Concerning Zombie Apocalypses

Friday, July 21, 2017
Concerning Zombie Apocalypses

George Romero died this week. For those who may not be familiar with this great film director’s oeuvre, Romero created the genre of American zombie apocalypse films starting with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Since then, zombie films and television programs have come to dominate our insatiable appetite for post-mortem horror, but I am intrigued by our cultural fascination with this very particular form of terror.

First, we are afraid of dead things. Dead things and especially people are portrayed as profoundly unnatural. Zombie films caricature the Christian hope of resurrection turning it from hope into horror. Zombie films take bodily resurrection seriously, they just leave out the part about purification and sanctification. For Christians, resurrection life is all about purging ourselves of everything that is not of God leaving in the end the image of God shining radiantly though us. But for zombies, what is distilled is not the better angels of our being but the essence of raw, savage humanity: hunger.

Zombies in most films are driven by insatiable hunger. This hunger corrupts them turning them from formerly rational beings into eating machines that can never be satisfied. Zombies are, in their own morbid way, caught in a tragedy. They are consumed by a desire that can never be fulfilled. In their misplaced hunger, zombies illustrate the essential nature of what the church calls sin. We feel an absence, a lack, a void deep inside us and so we try to fill it with all the wrong things—money, success, power, sex, drugs—not understanding that the absence can only be filled by God. Like the zombies we too can never fill our desires and so, left to our own hungers, we simply become hunger. In this regard, we can thank zombie apocalypses for illuminating our precise understanding of sin and what it does.

Finally, I am always amused by the ways that zombie films provide a social critique. The dead are all alike, all unified in purpose, values, and method: they just want to eat brains. The zombies are quite willing to cooperate with each other for mutual support and to exercise patience and resilience in the face of adversity. But the “normal” humans facing hoards of the undead immediately turn on each other. They divide immediately into squabbling and hostile camps. Tyrants take charge. They hoard resources, steal, and seek to dominate others. Faced with the possibility of annihilation, the healthy humans turn on each other and demonstrate that the zombies may be the true exemplars of human aspirations and virtue.

We in the church owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Romero for sharing this new genre of parable with us, revealing some of the darker corners of our fears and desires and casting in stark relief the predicament of humanity.