Humanity and braaaaains

"Zombie Horde" | Art by JoakimOlofsson. Used with permission.

When Our Fearless Leader (my new nickname for our managing editor) announced the theme of plagues and health for this issue, I thought: “What a perfect time to write about zombies.” The more I thought about it though, the more I asked myself, what isn’t a perfect time to write about zombies? There are just so many possibilities with the undead. Part of what makes zombies such a rich subject is that they connect to fears about the darkest possibilities of humanity—humanity at its most base and inhumane, lacking compassion, reason or understanding. Zombies can represent the mindlessness of our cultural landscape and our unthinking response to that landscape.

Over the past ten years—following an abundance of zombie movies, novels, comics, and video games—dozens of authors have connected the undead to topics such as philosophy, economics, and theology (the theologians especially love the scene in Matthew when the dead rise from their graves after Jesus’ resurrection). But for me, the most interesting connection to draw is still the link between the undead and disease, which has, since the 1970s, become a core aspect of the zombie mythos.

Zombies are assumed to be the result of some sort of unknown (possibly engineered) and highly contagious virus. This pandemic aspect not only adds to the horror (now we’re not only at risk of being killed, possibly eaten, but also of being infected), but defining zombies as contagions creates room to explore questions about humanity and evil. Movies like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… and shows like The Walking Dead and its recently aired prequel Fear the Walking Dead use zombie narratives to wrestle

Zombies can reveal our helplessness in the face of global pandemics.
with large ethical issues: if zombies are created by infection (as opposed to voodoo, as in their original incarnations), can they be cured and therefore saved? Are zombies still, deep down, the people they once were no matter how many brains they eat? And what about the moral choices of the human who are forced to fight and kill these walking dead?

Shaun faces these larger implications in Edgar Wright’s genre-defying zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead (2004). His stepfather, mother, and best friend Ed all succumb to infection. Despite the comic tone of much of the film, Shaun is forced to kill his reanimated stepfather and mother, knowing the risk they pose. Each kill, however necessary, takes an emotional toll on Shaun; he can’t simply distance who they once were from the bloodthirsty creatures they have become. However much he knows they are no longer his stepdad and his beloved mother, he can’t help but see them as those people. The fact that they are now infected doesn’t immediately change Shaun’s feelings for them.

We see Shaun’s attachment most clearly in the fate of Ed. When Ed is infected, rather than kill him, Shaun keeps him chained up in the shed so that they can continue doing activities together, like video games, that they’ve always enjoyed. Despite the trauma of killing his parents, Shaun basically chooses to see zombie-Ed as Ed. Although Shaun needs to take a few precautions—like chaining his friend to a wall—their relationship continues much as it always had pre-infection.

We see a similar inability to distance oneself in the first episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead with Morgan, the first person Rick encounters after waking from his coma. Although Morgan has no problem differentiating between “people” and “walkers” and explains to Rick that walkers are simply shells of their former selves, he is unable to kill his own wife, whose zombie presence continues to haunt him and their son.  

Are zombies still, deep down, the people they once were no matter how many brains they eat?

More recently Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies and CW’s iZombie have further complicated this inability for characters to emotionally reconcile zombies from their previous human selves, exploring the humanity of the undead. In these stories, zombies are more “misunderstood” than “evil.” Their humanity, their human desires and feelings are still present in their reanimated bodies. Zombie-ism may infect people and give them a hankering for brains, but it cannot strip all of their personality and character. Warm Bodies, for example, retells Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: the zombie R falls in love and begins an ill-fated relationship with a very human Julie—talk about star-crossed.

In iZombie, Liv Moore (get it?) is infected by a zombie but is able to maintain her own personality by eating brains. She transfers to the morgue to ensure a constant supply of cranial sweet-meat. This allows her to maintain her life and most of her relationships while her boss searches for a cure. While eating brains allows Liv to “stay Liv,” there are side-effects: she temporarily adopts the memories and characteristics of the person whose brain she ate. In other words, in order to maintain her sense of self, Liv must do something that causes her to behave in ways she doesn’t act and to remember things that didn’t happen to her. Under the co-supervision of Veronica Mars creator, Rob Thomas, the show explores themes of identity and morality—even zombie-morality.  

Culture’s fascination with zombies is complex and multi-faceted. On the one hand, zombies are empty slates on which writers and actors can project any number of analogies and metaphors. Zombies can reveal our helplessness in the face of global pandemics. As infected “patients,” zombies can challenge ideas about inherent evil and inhumanity.  They can also force us to consider our own humanity and our own emotional prejudices.

On the other hand, they’re just really freaking scary.

Michael Boyce

Michael Boyce

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Michael W. Boyce is afflicted with severe boredom because he has a brain the size of a planet and he seldom gets the chance to use it at its full capacity. He boasts of a Ravenclaw education and we consider him to be our Yoda.

Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
Michael Boyce