January 10, 2013

Necrophilia: The Rise of the Zombie Apocalypse

    Why do we like zombie apocalypses so much? It’s not a new idea; Shakespeare’s age was obsessed by the idea of Judgment Day, which was much more morbid then than we tend to think of it now. People painted the dead walking out of their graves. My professor says you can see the fear and morbid fascination with the idea in Shakespeare’s plays. Think of all the bloody ghosts; think of Romeo’s and Juliet’s statues; think of the improbable resurrections. 

      Resurrection is there, too, of course; America is a predominantly Christian nation, and even those who aren’t Christian are often shaped by Christian culture and ideas, as I have been, and Christianity revolves around one particular member of the walking dead: Jesus Christ himself. Every schoolchild who learns about the resurrection of Christ must have, deep down, a slight, niggling wonder: if Jesus can come out of his grave, well, who else might? Is death really permanent? What if we come back not in the heavenly, angelic sense, but in the physical, putrefying sense? Zombies combine familiar religion with the adolescent fascination with death and the grotesque for a dazzlingly disgusting effect; no wonder so many people watch The Walking Dead

     The zombie apocalypse appeals to a particularly American way of thinking in more ways than the religious, however; it’s a violent fantasy world wherein every man really is for himself, independence is paramount, guns are requisite and killing one’s neighbors (once they’ve been infected, of course) is more than necessary, it’s heroic. Zombies are human, but not really; to kill a zombie is to murder, but without the guilt. It’s a first-person-shooter fantasy that absolves the human being pulling the trigger: not only are zombies the enemy, they are no longer human. It’s putting them out of their misery. It’s us versus them, and they are blatantly cultureless, blatantly soulless, blatantly mindless. The protagonists of zombie apocalypse stories can be antiheroes that are really just heroes; they can kill without losing the moral high ground. There’s the illusion of moral complexity without real ambiguity. 

     This isn’t to say that that’s all all zombie movies or shows do, not at all; I simply think that this is why the general idea thrives. The Walking Dead, for instance, delves into complexity when it examines the human-human relationships under the stress of the end of the world, with the threat of a member of us becoming one of them, and so no longer him-or her-self, dead but not dead, ever-present; it asks what makes us human, civilization or something more intrinsic, something we carry with us (it’s also brilliantly materialistic; humanity is, quite obviously, lodged in the physical brain and destroyed when the zombie virus hits the brain, physically). It asks whether moral absolutes exist, and doesn’t always give us a clear answer. 

     But why are zombies so popular right now? Perhaps because of the economy; perhaps because we as a culture harbor secret Fight Club fantasies of destroying all the debt, equalizing everyone. Perhaps we dream of a world that involves physical and moral work, and that invokes necessity if not certainty. Perhaps it is a response to the cultural critiques that call us metaphorical zombies, enslaved to our 9-to-5 jobs or our electronics or the Internet or Facebook or TV– all the things a real zombie apocalypse would destroy. We live with the threat of an epidemic of a strange and deadly disease (which makes us afraid of proximity to each other; epidemic diseases are communicable); we live with the fear of bioterrorism. We are concerned that we don’t know what the government is up to, and we haven’t trusted it since Fox Mulder first started investigating the paranormal (or perhaps not even since the 1960s). We are afraid of our own dependence on technology; we are afraid of globalization; we are afraid of being too disconnected from family and community; we are afraid of being too far from our roots; we are afraid of nature and that we don’t know how to survive “in nature.” We are afraid of medication and the loss of it; we are afraid of machines replacing people. We are, as we have always been, afraid of death. 

     I think the fear of and fixation on zombies in Shakespeare’s time was probably a result of the trauma of the plague and of a rapidly changing society; for us, it’s largely the same thing, only the plague is terrorism, or something. We are filled with a nameless anxiety about the shifting contours of the world. I’m not quite 22, and I’ve seen the world change immensely in my short lifetime. When I was small, we didn’t even have a home computer; no one did. No one really needed one. I remember cassette tapes. I remember dial-up Internet. I remember the reign of AOL and AIM. Facebook didn’t exist until I was a teenager; neither did smartphones. Tumblr didn’t exist until I was in college. And so quickly, these things have become indispensable to so many of us. My younger siblings don’t know what cassette tapes are. They barely know what flip phones and CDs are. They will probably never use a physical library card catalog. They have no idea what it is to be without a world of information in the palm of their hands or the pocket of their jeans, instantly accessible. 

    This kind of change, so fast and so apparently irreversible– it is exciting, but it also evokes fear and nostalgia. And a zombie apocalypse at once titillates us with terror and shows us a world that, paradoxically, soothes the fears of those of us who knew a different world. It shows us that older skills and technologies (like a bow and arrow, a Stone Age technology curiously ubiquitous in 2012’s blockbusters: younger kids had Brave‘s Merida, tweens, teens, and adults had The Hunger Games‘s Katniss, in a dystopic world requiring skills not unlike a zombie apocalypse, and everyone had The Avengers‘ Hawkeye, whose archery skills make him stand out, positively, in a world with Tony Stark’s technology) could still be relevant and necessary. All one has in the zombie apocalypse is family and memory. Communities are forged and draw close under threat. Globalization is firmly over; one can’t even contact the next state without walking there. The government might still exist, or might not, but it isn’t relevant; all one has is oneself, one’s survival skills, and, most importantly, the people around one. Watching The Walking Dead is like doomsday prepping lite. It simultaneously stirs and calms our fears about the churning uncertainty of our wild world, a world constantly on the brink of various collapses, metaphorical and literal: the fiscal cliff, the Mayan apocalypse, the point of no return for climate change. It’s a conservative, reactionary fantasy world, where we are reduced to the far-distant past and must cling to moral universals that may or may not really exist, while using a personal arsenal of guns to defend one’s family against unquestionably bullet-worthy intruders who literally want to eat your family– but it also reflects a certain reality. We are on the brink of immense social change on a global scale, like it or not; the way things are economically and socially is not sustainable. Paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college degree that may not be worth even a minimum wage job is not sustainable. Our actual planet is not sustainable. The two-party system as it stands in the US isn’t sustainable, nor is the cavalier way we treat guns, nor is our prison system, nor is post Citizens United electioneering. 

    What with all the problems we’re facing, no wonder some people think a zombie apocalypse is nigh. Perhaps dealing with that– a solution that mostly involves pointing, shooting, and  exploding zombie brains– would be simpler than coming up with workable solutions for our complicated real life problems on which we can all agree and cooperate. 

    Too bad. It’s what we have to do. This is how we keep humans going, guys. I suggest grabbing a book. As a Doctor who would be of enormous usefulness in a zombie apocalypse once said, they’re the greatest weapons in the world. 


   Arm yourselves. Trust me, the impact will be far more positive than doing so with a gun. 


May 30, 2011

The Modern Prometheus Meets DNA and the CIA

This is a little late, but I’ve seen the film Hanna twice and I absolutely love it. I was expecting a standard issue thriller, and really only went to see it because I adore Saoirse Ronan (she plays Hanna) and I needed a study break, but I was very pleasantly surprised. This was the first movie I’ve gone to see entirely alone and I’m exceedingly glad because it gave me the opportunity to do what I do best: analyze the shit out of that thing.

First, though, a little of what I don’t do well: summary. Hanna is the story of a young girl who was raised by her father not far below the Arctic Circle as a hunter/assassin extraordinaire, in an isolated world devoid of music and company but apparently full of languages– Hanna seems to speak them all. She has been trained for the specific purpose of killing a CIA agent, Marissa Wiegler, played by Cate Blanchett. Her father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), hasn’t told her why, but she accepts the mission as necessary for their safety. Once released into the world, Hanna experiences it as an alien, a complete stranger, having never seen electricity or experienced music, and understanding things like romantic kissing only through encyclopedia definitions.

To an anthropology student (and, admittedly, someone who not only scheduled her first kiss but went and looked up the encyclopedia entry on kissing immediately afterwards) this was in itself great fun, and much more interesting than the usual kick-ass, explosion-heavy, minimal-plot thriller I was expecting. Hanna’s introduction to the world as a very smart sixteen-year old– but one in some ways as naive as an infant– is well thought-out– there’s a particularly good scene in which she experiences sensory overload after discovering how to turn on, but not off, pretty much every electrical appliance in her hotel room, none of which she has ever encountered before. Hanna understands the world and interacts with it intellectually, not instinctively, but she clearly desires to make an emotional connection despite her training as a killer.

I probably would only have noticed the anthropological fun involved in Hanna if it hadn’t been for the previews. I happened to see the film in a theater that was also doing live streaming of London’s National Theatre’s Frankenstein, and I was also reading Shelley’s novel (along with, again, Paradise Lost, but that’s another post) in my seminar, so I was primed to notice the parallels between Hanna and Frankenstein. I also ended up seeing the live stream of the play twice, and that adaptation in particular resonates. If you only know Frankenstein from either the 1931 (with Boris Karloff) or the Hammer films, GO AWAY and immediately read the original because those films are abysmal in terms of being faithful to the text. The Creature, who reads Milton and Goethe and tells Victor Frankenstein that he’s not going to torture him, he’s going to reason with him, a dumb mute (yes, redundant, I know)? Ridiculous! The Creature is meant in many ways to be a better human being than Victor.

Anyway, if you don’t know the original Frankenstein (the National Theatre production is extraordinarily faithful except for the Creature’s relationship to old DeLacy, so if you’ve seen that stick around), you should be able to figure it out anyway, but I suggest reading the novel. And seeing the National Theatre production. As many times as possible. Spoilers for those and for Hanna ahead, so be forewarned. Also: warning for death by analysis.

Midway through Hanna, we, along with the eponymous protagonist, discover that she is not quite human in the traditional sense; she has been genetically engineered to be stronger, faster, and a better soldier…in a German facility…but we’ll ignore the Nazi allusions because they’re pretty obvious, though it’s made clear that this is “An American program,” so we’ve got an interesting split in terms of villainy. Because Ronan is my age, I know that we were both born either right before or just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the character she’s playing is a few years younger, so the Cold War– actually, more like World War II– style villains are a little annoying. I refer to them as the “frankly irritating band of German psychopaths,” but that’s just me. And the brains behind this little eugenics project is Blanchett’s cold, secretly neurotic, control freak CIA agent, victimizing German women with a German partner (Heller, Hanna’s father).

Hanna realizes, armed with a DNA report proclaiming her to be “abnormal,” that she is not like other girls, and not just because her father raised her that way. In fact, her father is not her father. Though she is of woman born, her “creator” is actually Marissa Wiegler, the CIA agent she is supposed to have killed. Wiegler instituted this program to build a better soldier, and, when it didn’t work out as planned, destroyed the products (re: children), except for Hanna, who was rescued by the man she believes to be her father. The destruction of the created beings by their creator echoes Victor’s horror and attempted destruction of the Creature, and Hanna’s attempt to destroy Wiegler in turn mirrors the Creature’s systematic destruction of Victor’s family ties. Marissa doesn’t have any family ties, because, to steal the title of an X-Files episode, she is the postmodern Prometheus. “I made certain choices,” she tells Hanna’s semibiological grandmother before shooting the old woman in the head. Marissa, like Victor Frankenstein with his progeny, won’t claim Hanna as her child, but only seeks her destruction, along with that of her “father.”

Again like the Creature, once set loose in the world, Hanna bonds with a human family. Since she looks like an ordinary girl, not a patchwork, 8-foot-tall, made-of-dead-bits monster, she can openly associate with and learn from this family, a hippie-ish British clan on vacation in Morocco– but she still hides, stowing away in their caravan, listening to their happy interactions and their music like the Creature learning the language of humanity from watching and listening in the DeLacy’s shed. As the Creature eventually (and much more briefly) befriends blind Mr. DeLacy, Hanna grows close to the daughter of the family, Sophie– but when Sophie sees Hanna acting according to her nature and killing, even to protect the family she has grown to love, Sophie turns from her in horror and runs away. Unlike the Creature, Hanna does not then set the family caravan on fire, but her presence with them has brought them to the attention of Marissa and the German psychopaths, and what happens to them–after the father and brother, one intentionally, the other innocently, sell Hanna out to Marissa– is unclear.

Finally, the film contains the characteristic reversal of pursuer and pursued that haunts Frankenstein, as does the question of where monstrosity truly lies. First, Hanna seeks out Marissa, as the Creature seeks out Victor; then, Marissa begins to pursue Hanna, as Victor does the Creature, to destroy him (I refer to the Creature as him, not it, because he is clearly male, thus Victor’s concern about reproduction). Reproduction and reproductive capability, though not Hanna’s, are at the heart of the film, as they are at the heart of Frankenstein. Victor produces the Creature because he is terrified of sex and normal reproduction; Marissa produces Hanna instead of a “normal” child because she has chosen her career instead of forming human relationships of any kind, including the parental. She, finally, tries to claim Hanna as her own; in their final confrontation, Hanna offers peace, saying “I don’t want to kill anyone anymore” and turning to walk away, when Marissa shouts “Don’t you walk away from me, young lady,” and shoots her, just as Hanna returns fire– quite a bit more effectively– with an improvised slingshot and an arrow. This is at once Marissa attempting to take ownership of Hanna and Hanna taking ownership of herself, creating her own purpose separate than that of her creator. Hanna’s rejection of Marissa, and fulfillment of her own mother’s prophecy (“She will never be yours”) causes a great and terrible fury to rise in Marissa, a fury of destruction resulting from her impotent realization that Hanna is better than she is. Despite having been biologically engineered and environmentally groomed to be a murderer, Hanna wants to engage peacefully with the world, to have the freedom to make friends and have relationships, something of which she, unlike Marissa, is clearly capable. Not only did Hanna turn out better than Marissa hoped, she turned out better than Marissa could have possibly imagined.