Thursday, January 06, 2022

Our zombie selves in Covid time: an apocalyptic essay

Outlook magazine had a year-end special built around the cheerful theme “Apocalypse”. I wrote a piece about zombies in film/literature/Covid times. (This includes Max Brooks’s marvelous book World War Z, as well as one of my favourite Val Lewton films I Walked with a Zombie, which I discussed during an online class a year ago. Here is the piece…

It’s one of many mutation-vaccine memes that has been doing the rounds lately. “Waiting in line for your 56th booster shot to stop the 89th variant that comes with the 23rd wave” reads the text. The image accompanying it is a close-up of one of those malodorous lurchers from a zombie movie – eyes open but glassy and unseeing, slash marks on throat, half-grin plastered on his (its?) face, as if pleased by the news that the local pharmacy has a fresh stock of paracetamol.

At this point, who among us can’t relate to this shuffling wretch?

There is a long-standing connection between zombies and pandemics in horror lore, but there isn’t always a definite answer to the question: which came first? Does the mysterious emergence of zombies lead to pestilence sweeping across the land, or does the plague come first, turning us all into zombies? It depends on which book you’re watching, which film you’re reading… or which real-life scenario you happen to be inhabiting. It also depends on how you define “zombie”, or “apocalypse”.

Consider Max Brooks’s marvellous dystopia book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006), which – in amusingly straight-faced, journalistic prose – describes a global zombie infestation and how it affects (or is prolonged by) different countries and cultures. When Covid-19 got underway, my mind turned to that book, but I didn’t realise how closely it resonated with contemporary events until I pulled out my old copy recently and saw the back-cover blurb “It’s Apocalypse Now, pandemic style”. Followed by: “It began with rumours from China about another pandemic. Then the cases started to multiply […] Humanity was forced to face events that tested our sanity and our sense of reality.”

World War Z has “real” zombies, of course – the supernatural undead who cause all the trouble – but it also makes clear that there are ways and ways of being a zombie. In one stirring chapter, which reads like a nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story “The Masque of the Red Death”, a super-rich New Yorker turns his mansion into a sanctuary for himself and other celebrities (along with their battalions of personal assistants and stylists) – until they learn that however carefully they indulge in ivory-tower hedonism, they can’t stay forever untouched by a raging plague. When the assault comes, it comes not from zombies but from living people on the outside, enraged by this obscene display of privilege. “It was bedlam, exactly what you thought the end of the world was supposed to look like.”

But perhaps the zombie-in-apocalypse theme is most clearly realised in the section about a young Japanese man named Kondo who spends all his time on the internet, where he feels most in control. Long before the zombie invasion begins, Kondo is an automaton: glued to his computer, mechanically interacting with people whom he doesn’t really know, staggering to his door to collect the meal trays his mother left for him outside. Little wonder that when he awakens to an unthinkable crisis – no computer or internet – he goes nearly insane. Like the zombies, he needs something to feed on: in his case, the glow of the screen and the validation of other cyber-residents. But that is gone now, and he is so socially inept that stepping out of his building is barely an option.

Prescient as Brooks’s book was, it was written before smart-phones, social media, and easy-to-access video-meeting rooms – and these are things that don’t figure in the narrative (at least not to the degree that they have now infected our world). I think of Kondo the almost-zombie whenever I come across a tragic-comic news items about a young person, so lost in a phone screen while walking, that they tumble into an uncovered manhole or something such (still gazing into the phone, their minds not having yet processed all the signals).

It is easy to recognise the zombies in ourselves in the cyber-age, where one can stay cut off from the outside world for long durations. (This even before a nasty little virus came along and forced us all into our houses, giving many of us the excuse we wanted to never meet anyone.) It is also easier than ever to grumble that technology has facilitated alienation and living-dead behaviour. But in fairness, versions of this have been happening for hundreds of years. Think of all the stories about insensate, vaguely human-like creatures – going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and beyond – that were responses to new technological developments; born of the fear that in moving away from the comforting moral certainties of religion towards something more diffused and unpredictable, people would lose their humanity.

Zombies are a direct bequest of that legacy. One of the most famous zombie films, George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, begins with a cemetery scene where a young man (a non-zombie at this stage) is sardonic about traditional things such as putting a wreath on his father’s grave, and doesn’t even go to church. These “blasphemies” of a cold modern age prepare us for the arrival of the living dead. But a question hangs over the film: was that man already dead inside?


Historically too, even in the age of early, low-budget horror movies, some of the most notable cinematic “zombies” weren’t supernatural: they were regular people who had been petrified into inaction – through circumstances, or because they had looked for too long into an abyss. The hopelessness might be engendered by personal tragedy, general distress about their immediate surroundings, or cosmic destruction at an unthinkable scale.

Consider the wonderfully atmospheric I Walked with a Zombie (1943), produced by a master of subdued horror, Val Lewton. This film’s sensationalist B-movie title doesn’t begin to convey its quiet, haunting beauty and how it deals not with external terrors but with a soul-destroying conflict within a family where a young woman has turned catatonic after an illicit affair. Or take another tragic young woman from the genre – Christine, the disfigured protagonist of the 1960 Eyes Without a Face, who wanders desolate through the rooms of a large mansion while her scientist father tries to restore her features. Or another legendary horror-film character who must also have spent long lonely hours walking through an old house, Norman Bates in Psycho, rendered zombie-like by his crippling dependence on his long-dead mother.

If the heroine of Eyes Without a Face wears a mask – like someone living through a pandemic – there are other similarly isolated characters in dystopian films. In the climactic scene of the chilling The Face of Another (1964), a doctor has a nightmare vision of countless masked people – soulless ciphers – walking through the streets of a city. For the protagonists of these films, “apocalypse” is a very personal thing, as it would be for most of us in their situation: how does it matter to them if the rest of the world goes on as normal? In another Val Lewton-produced work, Isle of the Dead, a group of people are stranded on an island as a plague rages around them. They scrub their hands, wear masks when possible, and are very aware of the external dangers; but their inner demons are what consume them.

Personal tragedy often runs alongside social commentary in these stories: for instance, I Walked with a Zombie is set on an island with a history of colonialism and racial oppression; the white characters in the film may have infected the place through generations of exploitation. But then, anyone who knows the history of horror cinema knows that the genre, however otherworldly or fantastical it might seem, has always had powerful subtexts. “Unusual Times Demand Unusual Pictures” said an advertisement for the Depression-Era film White Zombie; as David Skal put it in his fine book The Monster Show, part of the reason why this film was scary was that “millions already knew that they were no longer completely in control of their lives; the economic strings were being pulled by faceless, frightening forces”. Decades later, when the American economy was in a much healthier place, along came Romero’s 1979 Dawn of the Dead – a witty commentary on the giant-shopping-mall era, where rampant consumerism could turn people into zombies.

And then there is the end of the world, non-pandemic-style – and outside the horror genre. I’m thinking about two very different types of films made in different cultures in 1955, both of which involve terror of nuclear annihilation: Akira Kurosawa’s plaintive drama I Live in Fear and Robert Aldrich’s B-noir Kiss Me Deadly. Both have scenes involving bright flashes of light that might signal Armageddon, and people who are paralysed by fear. The protagonist of I Live in Fear, an old man traumatised by
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cowers when his house is lit up by lightning during a storm, imagining it to be another atom bomb attack. In Kiss me Deadly, when a woman opens a mysterious, glowing suitcase, we realise that this is a horrific Pandora’s Box containing a form of all-consuming nuclear power; and the house goes up in flames. Both the old man and the woman are rendered immobile and sub-human… like you-know-what.

From the fears of rapid industrialisation to the world wars, from the possibility of mutually assured nuclear destruction to climate change… and now to Covid-19 and its many avatars: every age has had its own zombie-generators. Each situation poses its own special challenges, but maybe some things don’t change all that much over the centuries. Writing about White Zombie in 1932, a reviewer quipped that zombies were especially useful in the busted economy, “since they don’t mind working overtime”. Something similar might be said for some of us in Covid’s WFH world, where the line between work time and leisure time has been blurred, where there is no “switching off”, and we stare into the depths of our many screens, fingers involuntarily tapping away to indicate slight signs of life. Perhaps the next major zombie film should be about the undead launching their most macabre attack yet… by infiltrating our online video meetings.

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