– by Michael!
Sunday night, Joanie and I went with several friends to the local drive-in to see World War Z, a zombie movie so loosely based on the excellent book by the same name that only one character is shared between them. And that barely.
But it was good, clean, horrifying-undead-monsters-hurtling-at-screaming-bystanders fun, with enough truly frightening moments to make it more than worth the money and the time spent waiting for the sun to go down so that the film could start.
One of the friends who came with us is older, close to our parents’ age, and she asked a question that I hear a lot from older friends: “What’s this fascination with zombies?”
Well, for one, people like to be scared. That’s not really news – it’s like riding a roller-coaster. Safe, containable terror. And people like to mock what they’re afraid of, which is probably why there are almost as many zombie spoof movies as there are actual zombie movies.
However, there’s also the appeal of the “reset.” This isn’t necessarily a zombie staple, as the “end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it” theme has been around for ages. The idea of starting over, of cutting through the accumulated trash that has built up alongside the good things in our world, our culture, is a deeply seductive one, and I think is the real reason that so many people in their twenties and thirties enjoy stories that trade upon world-ending disasters:
We could start over.
To people crippled with student loans thanks to university costs that have ballooned outrageously in the last few decades (coupled with very little, if any, appreciable increase in benefit to the actual students), people facing dire predictions of economic, ecological, and social catastrophe on an hourly basis, people who are faced with a political culture in which dialogue has vanished in exchange for vitriol in 140 characters or fewer, people who grew up being told that “you can be anything if you put your mind to it” and are now applying for semi-paid internships or seasonal positions at the age of 29 because entry-level full-time jobs that offer poor health insurance and the barest glimmer of hope for advancement are being snapped up by desperate souls with management experience and children in middle school…
Can you really blame us for finding the idea of resetting the whole damned thing to be deeply appealing?
And the specific threat in question – the zombie – is, I think, also somewhat telling. I’m lucky. I’m married to my best friend, a beautiful woman who complements me in every way and with whom I share a ludicrously adventurous life. I have a job that is mentally and emotionally engaging, working with and for people whose company I enjoy, with a great balance of responsibility and safety-net built in to my everyday work life.
But so many people I know – bright people, competent and creative, with a great deal to offer – can’t find work that fulfills them, can’t meet people who connect with them, can’t escape the feeling that they are mindlessly plodding after minuscule goals at once too paltry to be considered and too dependent upon external circumstance to be realized.
Many of us already feel like the walking dead.
Now, I say all of this with a grain of salt. Every age inherits its trouble from their predecessors. Just in the last 100 years, we can point to the follies of dynastic imperialism starting a world war decades after the fact, the crushing vindictiveness of the Treaty of Versailles igniting the fuse of the next World War, the arrogance of superpowers creating warfare in miniature that, in turn, birthed the terrorists of today, and so on.
It’s no more a new phenomenon than people enjoying being frightened. But it’s new to us, here and now, and – like everybody before us – we’re finding a way to cope with it, expressing both our frustration with the world as it is and our deep desire to be heroic, to have something concrete and immediate for which to be heroic, to be a part of a salvative effort that isn’t coopted by somebody else’s greed or hatred but that is simply and purely a matter of survival.
And that way, for some of us, is to enjoy entertainment based on the idea of surviving in a world full of ravenous and angry abominations. It’s messy. It’s kinda gross. And sure, it’s more than a little bit silly. (For the record, people said similar things about the Charleston.) But it’s both effective and expressive, a familiar set of tropes through which we can vicariously experience some level of the world-wide catharsis that has not yet arrived, that is so direly needed.