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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Why Zombie Movies Matter

Elsa Lancaster sharing a tender moment with Boris

I've watched more than my fair share of zombie movies.  To give you an idea of how many that is, in contemporary America, the fair share of zombie movies is twelve.  This does not count individual episodes of The Walking Dead.  I've seen movies about zombie strippers, zombie cats, zombie Nazis, funny zombies, tragic zombies, and plain old zombie-zombies.  I believe I have finally watched enough zombie movies and never care to see another.  

(Movies with giant spiders, on the other hand, I still have an unslaked appetite for.)

I have come to the conclusion, however, that zombie movies are telling us something very important, and actually quite reassuring.

The original zombie movie was Frankenstein - yes, that was definitely a zombie movie - but it wasn't until Bride of Frankenstein that the great theme of all zombie movies was articulated by the Creature itself, "We belong dead."  

He says this about himself and the ostensible bride of the title, magnificently played by Elsa Lancaster, in a dual role as Mary Shelly, who wakes from the dead in bird-like terror and confusion, and whose zombie-hood is so pitiable.  There's the whole idea right there, and if you want to stop reading the blog after this point, you may.  The dead belong dead.  Death is okay.  Death is appropriate.  What is truly terrifying is the alternative: never being able to die.

We have an understandable fear of death, but zombie movies tell us that when the time comes to die, that this is as it should be.  It is natural and even wholesome.  Grief is wholesome, also.  What is unwholesome is morbid terror.  

In Gulliver's Travels our hero learns about a group of immortal humans known as the struldbrugs, and Gulliver naively proclaims how wonderful it would be to live forever, and what opportunities it would provide to gain knowledge and riches. 

His interlocutor brings him up short, and says, no, the struldbrugs are a terrible scourge and it is considered a great misfortune when one is born into a family.  They grow into old age, cranky, infirm, foolish, and opinionated.  Swift is making the same point as any zombie movie.  Don't wish to live forever.  Wish for a reasonable life-span and a peaceful death.

Of course, in zombie movies, the immortals not only age and decay, they eat brains.  Because, hey, brains.

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