Friday, 16 December 2011

They're COMING for You, Barbara!


This past week, I watched the season finale for the excellent AMC series The Walking Dead.  I like the show on several levels - it's an entertaining melodrama which raises multifaceted issues, the acting is generally good, and let's face it, you can never get enough living dead shambling about threatening the protagonists in ever creepier ways.

File:Judith O'Dea clutching grave in Night of the Living Dead bw.jpg

Judith O'Dea, "Barbara" from the 1968
George A Romero classic that started it all

The show will return, apparently, in mid-February, so I've a couple of months to wait to see what is going to become of the shrinking band of survivors struggling to escape suburban Atlanta.

I've long enjoyed these sorts of films, whether the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, its various follow-on films (Dawn and Day), or similar films like the terrific 28 Days Later (from Danny Boyle, who went on to direct Slumdog Millionaire to great acclaim) or the re-imagined Dawn of the Dead from the early 2000s.

Oddly, one thing to the "zombie" movie genre is that one never hears the word "zombie" ever used by one of the characters.  "Ghouls."  "Things."  "Walkers."  Sure.  But never the "Z" word.  Even the recent best-seller, obviously about zombies, is titled World War Z.  Just cannot bring themselves to say it.  But I digress.

My wife hates them, and considers the whole premise ridiculous, but whenever I watch these films, there are several things I cannot escape thinking, and perhaps that's why they captivate me (and apparently, lots of other people).

First is, the irresistible temptation to imagine "what would I do if I were in that spot?  Would I be able to survive, and if so, how?"

It strikes me that in virtually all of these scenarios, the survivors would probably end up being OK if they were just able to keep their wits about them.  In 28 Days, the outbreak is contained to an island (in this case, Great Britain.)  Because the problem is spread, quickly, through blood, it's next to impossible to imagine how the epidemic could spread beyond the English Channel, and in fact, towards the very end of the movie, the protagonist lies at the edge of death, sure that the world is on the edge of being wiped out, when he sees the contrail of a jet flying over, as if nothing has happened.  OF COURSE, the virus is only in Britain, and the rest of the world has gone on pretty much normally, as is evidenced in the sequel.  And since the victims of "rage" become raving, homicidal maniacs, all that would be required would be to find a secure place, and wait for them to die of thirst or starvation - a few weeks perhaps.

The same is almost surely true in the other Dead-inspired movies.  One suspects that, given time, the undead would, quite literally, fall apart.  Though mobile, they are not immune to rot and decay (as the special effects of wizard Tom Savini attest), and if the living could just hang on and let nature take its course....

Interestingly, a "study" - a simulation - was done by a group of epidemiologists at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada was published in 2009.  They modelled various scenarios of zombie outbreaks, and the chances for the human race at survival, given various responses.  The results are not, to say the least, encouraging.  It's a bit math-heavy, but a very good read, IMHO.

Which brings me to one of the other unifying themes, and that is, in virtually all of these films and stories, the real "bad guys" turn out not to be the dead, but the living.  Yes; the zombies represent an existential, and omnipresent, menace.  But inevitably, it's panic and internal bickering that prove to be something the survivors cannot overcome.  There is as least as much blood shed by the protagonists as the zombies.

I suppose the writers are saying that, even when confronted with extinction, our innate nature to destroy each other cannot be controlled.

Finally, in several of the movies (28 Days in particular), an interesting, quasi-Dr Strangelove question is raised.  Soldiers near Manchester, England have set a sort of trap for survivors, promising food and protection for those who can make it.  It's revealed later that they intend to kill any men who arrive, and have other plans for the women.  The lieutenant, almost apologetically, explains when asked why such a monstrous plan was devised, that he promised his (all male) outfit that he would find some female survivors.
We fight off the infected or we wait until they starve to death... and then whatWhat do nine men do except wait to die themselves? 
In the films, at some point the issue of the value of survival is always raised, though perhaps not so bleakly as that.

It reminds me of the famous tortoise "Lonesome George," the last of his kind, living in the Galapagos Islands.  George, estimated to be between 90 and 100 years of age, is the last Galapagos Giant Tortoise.  Tortoises, for all their charm, and not particularly circumspect, but it's a rather sad idea to imagine that when he inevitably is gone, that's it, since there are no more females of his kind.

How would human beings react in such a situation?  In 28 Days Later, somewhat violently.

Anyways, Walking Dead returns in about eight weeks.  I'm marking my calendar.

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