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This essay originally appeared at An Island Where No One lives.  It has been adapted and edited for inclusion here.

In another essay I spoke at some length about movie creatures that completely lack human features, and how I feel this makes them scarier, because there is absolutely no common ground between us where we could reach any kind of mutual understanding, let alone a cease fire.

Today, I'd like to start out by saying two things, before moving on to the next topic: creatures who look entirely too much like us.

1. I should have mentioned the Blob yesterday, but I forgot about him. He was, after all, the source of my digression about how remakes can go southward, so apologies to the Blob. The thing is, the Blob doesn't have alien features--he has no features at all. He's more of a force of nature, like a tornado, than an antagonist. Besides, everyone knows you freeze him and he's harmless. Problem solved. I'm sure a large bucket with a lid would work too.

2. I take movies I like seriously. By which I don't mean that I believe that they depict real events or real personages (I'm being inclusive), but that I look at them in terms of storytelling instead of cinematics. I want to be caught up in the story and characters in a movie; I want to say, "I hope that guy gets away!" or "There's only 30 seconds til detonation!" and things like that; I am willing to give a good movie what it wants most, and pretend that what I'm watching on screen is real. I don't particularly like saying, "That scene was very well edited," or "The color palette really supports the emotion, here" or things that indicate it's all just folks playing with forms. I mean, what's the point in that? Don't show me a film, tell me a story.

That's why I spent so much time detailing the Silicates and their nature. Not because I think they're real, but because they were so interesting, I wanted to treat them as if they were real.

Okay, now that that is out of the way, here's today's topic: movie creatures that look, as stated, entirely too much like us. In other words, zombies.

Let's get one little problem out of the way, first of all. A huge number of zombie movies are, well, pretty bad, and that's being kind about it. There are a handful of really good ones, but for every good one, there are probably forty to fifty bad ones. And most of those were made by Italians.

I honestly don't know what it is about the Italian film industry and zombies, but they just can't get enough of each other. I bet even Fellini threw a few zombies into some of his films. Note: I am not trying to dis Italians here, but their zombie movies are generally awful.

Anyway, zombies. If you've seen the George Romero zombie films, you know the basic situation: for an unexplained reason, the recent dead have returned to a limited kind of life and are attacking (and devouring) the living. In most zombie films, a gunshot to the head will "kill" a zombie. If you've seen any of the Italian ones, you know that even after the heroes find this out, they still shoot everywhere else until they run out of ammo. But I digress. (I do that a lot.)

As a character in Dawn of the Dead notes when asked about the zombies: "They're us." They're human beings like you and me, they just happen to be dead and operating under different motivations than you and I do. Which is, I think, one of the reasons we find them scary.

They look just like you and I; why can't we reason with them, person to person? Why is finding common ground impossible? One could say that, appearances aside, they are no longer human but something other; appearances, though, are very, very powerful. They not only look like people, they sometimes look like people we know.

I think this is what makes them uncomfortable for us, and why in so many zombie movies a person finds it hard to destroy an approaching dangerous zombie. Because that zombie is a relative, or a close friend, or someone other than that SOB who cut you off on the interstate. Most of the audience, by this time, is screaming "Shoot! Shoot!" while the person stands there helpless. Unless it's the SOB, in which case everyone cheers when he gets blown away.

But consider, and consider honestly: how easy would it be to shoot your spouse, your child, your parent? Yes, they are now dangerous zombies and it has to be done. But could you do it easily, or as quickly as a hypothetical audience might expect?

I would have real, real problems with that, to be honest. I think my survival instinct is as high as anyone's, and I would ultimately do what needed to be done. But I would hate every second of it, and I don't even like thinking about it now. We're not only connected to each other through social and family relations, we're also connected through memories. Memories are a great portion of who we, as individuals, are. And those memories are very vivid with friends and families; I suspect our most powerful memories, good or bad, are connected with other people, and not with things or events. (I think even the memories about things and events might be more about the people who were or weren't affected at the time.  I could be wrong about that, and it wouldn't be the first time, but when people remember, say, "college" I bet a large part of that memory is interacting with fellow humans.)

But if people make up a large part of our memory-selves, when we are confronted with people from our memories who are not the same people, I think it's natural that we want the original people back, to acknowledge us somehow, and thus acknowledge that we are who we think we are. Especially in times of spreading crisis (like, oh, I dunno, mass zombie attacks) the urge to cling to things that give us comfort must be overwhelming.

As another digression, I think this is one reason why people keep souvenirs of things. Even things like gas station receipts (guilty) remind us that we had a good time with those folks, didn't we? That was fun; that was a good day, and that made all right with the world then. A golden time from the past with those folks.

So why can't we stop those same folks from trying to eat us, now? Why do we have to shoot them in the head? Don't they remember us, and the fun we all had that day? What is this gas station receipt going to mean to me now? It'll still be a souvenir, but of a far more depressing kind. I want the old meaning back.

(I think this is one reason that movies about demonic possession are, essentially, rescue stories. We want to restore the victim to the state they occupy in our memories.)

Unlike the Silicates, the zombies are perfectly human in appearance (if a bit damaged at times). And unlike the Silicates, there should be common ground for us to appeal to. But like the Silicates, this doesn't work. The answer seems to be because, also like the Silicates, these aren't really human beings any more. They're reanimated automatons.

But are they? If so, what's animating them? Are they like the "zombies" from Invisible Invaders, ridden by aliens from the Moon? Can we appeal to the Mooninites, then? Since we are talking about aliens inhabiting bodies to move against us, we are also talking about aliens that operate with a purpose in mind--in other words, they reason very similarly to the way we do. Perhaps we can find common ground, given time.

That's one idea, but one that is rarely (aside from Invisible Invaders and 1998's wonderful Dark City) put forth as an explanation for zombie motivation.

Besides, we have other, rather disturbing evidence that these people are exactly who they look like.  No invisible invaders to blame.

In Dawn of the Dead, there are hints of this, in that the zombies congregate at the shopping mall not because they know there are edible people in there, but because "this was an important place in their lives." An important place in whose lives? Obviously not invaders from the Moon, or supernatural possessive spirits. In fact, it's kind of depressing to think we might be visited by alien beings who would consider it a highlight of their trip to go hang at the mall.

This seems to indicate that the zombies do retain some memory of their previous lives, and (aside from their eating habits) that they are the people they look like, albeit in highly diminished form. I say "seems" because all the evidence in this film is speculative; it's just survivors trying to figure out how this new world works.

However, what was implied and speculative in Dawn becomes explicit in the next film, Day of the Dead. Here, the most interesting, multi-dimensional, and sympathetic character in the whole film is a guy named Bub. And Bub is a zombie.

He's been partially "domesticated" by one of the scientists studying the zombies; he allows this scientist to get near him, and even touch him, without responding by attacking. He even seems to regard the scientist with a sort of dog-like affection.

The kicker is this: when presented with items like a razor, a book and a walkman, Bub knows what they are. He moves the razor the correct way over his face, though a bit awkwardly (the way a baby might). When he sees a person in a uniform, he salutes, showing that he was once a member of the armed forces and that he remembers the proper protocol. He has memories, however dim and instinct-like they appear, of who he once was.

He's kept chained up through most of the film, but when he frees himself, his first "thought" is to proudly show his trainer what he accomplished on his own. He's never shown regarding any of the other people as food. In fact, the only time he attacks anyone, he uses a gun.

In a way, this is more disturbing than the Silicates. The Silicates, after all, are utterly alien to us, and understanding their intelligence (if any) may be beyond our abilities. Zombies are different; these are people we know whose urge to eat us overpowers their ability to see us as we see ourselves (ie, they don't acknowledge us in terms of our shared humanity), as well as their (presumed) urge to have a couple of brews and watch The Return of the King with us. All our friendship and shared experiences mean nothing to them anymore. The "social contract" we all share (which keeps us from killing our neighbors when their garbage blows into our yard, for example) is similarly shown as something that doesn't survive a contest with raw instinct. The zombies may see us as "fellow creatures," but the idea that this should "mean" something to them is simply not apparent.

Bub is what makes this especially disturbing, as his example shows that these creatures aren't simply hostile, mindless animals, but human beings who remember their lives, and possibly our place in them; they just don't care. Their animating urge, the reason they "get up and kill" remains their most forceful motivation. Even self-preservation, a basic instinct in all creatures, can't compete with the zombies' urge to eat us.

What this kind of says, I think, is that everything that makes human beings "people" has no objective value at all. It makes us feel good, and it makes us feel we belong to a greater whole, but we actually don't. None of our civilization or self-awareness will stop our friends and neighbors from wanting to eat us when they become zombies. It doesn't matter what we've done to, or for them; we cut them off on the interstate, we give them a widescreen television, we marry them, or cheat them out of money--same difference.

Should it make a difference? Yes, it should. We should treat people with the expectation that they will treat us in the same way. I'm not saying civilization is a sham and should be abandoned. But it's a lot more fragile than it appears. Thousands of years of progressing up from cavemen can go just like that. It's going to take work to keep civilization operating; we're going to have to do more than agree that it's a good thing and hope it continues on its own.

Bub's domestication has given him the ability to control the zombie feeding urge; he's been transformed from a "wolf" who would attack us if it were in his best interest, to a "dog" who wants nothing more than to belong to our tribe. So, buried within the zombies is some small spark of the "urge to belong" but it's buried way, way deep. (Probably too deep to be much help to us non-zombies.)

It's not really clear in Day how much of Bub's civil behavior is due to his training, or to his remote memories finally becoming stronger than his instincts.  Granted, his memories are coming to the fore, but would they have done so if the scientists had not decided to train him?   Day takes place some years after the events of Night and Dawn, so it is possible that given sufficient time, the zombies will remember enough of their previous lives to form a society of some kind. But won't this society end up being just as fragile as the one it replaced? If not, what do the zombies have that we don't? Perhaps overcoming such a powerful instinct allows them to build something with much stronger bonds. But if civilization is just a set of shared assumptions, I can't imagine zombie society surviving an attack of, um, uber-zombies. And that sounds like we're back to square one, doesn't it? any rate, let's hope we don't have to find out the hard way. It's not always cool being right, you know.

February 10, 2005

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