Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Thinking about...zombies

Although not really a fan of the horror genre, I loved 28 Days Later, and am very much looking forward to seeing its sequel 28 Weeks Later when it is finally released in Germany.

While the film certainly looks exciting, viewing the trailer and other excerpts that I've been able to find online, inspires feelings of...well, dread, I suppose. And an odd sadness.

Perhaps it's the real-world references to the situation in Iraq, for instance (the deceptive security of a green zone, the seemingly inevitable slide toward chaos and destruction, the free-firing snipers), or perhaps it's contemplating an apocalyptic plague loosed upon a city I know relatively well and which has increasingly seemed haunted by a latent aura of vulnerability.

OK, I know, we are only talking about a zombie film here.

But 'zombies' have always been excellent symbolic tokens representing all kinds of real processes, fears, and darker corners of human psychology. The very notion of the 'undead'--not quite living, not quite dead--is inherently ontologically disquieting. Great horror films (or fiction, such as that from H. P. Lovecraft) have always generated a feeling that is really...unheimlich ('uncanny').

This is a feeling that, in another sense perhaps, underlies Haruki Murakami's fascinating book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, which I'm currently reading. As Murakami notes in his preface, he was partly inspired to write the book by a letter he ran across in a magazine from a woman whose family had been affected by the sarin nerve gas attack carried out in 1995 by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

'How on earth did this happen to us...?' she wonders, a question that Murakami recalls 'stuck in my head like a big question mark.'

And indeed, it is the essential everydayness of the stories of the people affected by the attack (along with the sinister fact that, unlike in a sudden explosion, it took hours for many victims to realise what had happened to them) which makes reading their experiences so...uncanny. That, as well as the maddening contingency of the semi-random circumstances that brought certain people to certain subway cars at certain times.

For their part, the perpetrators of the attack, the members of the Aum cult, seem strangely detached in their methodical, affectless determination.

Indeed, at times they resemble nothing so much as...zombies.

Perhaps its the very impersonality and relentlessly all-devouring nature of the killer virus (and its carriers) in the '28' films which makes them so shattering to contemplate. No negotiation is possible; reason is powerless.

The same could be said about death cults.

Philip French concludes his review of the film this way:

But the movie is ruthless and not only in the way it spares no one from plague and bullet. The chilling theme is that the road to hell on earth is paved with good intentions, starting with the well-meaning scientists and the animal activists who light the fuse, and continuing with those inspired by compassion and moral decency.
As in so many things here in the real world: there is no pony.

Which is, indeed, dispiriting.

Perhaps I should wait for the DVD.

So, it's maybe a good thing that Jonathan Coulton is around to add some much-need levity to the whole topic of brain-eating zombies. Here is his excellent song, 'Your Brains'.

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