Every few months, I dream that everyone I love is dead.
For those unaware, Dawn of the Dead is a remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 film of the same name. Both films are set in shopping malls. Thematically, the message is simple: Independent, free-thinking people are being figuratively consumed by an unthinking mass consumerism. Thus, the thematic focus (of Romero’s film, at least) rests on what the undead2 represent. But the narrative has shifted over the years. Modern reincarnations of zombie and apocalyptic horror films are much more concerned with the living—those who remain after the apocalypse.
Take Colson Whitehead’s 2011 novel, Zone One, for example, which mines the same deep vein of anti-consumerism as Dawn of the Dead while simultaneously shifting the lens. The main character, identified only by his nickname, Mark Spitz3, is tasked by a fledgling post-apocalyptic government with mopping up a section of Manhattan known as Zone One, which the government has put a concrete wall around a la the Green Zone in Baghdad. The plan is to exterminate the remaining zombies block by block, making the city inhabitable once again. Spitz et al are not allowed to loot, vandalize, or remove property. That is because the area will be wiped clean of any signs of the genocide, and new occupants will move into the high-rise apartments, complete with their Pottery Barn couches and sparkling red KitchenAid mixing bowls. They will simply go back to how things were, only with better furniture and far fewer friends. Only, the dream seems a mirage; everywhere, there are signs that normalcy is at best a temporary phenomenon in Zone One. There is no going back to how things were.
Normalcy is at best a temporary phenomenon.
What Zone One touches on—and what the best of modern apocalyptic pop culture delves into—is that “now” is transitory. The threat of apocalypse is a way of reminding us, the readers/viewers, of life’s impermanence. It confirms for us not only that death is inevitable, but also that our comforts are fleeting. Our obsession with the undead, then, is Buddhist in nature, which posits that the root cause of suffering is desire and urges us to let go.
The world we have created—not just the larger society we live in but also the smaller worlds we create in our homes and communities—can change suddenly. I know. One day, the zombies came for me. And, one day, no matter how much I desire to banish the darkness from my world and return to a past that used to seem so real, they will get me. And they will get you too.
I will kill my zombies4. And I will move on to my post-zombie reality, which will be many things but will not be a carbon copy of the past. Because why would I want the furniture and fancy food processor when the zombies taught me how to live?
- Though I avoid horror films as a general rule, as someone who arrives at movies at least 20 minutes before showtime, I am unable to avoid previews for horror films. [↩]
- The term for when one is both dead and alive. [↩]
- Yes, the Olympic swimmer. [↩]
- Kill them again, I mean, since they’re technically already dead. [↩]