October 19, 2013

A FAREWELL TO BRAINS by Stephen Kozeniewski

So, Billy assigned me a theme for this post, and I think I know why: because if he had left me to just cut loose, you would’ve all learned who the REAL coffee-addicted writer is. So I’m not going to talk about that. I’m not going to say a single, solitary word about that. One pot a day since I was twelve. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Anyway, I’ve been invited here to talk about my love of the zombie genre. First, let me qualify what, exactly, that does and does not mean. I am a purist after a fashion, though I think my definition of a zombie, while rock solid, is flexible enough to encompass a whole lot of ground. All I insist on is that a zombie must at some juncture have been dead. I cannot equivocate on that point.

I have no problem with the shambling corpses of Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Cemetery Man, Zombie, Fido, The Walking Dead, World War Z, The Rising, etc., etc. They all fall wholly into the Venn diagram counter-splice area of “dead” and “re-animated.” I’ll tell you where I draw the line, though: zombie-like behavior in the still-living.

Evil Dead? Evil Dead II? Both inestimable classics of horror and gore, but nope. Sorry. Zombie-like, perhaps, but living people possessed by Kandarian demons is too far off the mark.

Planet Terror? Perhaps the virus causes zombie-like symptoms, but these still-living infected people are decidedly NOT zombies. Resident Evil IV? Perhaps the greatest Resident Evil game of all time, but, sadly, Las Plagas parasites are no replacement for actual, clinical death. 28 Days Later? Doesn’t count. The Rage virus, while it again exhibits many zombie-like symptoms, only affects living human beings. No death or re-animation. Not a zombie movie.

(Note: I have no issue with “fast” zombies provided they are indeed the resurrected dead. That is not my issue with 28 Days Later. For instance, the Dawn of the Dead 2004 remake also features fast zombies and I don’t disqualify it in any way, shape, or form. Ditto Zombieland.)

Now, with that established, let’s talk briefly about the difference between cinematic zombies and real-world zombies. Yes, I did just say real-world zombies. How often we forget about Caribbean folklore in our work-a-day lives. Personally, everywhere I go I carry around a fetish doll made from a single red lock of my publisher’s hair, just in case I need her to give me more money or something.

First, I should point out that there is “good” Vodun and “bad” Vodun. While the good witch doctors or “houngans” serve an important function in Haitian society along the lines of a psychologist or priest, the bad witch doctors or “bokors” are pretty much universally feared and reviled. But, the claims of the bokors notwithstanding, the Haitian zombie is not, in fact, a properly re-animated corpse. In fact it is nothing more than a heavily sedated and hypnotized human being. A meat slave, if you will. The Haitian zombie neither eats flesh nor masses into groups (unless ordered to do so by the bokor). Nor is it reanimated spontaneously, but rather a person is doped up into a state resembling death and then reawakened in a highly suggestible state by means of the neurotoxin TTX. In short, the Haitian zombie’s reputation as a re-animated corpse is a lie, promulgated and perpetuated by the practitioners of bad Vodun.

(Editor’s note: There is no evidence to suggest that the disappearance of Stephen Kozeniewski shortly after publishing this guest blog is in any way related to the revelations he made in the last paragraph.)

In contrast, what I will call “cinematic zombies” as pioneered by Pennsylvania native and America’s greatest
national treasure George A. Romero are what most likely spring to mind for the average person: shambling, flesh-eating ghouls which can only be stopped with fire or by destroying the brain. Despite the fact that revenants and ghouls and the living dead exist in the folklore of every society in human history, it’s interesting and notable that the zombie in its current form is a product of modern moviemaking. How did one man, some forty-odd years ago, tap into emotions and fears so primal that it caused a revolution in our collective storytelling? But I could write a whole other blog post about that subject alone.

So, now that I’ve taken up nearly all of my allotted space to define my terms (well, really it was to establish my street cred, but you don’t know that unless you’re reading this sentence) I want to use my few remaining words to answer, or rather re-answer a question a good friend of mine once asked.

My former school chum and present unpaid lawyer Scott once asked me, “What is the appeal of zombies?”

It’s actually an excellent question, because on the surface there should be NOTHING appealing about zombies. They are fundamentally unpleasant. Stinky, gory, and physically revolting, they are also a reminder of our own mortality and that’s not even getting into the terror of being consumed alive by them. But all this being said, what accounts for the enduring, if not increasing, popularity of my favorite breed of walking dead?

Well, I have two answers to this question. The first and simpler answer is that the zombie answers the universal human desire for immortality in a way that we can comprehend. Every human being fears death and wants to live forever. Part of growing up and maturing is coming to grips with this fear and accepting it. What the zombie shows us is the potential unpleasant reality of immortality.

Vampires and highlanders and the like violate too many of the rules of thermodynamics to be interesting as anything other than a thought exercise. Just as we all instinctually crave eternal life we all also instinctually grok the falseness of perfect, eternal youth as Edward Cullen or Duncan MacLeod. The zombie, in contrast, addresses the real fears of our subconscious: that to rise from the dead would mean a fundamental change. Mindlessness, rotting, shambling, cannibalism. It shows in gory detail what we understand in our guts: that to live forever would come with a terrible, terrible price, far worse than just having to wear SPF 150 in the sun.

That takes care of the Freudian, philosophical stuff. The second answer to the question, “Why do people like zombies?” is that we don’t like zombies, so to speak, but that a world in which zombie exist frees us from our own societal strictures.

Zombies, along with Nazis, are a staple of video game villains for a simple reason: there is no moral component to killing a zombie. With a few exceptions (where, in fact, that’s the point of the whole story) zombies are almost universally depicted as mindless, vicious, and - this is the most important point - uncurable. A zombie is fair game in a world where there are social taboos (and rightly so) against hurting, physically, emotionally, or otherwise, almost any group of people. In death and reanimation into mindlessness the zombie is stripped of its fundamental humanity.

Even in war when, theoretically, we should feel morally justified in using force, Soldiers are still confronted with the unpleasant reality that they are killing living, breathing human beings with hopes, dreams, families, and everything else that being alive entails. Zombies free us from this burden. A zombie has no concerns, other than to devour, and to kill one is actually to set right an imbalance in the natural world. In zombie fiction the tough moral choices and the potentially crippling psychological results of killing are stripped away, and we are left with the opportunity to gleefully indulge our ids in a consequence-free environment.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In most (again, not all, but most) zombie fiction the plague of the undead has left us in an apocalyptic situation. And the appeal of every apocalyptic situation is asking, “How would I react?” And, again, by having society stripped away, we, as the readers or watchers, are left with the question, “If I didn’t sell dental insurance (or whatever), what could I be? How much could I accomplish? Could I be the hero of this piece? Or, perhaps more perversely compelling, could I be the villain?” The zombie apocalypse means absolute freedom. Freedom at the price of eternal vigilance and a sticky death, but absolute freedom just the same.

Also, gore is cool…

To purchase Stephen’s decidedly unconventional zombie novel BRAINEATER JONES, go here: http://redadeptpublishing.com/braineater-jones-by-stephen-kozeniewski/

You can also follow him on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/outfortune or on his blog here: http://manuscriptsburn.blogspot.com.

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