A collection of essays and aphorisms about the undead in recent fiction.
The Z World: Essays on The Will to Life and Death
Watch enough zombie movies and you begin to think that it is the z world is real and we are the ones living in a fantasy. There is something about the z world that brings everything we think we know about the world into question. Humanity versus the inhuman, civilization versus disorder, religion versus irreligion, language versus growls, reason versus instinct, life versus death. Is there a sub-genre that is as thoroughly philosophical in its every component as that of the undead?
The z world is about everything in the sense that it is humanity striped of its patina of order. Nothing works, people no less than technology. We usually think of civilization’s breakdowns as outliers, mere accidents along to the usual by-the-number conga line of Progress and order. Disruptions to this optimistic assumption of Progress and its violent failures are diminished in our rosy-colored minds.
The facts that the same championed technological wonders are also found in heinous inventions – the hydrogen bomb, DDT and Agent Orange, Teflon, dioxin, Twitter – don’t seem to dim our grand hopes, a mere case of the whoopsies besmirching the bullish onward-ho trajectory of Progress. People make mistakes, but not “Progress” itself, Progress is never a mistake. Its autonomy, and its manifestations must never be questioned – to infinity and beyond!
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic we still think of this as an exceptional time before normal onward-ho civilization trailblazing gets “back on track.” Back on track with the bull markets, Netflix cues, basketball brackets, robust economic projections, record profits, the mission to Mars, plug-in cars with range, cheap solar panels and the invention of the Everlasting Gobstopper. Celebrate wins, ignore losses. Win friends, influence people. American success with every clang of the New York Stock Exchange bell. This good ole “privatized profits and outsource risk” gambit is back on baby, time to get back to the Great Hustle.
As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Indeed, onw must stand in awe of the human capacity for sustaining the endless theme park rides of this postmodern fantasyland. So we don’t think of breakdowns as the norm. We’ve ignored breakdowns, obfuscated and deflected them. We said the oil spills will just be swept away, that the summer heat will kill the virus, that the ice cap melt is a hoax, that the toxic chemicals dumped on poor people won’t get any press. Anything that gets in the way of the fantasy is dismissed as a lie, a hoax, or a dubious trick of our rivals to spit in our drink.
Enter the realm of the undead. Societies, values, languages turned asunder. Everything. It says, “here, deal with this now. – Ghouls are a-comin.”
“Dear God, It’s Me, Zomboy”
Jesus taught that man lives not by bread alone. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor countered what is man without bread? In the z world, the Grand Inquisitor has his way. All the sacred calves of society are molten down. There is no art, no sublime acts of culture, no noble deeds, only bare-knuckled survival. Without carbs bloating in the belly, how can humanity spare a moment for sublime contemplation of the soul?
What use is salvation in a world so clearly and thoroughly damned? What use is a savior in such a place? What use religion? Which of the world religions has the best response to the z world? It’s all fine and dandy if you want to think of the z world as an old Testament wrath of God sort of thing, and while it’s a humbling world to say the least, there’s little by way of a path of redemption. Unless you think God will somehow resolve the zombie crisis by some sort of miracle cure. Some Benny Hinn type would be prophet to lay miracle hands on the walking dead – “get out demon!”
The z world presents a unique challenge to human faith because the condition itself is inhuman, er, unhuman, er, dehumanizing. Well, all three. A reason for this is that the zombie as an icon crosses the boundaries of the living and the dead. In this way, the zombie is a human who has been deanthropomorphized.
There is nothing human about the zombie, at least not culturally, theologically, linguistically or socially. It’s why we have a different word for them, for they are not us, of the human sphere of relation. The personality, the soul of a person has been zapped, leaving only the ragged, starving, enraged body. It’s a collection of meat and bone shore free of personality or individuality.
Yet there is another way of looking at this. Zombies remain human in the biological sense. In fact, human all too human, as it were. They are humans stripped of the frontal lobe’s leadership. Pure, embodied, disgusting humanity. Humanity let loose in its most grotesque antaotomical form, a living, breathing deformity. Humanity as a biological terror itself, spreading as it does, like a virus over the planet.
The zombie subgenre is not often considered a cosmic horror, but it really is if we take to mean that cosmic horror, or Lovecraftian style horror, is one in which the real terror is tearing apart the veil of consciousness to lay bare the awe of the endless abyss around us. It’s an abyss that stretches the entire universe except for the three bounds of electrically charged meat in our skull. There is no exit, no grace, no benevolence to pacify ourselves, just a three eyed spaghetti monster from Planet X. While there is no God, there is something like a devil, and it alone rules the metaphysical puppet show of the universe. The end game of the Lovecraftian horror sits in the same ballpark.
Only the terror of the z world is not Planet X. The terror is us. The terror is the realization that under the veneer of culture and language and all that crap is just blood, guts, and endless desire. The terror is that that biological striving is reality. And everything else is a footnote to its dominance.
Tick-Tock: The Zombie Calendar
No wonder so many z world narratives reset the Gregorian calendar. The time of the outbreak is year zero. Before year zero there were people. After year zero, unpeople.
The irony in revamping the calendar is that time itself, and the means to measure it, remains a human invention. Zombies don’t wear watches. And save for weather patterns and the rotation of the earth which clocks the simple binary of night and day, zombies don’t give an undead crap about any sense of time whatsoever. Only the human survivors reset the calendar, they alone are left to reconstruct time, along with the rest of whatever remains of human society or sanity. The Gregorian calendar, replaced by the Zombie calendar, is a marker of history around the axis of the dominant culture’s master narrative. For the Gregorian Christendom, history revolves around Christ and the redemption of humanity within the canopy of the cross-holder religion. This move itself is not just logocentric, but places the human at the center of existence in that moral universe.
When the Zombie calendar replaces it, the human has been decentered, and the moral universe obliterated. Time has been deanthropocentrized. Humanity is no longer the lead actor in the universe, but they’re reduced to a supporting role, a guest star on a soon to be cancelled television show called “The Zombie Hour.” And it doesn’t just progress from a beginning to now, but ticks down from now until the final seconds when people will stop caring about clocks and calendars whatsoever. A time when we’re all walking slobbering heaps of rotting meat. Which, we kind of are anyway.
The terror of the zombie isn’t an otherness, but a familiarity. The zombie is us. Any one of us. Once the zombie exists in the world, there really isn’t anything else to talk about.
Want to know the meaning of the world? Having a mid-life crisis? Want to know your place in the universe? Step right up, the book of zombie has the answer for you. He’s solved all your woe-is-me problems. You always wondered what your destiny was, and here it is it, from rotting lips to your ears: your fate is to become one of them. Forget about your worries, forget about your cares. No use bitching about your life. One bite and you’ll be relieved of all that circuitous tail-chasing and be at peace.
Could zombism be packed as a lifestyle choice? If so, it’s one that sells itself. No advertisement is necessary. No snake oil, no slick ad campaign, no sales pitch, and no b.s. What you see is what you get. No soul and no mind. No worries, no boredom, nothing to endlessly kvetch about. If not for the rotting body and all the cannibalism crap that give moralists a conundrum or two, it’s not altogether unappealing on the face of it. Zombie life’s very existence taunts the living human with “see – you too can become this. Step right up and grab a bite today.”
But the zombie life style I would expect is the one narrative I’ve not seen in z world lore. Where are the humans who desire to become zombies? In vampire lore, there is the trope of the familiar, the human slave of the vampire who has been glamour into a servile role in the hopes of one day being the lucky recipient of the vampire’s kiss. The zombie bite doesn’t promise a sexy allure per se – unless that’s your kink – not judging. And if you had the choice between the kiss of the vampire and the kiss of the zombie, the difference is hyyuge. The z-bite is beyond the gothic vampire chic. It’s somehow even more nihilistic, more metal, to become zombie. The closest might be the Ripper cult of Days Gone, which we’ll come to in full. But while the Days Gone Ripper cult worships the undead, the cruel irony seems to be the zombie’s total lack of interest in them. Unrequited love is a bitch.
Z world narratives usually revolve around survivalists struggling, doing whatever they can to muster up and get on. But there is another approach, where the overwhelming prospect of the planet being overrun by ghouls sets with the human spirit a malaise of existential paralysis. Everyone becomes a Holden Caufield, bitching about everything but unable to do anything. Taken to an extreme, the genre can engender total loss of will.
Maybe this is what Jim Jarmuch was trying to do in his zombie farce The Dead Don’t Die – where the characters are shocked and paralyzed into submission, the performances so deadpan and bored that the actors probably thought they would be better off dead than on that film shoot. The boredom of the plot itself is sparse and peters out long before its end time. It’s like the film production itself didn’t even care to live any more. It’s amazing the cameras didn’t just give up in futility, the celluloid itself not wanting to capture the images. The malaise of the film itself transferring to the audience. So, of course the seats at Cannes were empty, and silent save for the seat backs clapping shut when the audience left. Folks didn’t want to watch, must less review it. The final judgement on the pillory of the Rotten Tomatoes score might be the end zone of the zombie’s petrifying gaze. Now that’s some meta pessimism. And if that was the aim, then bravo, it might be the best undead movie ever.
The z world is so rough, so unforgiving, that it insists on a world of instability. And in a sense, a stern, warrior like path of enlightenment. It isn’t like Hinduism, which takes a languid, oceanic view of the cosmos where souls are endlessly reincarnated. It’s more like Tibetan Buddhism. Enlightenment can happen anywhere, in an instant, given the right circumstances. Given the right pressure. Enter the Zombuddha.
Zombuddhism is a terrifying new worldview where in three microwave minutes you can go from a frozen noob to a born-again mouth-burning hot pocket of religious fervor. Being chased by a pack of slobbering ghouls has that effect on people. Among the survivalist community, one is either lucky or unlucky, and the less attached one is to the moral coil, the better off one will be.
Zombuddha says the world is suffering, decay and illusion. The z world is a giant Bardo, a process of the Tibetan Book of the Dead where demon Buddhas called Mahakala flail the ego of its attachments to the world. Everything you ever loved, obliterated. Only then do the souls reach the bliss of nothingness.
Was this the sweet release of the Days Gone Ripper cult? Does their bummer religion include zombie saints? The Dali Lame-o? Why not? The zombie has no attachments, no cares, no ambitions, no desires. It does not have children, it has no job, no family, no commitments, and it does not navel gaze. It only lives in the state of the non-living.
Has the Zomboddhisatva transcended suffering? Do zombies suffer? One could take their cries and wails and outright hunger for sweet human flesh as a sign of desire, but this is mere biological happenstance. Perhaps even momentary exuberance, as when a begging dog is fed. The zombie shows no more suffering than a bird, or the worm that it eats. Essentially the zombie is nothing other than what nature already is: tubes. As Bukowski wrote in The Post Office, “The whole ocean is nothing but mouths and assholes, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.” The zombie is rather in a placid state of nature’s tubes and cylinders. Mouths on one end, assholes on the other. Like amoebas and anacondas, the pope, the Dali Lama, and even zombies, poo.
In a kind of Georges Bataille type way, perhaps the zombie is the ecstatic saint for our time. If zombies had angels, wouldn’t it be Hellraiser’s Pinhead? A bondage maestro with a penchant for low-gauge acupuncture? A harbinger spirit of transcendence beyond pain and pleasure? A rotting, continually dying being in blissful oneness and presence. A figure of transcendence and martyr of the sins of humanity? Is this a figure of repentance for times yet to come? If that’s the case, why not become a zombie? Why not join the body? Why not rush headlong into the horde for sweet release? Moksha. Nirvana. Ah, bliss! Bliss and tranquility! Cool beans, are those my entrails!?
Warm Bodied Z-Demption
If one has undergone the contemplations of the Bardo and returned to the everyday world, one might have an interesting choice to make. Remain in the land of the dead souls, or return to the living. It can’t be an easy choice. The Buddha thought humanity wasn’t ready for the received wisdom. Beatific visions from the desert are seldom taken well back home. As Orpheus discovered, escaping the land of the dead successfully is difficult. Is there hope of return from the undead? What does that look like?
Warm Bodies is that heretical film in z world lore that proposes a way back from the grave. It’s a zombie flick by way of Romeo and Juliet. A zom-com. Romeo eats Mercucio and gets the hots for Juliet, and kidnaps her to protect her from the really bad zombies, skeletons who are just too mean, too deprived of flesh, and too far gone from the grace of God to return. Are the zombies too far gone? Is there a warm soul left in their cold walking cadavers? Well, a one Romeo P. Zombie has a heart that lights up like E.T. at Christmas when he gazes upon his true love. Toss in a dash of Frankenstein and a pinch of Sleeping Beauty, and Warm Bodies takes shape as Romeo’s heart itself gets infectious. So infectious that the other zombies hearts glow too and they can Care Bear stare their way to reacceptance by the humans and President John Malkovich.
What is Warm Bodies exactly? More Zom-com than horror, that’s for sure. But its playful mixing of genre hits the heart of the z world narrative. It’s connection that helps us survive in the direst of circumstances. And sure, the universe is an infinite cold dark hostile godless void out there, but it’s the little things that are merciful. It’s that crazy little thing called love that keeps us truckin in the darkest hour.
An overlooked Irish film takes such an obvious approach to the subject it’s hard to fathom its novelty. It also just might, in a subtle way, be the third 28 Days Later sequel we’ve been waiting for in disguise. In Cured, a zombie vaccine is discovered and the undead are getting their shots. Some of the successful cases are starting their long journey to reintegrating into society. The humans, though, who well remember their loved ones getting torn to bits and eaten by the undead, still have an axe to grind as the once-were-zombies take baby steps toward reintegration. It’s hard to watch Cured and not think of the “troubles,” as it’s euphemistically called in Northern Ireland. As if somehow the film makers took The Cranberries song “Zombie” quite literally and placed the actual undead in a kind of dour Irish setting of restorative justice. It’s not just the people who are undead, but the undying nature of the violence itself. It would help to have a little of Warm Bodies’s optimism of love in the mix, but the glowy hearts would be a bit much in this undead Ireland. No word yet on a Brexit-related sequel.
The Puppet Master
Rarely have I ever, and perhaps never, have I seen a zombie attack another zombie. Perhaps in a video game a zombie got carried away and wailed at another. But no, this isn’t something that happens. Why not? It would save them a lot of trouble. There always seem to be more zombies around. Seldom are zombies alone. It’s much more common to see them more or less in hordes lumbering around, bumping into each other. Of course, if one were to analyze this in the obvious way of parables, we could say they “represent” mass man, whether that be the mindless hordes of fascist rallies, communist mind control, or consumerism. The mass-ness of zombies are a prime feature of their being. The most extreme version of the horde occurring in World War Z, where the zombies resemble ant colonies, their behavior that of a swarm animal. And like masses of locusts or midges or godwits in flight, take on cloud shapes, obeying some complex equation and guided by some primordial instruction giving their movement form.
Zombies in this sense don’t have a master mind, don’t have a boss. Older zombie tropes more directly related to the original voodoo meaning of the zombie are different. Zombie here meaning mindless drone, a slave. The puppet master is somewhere else, controlling them with magic.
Bird Box’s Life Against Death
While not a strict zombie narrative, Bird Box tiptoes around what might be considered a cultish psychological zombism. It definitely has survival group horror and poses questions peculiar to the genre. The world this time not menaced by traipsing undead ghouls but by mysterious creatures from dimension x. Nameless, formless voids, the very sight of which drives the beholder to madness. One look at creature x will turn a sane person against themselves, surpassing all reason or even self-preservation at all, catapulting them to instantaneous suicidal acts. It’s high concept cosmic horror, and where normally the it, the thing, the creature, the goo, fog, mist, spaghetti and meatballs, bouncing Michelin tires, or whatever other protean bugbear of Lovecraftian horror tropes has some sort of heinous physical quality, here the horror is completely invisible, devoid of even form.
Is creature x, whatever it is, the will-to-death itself? Is it somehow able to hack the security system of the organism, bypassing the body’s will to survive? Bird Box is somehow all this and more, as the humans are pitted in a kind of struggle between two forces of nature. The will to death on the one hand, and the will to life on the other. The later more optimistic force of humanity shaping up in child care, cowgirling up, and bringing up babies – yeehaw!
In this sense, though, Bird Box plays with the same metaphysical roadmap as the Final Destination movies. Remember those films, where the grim reaper set up these ridiculously complicated Rube Goldberg machines of fated death? And somehow survivors had to puzzle things out and grab a four leafed clover or purple horseshoe or some other shit to miracle their asses out of reach of Charon’s long boney arm. If there is any benevolent spirit in Bird Box, it’s got something to do with birds, blindness, and very, very cautious variety of human kindness.
Body Snatched: The Near Living Dead
It’s kind of a twin to the z world. An under-used twin. And an under-utilized horror trope. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been made into four feature films. A fifth, The Puppet Masters, is a close twin as well. Like a zombie planet, though, the pods of the body snatchers are driven by a primordial force of nature, desire to spread everywhere, and replace normal humanity with something else. That something else might look human, but it’s decidedly not.
Zombies are easy enough to spot apart from humans. Their eyes turn color, they start screeching and screaming a lot, and typically have wounds, rotting flesh, and I imagine they smell worse than they look. Pod people, however, are total doublegangers of normal humans. They’re difficult to distinguish. In fact, you would have to be darn right perceptive to detect one. Their walk might be different, they might speak differently. The shifts are subtle. And where zombies rage and froth at the mouth and so on, pod people are placid, almost Zen-like in their countenance. The main complaint of the pod people is their asceticism, their lack of passion, gusto, the spirit of humanity and that old rot. In short, they’ve become somewhat vegetal.
As in z-world narratives, in the world of the body snatcher too there never seems to be any humans who actually want to turn into a pod person, even when the secret’s been found. This, despite what at the outset seem to be some pretty positive traits of these walking brussels sprouts. They don’t have lust, or anger, or jealousy. They aren’t irrational, don’t commit genocide or war. In short, the turbulence of the human will is muted. They attest to a sense of inner peace and serenity in the collective mind of the body, the great pumpkin that unites all vegetal replicants. Like a new age church from the seventies. It seems they might even get some business if they advertised a little, put up billboards and ads on Instagram promoting the cabbage lifestyle as the hippest newest Zen treatment to rid one’s self of negativity. They could get Gwyneth Paltrow as a spokesperson, her golden locks, soft cheeks, and pearly whites enthusiastically pitching the gospel of the cabbage patch. “Hail, hail, Miracle Grow!”
Of course, the main complaint about the pod people is the loss of one’s individual personality. Oy vey, if I had a nickel each time I heard that old nugget. As if people were so individualized. Tell the masses they’re not individual and the army of free thinkers on Instagram would have a fit. It’s not individuality that people are cherishing, but perhaps reserving the right to reactively complain about it, shout some screed about avenging themselves in some vague terms in the name of anti-authoritarianism and anti-conformism. Which is, ironically of course, itself laying the foundation of authoritarian conformity. At least that’s how we like our totalitarianism here in America.
There is something suspicious about the paranoia about pod people itself. In being suspicious of the other, and fearing the transformation into a broccoli crown, what is the individual wanting to preserve? It seems like the pod person brings a tremendous relief. It seems that no narrative wants to go there. Instead, the narratives so far have been conservative in the respect that the aim of the heroes is to avert pod people to help the reader or audience accept their life as it is, warts and all. It’s better to be a flawed individual than a collective creature existing in the fruit of sinless perfection.
Narratives always tend toward the conservative, preservationist modality. Save the planet, solve the crime, protect the ranch, rescue the princess, retain the honor.
Star Trek’s iPod People
There’s more tying Star Trek to Body Snatchers than just Leonard Nimoy’s condescending psychiatrist in Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 horror masterpiece. Body snatchers in Star Trek took form in the Next Generation in a very science fiction way with the creation of the Borg collective. Instead of cabbages replacing people with a kind of vegetative passivity, it’s computer chips, hoses, holograms and kinky sadomasochistic gear that makes them look like extras from a Marilyn Manson video. Body snatchers induces “is he or isn’t he” paranoia. Borg induce body horror panic, making us ask “what’s this wiggly gadget on my eyebrow do?”
The Borg are insanely strong and go about the universe hoovering up cultures, absorbing them into their hive mind. The villains were an instant hit among trekkers, demonstrating within Star Trek a kind of technophobic horror. For a show in love with the utopian hopes of technology, the narratives of technology gone too far are notable.
The Best of Both Worlds, the iconic two-parter that cemented Next Generation’s legacy as rather more than just a knockoff the original show, was one of those moments that Trek dipped a toe into the body horror subgenre. The Borg ship, a cube-shaped haunted house. Babies intubated into the matrix. Millions plugging themselves into their recharging cradles like so many iPhones. Captain Picard turns into Hellraiser. Hacked, cut up, implanted with a power supply, a USB port, and a wi-fi connection, effectively turning him into the mass murdering puppet Locutus. What if he stayed that character for a season, or forever? Oh, how much greater the show would have been.
It is the simplicity of the Borg that is remarkable. They move about the galaxy like an unstoppable force of technological evil. They’re like the Thing, the It, there is something uncanny, ultimately unknowable about them. It’s unfortunate that this suspense could not be sustained in Star Trek. The Borg in this sense were like Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees. They started terrifying prima facie. We would have been content just to be occasionally terrorized by this race from the far reaches of the galaxy, escaping their grasp only by virtue of luck, or extreme guile, like a fox escaping the hounds. And the stakes in a universe permanently imperiled by the Borg are great. At risk is the entire techno-utopian ethos of Star Trek, the threat of our electronic toys turning against us, absorbing us into it, withering ourselves into its autonomous will. This was Heidegger’s fear of technology manifested. The ultimate weapon, breaking the will to survive, the will to be an autonomous being.
But then, the inevitable trap of over-writing came in. It’s the same trap that waters down every horror franchise from Jaws to Halloween to Hellraiser to Nightmare on Elm Street. The Borg came out full force in Best of Both Worlds and peaked at the same time. Every Borg narrative thereafter has been a steady watering down of Next Gen’s second greatest villain (after Q). Over-exposure and over- explanation erased the aura, the mystery, and the danger with the false need to “explain more”. Each sequel became a parody. We didn’t need Hue’s mopey regrets. Or Lore’s splinter groups of Borg jihadists. Or Seven of Nine’s catsuits and PTSD’d flashbacks to Borgian hell. Or whatever the hell they’re doing in Star Trek: Picard. It’s better for the Borg to be a cypher, a technological force under which resistance is futile. (A tag line, which, by the way, should induce memories of terror, not self-mockery.)
Pod Save Us: The Matrix
The Matrix is the only narrative that comes to mind that attempts a reversal of the body snatchers. In other words, the horror isn’t about fearing becoming assimilated or absorbed, because everyone has already been absorbed. The fear is, rather, of breaking out into the real world.
In a sense the Matrix has refined the Borg assimilation so well that people don’t even know themselves as people. They don’t even know they’re pods and enslaved to the simulations of the hive. And the simulation isn’t too bad. I mean, it was the 1990s! The escaped survivors in the “real world” have a much rougher go of things.
Our allegiance as an audience is with the humans, of course. But the narrative turns and challenges our simple Manichean polarized expectations. The machine world is not necessarily malevolent. Humans are merely a kind of resource of biological matter. From the perspective of the machines, they already view us as zombies, as these hordes of slow-witted desiring anatomical blobs of matter and energy.
A million things could be said about the Matrix films, but here’s a worthy experiment: watch the films with the thought that Agent Smith is the tragic hero. His great quote, “Humanity is the disease of this planet, and we are the cure.”
Rippers and the Will-to-Death in Days Gone
In the zombie post-apocalyptic back road hellscape of Days Gone lies another pitch-dark meditation on life and death. Days Gone plays like a hybrid between Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare and The Last of Us. In The Last of Us, Joel, a grief bearded rogue protects a vulnerable teen. In Days Gone , a grief bearded biker Deacon St. John protects a wounded blood brother.
Days Gone is littered with a host of enemies of both living and dead variety. Among the living, marauders and wackos of some sort or another, and of course, swarms of “freakers” (the fleet footed rage zombie variety). But there is another, scarier, somehow more insidious foe – the rippers. Rippers are a kind of apocalyptic cult whose major hobbies include snorting angel dust, shaving their heads and carving runes into their scarred bodies. They also pass their time by and flaying skin off unsuspecting travelers in order to sacrifice them to the freaker hordes, which come out of their caves at night in their multitudes, shuffling their feet, gyrating like chickens and grazing the land for smoked meats and h2o.
There is a perverse curiosity to the Rippers’s world. The name is scary enough, and not at all subtle, conjuring the lovely tearing and searing of flesh, and the sweet satisfaction of knives impaling viscera. The name is Ripper, as in “Jack-the,” or as in “rape”. Pumped up on PCP as it were – a powerful tranquilizer and hallucinogen – rippers feel no pain as they carve and sear their slogans in their flesh. These usually take the form of variations of R-I-P, or rest-in-peace. Lovely.
But Rippers are really the R.I.P.-ers. The rest-in-peacers. They worship the undead. That’s right, worship the undead. Which begs the question, what does it mean to worship … death itself? What does it mean to see in the undead a savior? What is it about the sight of a rotting face that screams redemption?
It’s a proposition that in a sense contradicts basically every other human ethos for life itself. Could it be that when the zombie apocalypse came that the entire ideology of civilization broke down? All idealism? All transcendentalism? All logocentrism? All ethics, morals, principles, gods – all gone once the living consciousness of the world died? What use are language, culture, music – to zombies? Life, once debased to the most basic of urges of the will – is only eating, sleeping, and continuing, likewise.
Rippers have no names, no identities. Their repentance of the world is a self-annihilation that brings peace, having turned their wills over to the undead. Their shelters not only have no power or modern amenities, there is a distinct lack of care or décor, or anything conducive to the comforts of life. There isn’t even a sense that they have anywhere to sit down to take a load off after a long day of tanning hides for the publication of the Ripper pillow book. There is no alliance with the will-to-live here. There is only is opposite, the will-to-death, which is something of a stamp of another post-Schopenhauerian German pessimist, Phillip Mainlaender.
In brief, Mainlaender suggested that the universe exists only for the sake of its own disintegration. The universe began with a primordial unity but as it develops and spreads, points a long trajectory toward disintegration. While Mainlaender’s philosophy predates any theory of cosmology’s singularity or the Big Bang or anything like that, it does accurately describe the current prevailing theory of the universe. The universe as we live in it currently has a form and structure, an inherent organization of matter which can support life, but in the distant cosmic future, as galaxies age and spread into the infinite void, the cosmos will no longer be able to support this organization. It’s a theory charmingly nicknamed “the heat death of the universe.” Mainlaender somehow foretold this process as his ontology, that all life is on a trajectory of its own end, life exists only in its own wilting. And that this will-to-death itself is the only truthy Truth of the world. To accept this grim fact is in a sense is an act of redemption. Mainlaender’s own demise punctuates his philosophical work, for he used his freshly published manuscripts as a step from which to hang himself in 1876 at the age of thirty-four.
And while not specifically a theist in any traditional sense – to believe in a benevolent God here would be nothing but a cheery-eyed reaction formation. The universe is the slow rotting body of God. God is dead – or, rather, undead – and we are all part of the cosmic corpse.
The zombie of Days Gone is the traditional sort of zombie. The rage-filled, hungry devourer, the stinking corpse of humanity. The rotting avatar of the slowly rotting cosmos. The zombie Christ. Days Gone’s Ripper cult exists to deliver humanity to its inevitable fate, death itself. And this is the act of redemption. Ego death and bodily transfiguration into the mass. Resignation to the zombie collective. The peace of death promises a release from the pressures of consciousness and freedom. Rest in Peace … brrrr…
A Bleaker Black Summer
An even bleaker vision than Days Gone, or even the Walking Dead, is Netflix’s exceptional Black Summer. A series from Z-Nation alums, the series paints an ultra-bleak vision of human frailty in a survival horror version of the zombie apocalypse. It is properly the opposite of The Santa Clarita Diet in every way and goes for more of a Cormac McCarthy The Road vibe or even The Last of Us where desperate humans are just as deadly, conniving and violent as the infected. No character is especially reliable, or reasonable, or guaranteed to live for very long.
The value of life in Black Summer is fragile, and, like a gnat circling the blue light of a bug zapper, likely brief. There is scarcely any time for even developing a coherent worldview, a stable community of survivors, or a leadership hierarchy. Everything is so fraught with risk and terror that the scarce human tribes that do emerge turn out to be Draconian societies reminiscent of sadistic military school boy’s club of the Lord of the Flies.
What is there left to live, (or die), for in a world without humans? This theme continues to pop up among characters in their encounters. Invariably when these groups get together, they try to elicit trust in strangers by trying to seem relatable and familiar. The characters will talk about their families, and always talk about being a parent. Sometimes they will try to appeal to someone else saying “Are you a Christian?” A desperate plea in desperate times to elicit compassion and relatability, whether it’s true or not. The phrase “I have a son/daughter” becomes synonymous with “don’t kill me, I am needed.” Nice for them. Too bad for the childless.
The pleas of sympathy and compassion continually put the survivors at risk. The z world continually mocks the striving of basic human desperation. In a sense, this is the source of the horror – the loss of tribe, the loss of family ties. The Z world story trope is a product of mass society, not a tribal society. It’s this loss that echoes contemporary society. It’s why the genre maintains its fascination, reflecting the loss of human community.
Humans evolved within small tribal groups no more than 50 in number. In a tribe, everyone would know everyone else. Everyone would have a place and a meaningful role to contribute. Humans were not built for the kind of mass society of today. Its alienation, its anonymity, its vague paranoia of strangers, people living as total strangers right next to each other. Mass society imposed a new order, an order of the swarm, of mass consciousness, conformity, social mechanization. And while it might have rationalized instruments of monitoring and control, underneath remains a fundamental hunger of the body. The zombie horror trope is a product of this mass society, and showing its destruction always seems to be part of the fun of watching these pictures. They are in some sense a relief from neurosis of civilization.
One fun deconstructive reading of the zombie picture is to try to view the zombies as the collective heroes. This works with Black Summer. Imagine that Mother Earth wanted to shake off a few billion of its overpopulated apes and devised a clever virus to get them to eat each other. Humans are a plentiful food source, after all, so it would make a lot of sense if the zombies were strictly cannibalistic. And when they run out fresh bodies to eat, and since zombies don’t ever seem to eat other zombies, they too will start dying out from starvation. It would be pretty genius of mother earth, as within a generation, the slate would be wiped clean. If the zombie apocalypse were the will of God, it would be a much grosser version of the great flood. The few humans who squirreled away for long enough in their arks could bounce back in a new world – probably with a whole new and a yet unrecognizable tribal culture.
They Might be Nazis: Will-to-Life in The Santa Clarita Diet
The resurgence of the zombie trope since the 2000’s has perhaps reached a new peak once stories began to integrate the zombie from the otherness of the realm of the dead and pulled it into the domestic space. And when zombies came home, it came with the tone of the comedy. Think Shaun of the Dead, Life After Beth, Warm Bodies, i-Zombie, and The Santa Clarita Diet. The zombie became relatable, quasi-human, and slightly less gross than the slobbering decaying graveyard ghouls of many a Fangoria magazine covers. Sometimes they pass as human, reflecting our impulsive consumerist, passive, couch potato selves.
Will Self has traipsed into this territory with Great Apes and How the Dead Live tied this to Late Capitalism – basically a kind of storied acknowledgement that zombies are a lot like us – brain dead consumers, functionaries in the machinations of mass culture where the human subject itself has been absorbed. But it’s likely that it’s more than just capitalism, but a kind of recognition of ourselves in the zombie. It’s a recognition that beneath the veneer of consciousness, we are warm bodies who without the bare necessities of bread and shelter there is no space for reason. The will and striving of the hungry zombie mirrors that good old Schopenhauerian will and striving.
The Santa Clarita Diet shows the care we have for will and striving in insightful detail. When Drew Barrymore mysteriously becomes one of “them,” and requires a human-only diet to maintain herself, her family is brought into the dirty deeds of finding bodies, disposing of evidence, cleaning and hygienically handing the meat with endless supplies up Tupperware and Ziplock bags. They further devised a new ethics of food, restricting the diet to “bad” moral actors – Nazis, drug dealers, child molesters and so on, assuring that the supply of frozen meat pops would be the only the most morally impure.
The Santa Clarita Diet takes on undeath as a kind of lifestyle quest for ethical food. Its cheeky title recalls fad diets and ethical food trends. In Drew’s ubiquitous man-shakes and diet of blood and human viscera we are lead to believe give her increased energy and productivity. It’s revitalized her sex drive and engaged new and exciting parts of her shadow personality. Blood shakes and human steaks turn out to be oddly therapeutic, mommy’s little helpers, a bone-marrowed miracle cure for the neurotic suburban soccer mom. Living past the point of death brings new life. Let the hilarity ensue.
The extremities of this diet mirror to us our own behavior around our own food. Imagine how aliens visiting Earth would find it peculiar how humans trap cows within fences, fill them with drugs and chemicals, tag or brand them, sometimes artificially inseminate them, terminate the males, train them to walk into sheds where they are hooked up to sucking machines to extract milk from their manipulated engorged udders. Then the endless maze of tubes, stainless steel vats, processes of heating and cooling, pasteurizing and/or homogenizing, introduction of various microscopic fromage-inducing-cultures, wrapping in ash or wax, and aging barrels of milk fat in a cave for your manicotti’s delectable freshly-grated parmesan topping. It’s a lot of work to get the yum yums.
Isn’t this the real arch truth of the world? The entirety of life. For human and non-human alike, as Bukowski says, the whole world is mouths and assholes. The goal of all life is to eat while trying not to get eaten. Entire ways of life, entire strategies of being, entire cultures and religions can be traced to this fact of base existence. Cuneiform was invented by clerics to measure the larders of their grain silos for the Lugals of Ancient Sumer. The control of irrigation formed civilization, not vice versa. Who controls the grain controls the universe. The conquest of bread for millennia defining the flowering of culture from those who toiled the daily grind to those who owned the land by the will of the gods. And there is the opposite side of the spectrum – the doomsday preppers storing seed, field rations, astronaut food, buckets of country gravy sold by Jim Bakker on Revelation T.V. The man with the largest larder at the big beam up wins.
Any food you have is almost as ludicrous – between GMO wheat and Wuhan grizzly bear “farms” of the wet market – the human food supply is as goofy as the Santa Clarita Diet. It goes so far that one could question the basic taboo against cannibalism. Humans, are, perhaps only after rats, the most plentiful mammal on the planet. Considered in the light of pure biological striving, why not cannibalism? Why can’t Drew Barrymore cull the heard of its worst actors. They might be Nazis, but they are yum.
The Santa Clarita Diet’s dark humor comes from its pessimism. The world, for the great German arch-pessimist Schopenhauer, is made up the will to live and our transitory ideas of the world. The more consciousness one has, the more one suffers. He thought suppressing the wily desires of the will with asceticism might be a key to living a more content existence. Schopenhauer was the first to admit this might only be a temporary fix, because humanity is basically cursed anyway.
We’re cursed by the will’s own striving, and cannot be free of it. We’re never free of our inner zombie. It just wants more. Santa Clarita Diet is about this striving. There are no higher ideals to live for, no meaning, no salvation. There is only the plastic, the freezers, the Tupperware, the Ziplock baggies, and all the other instruments of nourishing one’s self in the endlessness of the will-to-live. My favorite quote from the show when Drew responds to her low karma footprint diet “I’m not interested in doing God’s work, I’m just hungry.” Yeah, that about sums it up.