the fear of Communism—that your trusted neighbors might stop being the friendly people you know and become godless atheist soul-sucking collectivist zombies. If that’s the case, then what do today’s zombies represent?
Fear of the other is commonplace throughout all cultures. It’s possible that the way zombies are presented today is an artifact of that. More specifically, raging crazies can represent the fear of anything from violent jihadists to inner-city criminal gangs, from illegal immigrants to fanatics of any extreme. More specifically, the portrayal of zombies a class of humans it’s all right to kill is interpreted by some (many?) as a thinly-veiled racism.
Resident Evil has been very successful as a PC game (plus sequels), as well as a series of increasingly graphic movies. In the 2010 film, Resident Evil: Afterlife, human survivors exist in safe havens. They have walled off the outside world where infected crazies still run free. 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later are similarly themed—rage-infected people are killing innocents. It’s possible that this particular iteration of zombies also represents fear of uncleanliness, disease, and poverty. Zombies aren’t people. They have become animals, acting without thought, acting without regard for themselves or others—acting without even the essential core of identity. So it is all right for us to see them as monsters—no longer human.
Despite the risk of someone invoking Godwin’s Law, I’m going to point out that the Holocaust was preceded by ten years of systematic propaganda to convince the German population that Jews were untermenschen , repeatedly referencing them as “vermin.” The first step in any perpetration or atrocity is to diminish your perception of the other person’s humanity. Do all these movies and games subconsciously encourage fear and hatred of whole classes of people? Are they desensitizing us to the essential humanity of others?
I admit that’s a pretty heavy question to ask. It’s easier to argue that some people are taking the subject too seriously, and that the proliferation of zombie hordes in movies, games, books, and graphic novels have been deliciously scary and nothing more. I can see that point of view too. My favorites are Return Of The Living Dead (“Send more paramedics!”), Shaun Of The Dead, and Zombieland. World War Z and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies will be released sometime in 2012 and could also be big hits. The Walking Dead had some shuddery moments too. For most fans, zombies are probably just another excuse for cosplay. At the 2011 Comic-Con, fans held the one of the largest zombie-walks in the world, with the undead shambling and grunting and grinning maniacally in a line that stretched for blocks (at least ten, by my count).
Still, it’s worth looking at the psychological subtext. Some sociologists have said that Frankenstein represents the discomforts of adolescence (an awkward, ungainly body—an inability to fit in anywhere), that vampires represent forbidden sexuality (including homoerotic situations), and that the original Godzilla films spoke to Japan’s fears of nuclear horror. If those metaphors have any significant cultural resonance, then it’s equally fair to ask what zombies represent to us and why we choose to think that way.
What do you think?