TCS Daily


Zombies Always Win

By Douglas Kern - September 29, 2006 12:00 AM

The zombies always win. That's why they're the scariest monsters of all. What you are, the dead were; what the dead are, you will be. Look at the bones and the rot and realize: you're looking at yourself. Death eats everyone and everything; in fact, it's consuming you, right now.

It's little wonder, then, that zombies make a perfect match for apocalyptic fantasies. Death may not be the end of the world, but it is surely the end of your world; we all face the zombie apocalypse of our own mortal existence, and thus we find something irresistibly cathartic about horrors that reflect our own futile flight from the reaper.

The latest and greatest blend of zombie and doomsday is Max Brooks' wildly entertaining World War Z, which purports to be an oral history of mankind's war against zombies. Set a few years in the future, Brooks depicts a world in which a mysterious plague rises out of China (perhaps due to the deliberate flooding of a holy city?) and soon spreads to every corner of the world, borne on a wave of totalitarian dishonesty, human desperation, and Western indifference. The plague causes the infected to die and reanimate as nigh-indestructible zombies ("Zack," as the survivors call them), seeking to eat the flesh of the living.

Brooks tells his tale through a shifting array of narrators, each relating their experience of societal collapse as the zombie plague crushes civilization. While George A. Romero lovingly portrayed his cinematic zombies with distinctive faces and unforgettably garish costumes in order to explore themes of class differences and social alienation, Brooks' zombies are faceless monsters that interest him little; his novel's satirical guns are pointed at the rotten level of disaster preparedness throughout the world. Bureaucrats fumble and dither while journalists spread rumors and half-truths, even as the zombie menace invades middle-class America - and the world.

Brooks explicitly acknowledges his debt to the films of Romero, but - consciously or not - Brooks borrows liberally from several other classics of the post-apocalyptic survival genre. His compelling vignettes of life among the undead evoke images and themes from Warday, On the Beach, The Last Ship, I Am Legend, Lucifer's Hammer, and Alas, Babylon. Like these other novels, World War Z betrays a curiously reactionary distaste for the softness of Western society. Post-apocalyptic novels almost invariably contain some wretched scene in which the protagonists must shed their big-hearted, stupidly humanitarian, pre-apocalyptic values in favor of the cold, cruel, calculating morality of an unforgiving new world. Brooks takes an almost Mao-ish delight in such moments: celebrities rendered helpless; super-educated managerial-class overlords begging manual laborers for survival tips; and entire countries sacrificing huge swaths of their citizens to the zombies in order to buy time for the survivors to regroup. And, like most post-apocalyptic novels, World War Z flirts with the notion that the post-zombie world - tougher, leaner, more humble, more authentic - is preferable in some ways to the decadent, dishonest, obscenely wealthy world that preceded it.

The most telling detail of World War Z is an absence: the utter lack of religious faith. Brooks explores the zombie plague from almost every perspective in the world except the religious one. We meet a Russian Orthodox chaplain in Russia, but we soon learn that he has succumbed to a particularly violent strain of Caesaropapism. We know that, in times of great suffering and adversity, most Western minds turn to the reassurances of faith and philosophy. Why are those reassurances missing?

The answer speaks to the real horror in World War Z. As is always the case in great horror, the monsters are distorted, funhouse-mirror versions of what we fear in our selves. Our lack of faith is the twisted lens through which the dead seem monstrous.

In an era in which medicine, nutrition, hygiene, exercise, and plastic surgery allow ordinary people to retain fragments of youth for decades, the very notion of death comes to seem obscene - a spiteful abomination that does not know its place. Pity the plight of the aging Baby Boomer: you got that master's degree, saved your money, worked out four times a week, and lost twenty pounds; you did everything that anyone could possibly expect to prolong your health and vitality, and still that traitorous body of yours is shutting down! You have only known a world that would give you anything you wanted if you were smart enough and hard-working enough; how dare the world change the terms of the agreement by robbing you of your vitality and energy and - worst of all - your mental faculties! More primitive societies must confront the tragedy of death and suffering daily; in the affluent West, death and suffering are freakish abominations that clash with our leisurely lives and delicate preferences. The commonplace of human frailty now seems unendurable, intrusive, and alien - like a horror movie monster. As we cannot defeat death, we once turned to religion and philosophy to teach us how to embrace our inner zombie. But too many Westerners have become like the villain of P.D. James' Death in Holy Orders, who states that he has no need of religion because football fulfills all his spiritual needs. And if you dislike football, pick another palliative: antioxidants; the power of positive thinking; the immortality of a cool MySpace page. These are feeble sticks with which to beat back the zombie apocalypse.

Just as the zombie hordes smash civilization down to its raw, unadorned fundamentals, so too does old age and infirmity reduce us from cultured intellectuals to savage barbarians, preoccupied with food and sleep and survival. Is it any wonder that the contemporary zombie mythos is preoccupied with brains - either as the weak point of the zombies, or as their preferred food? The seat of rationality is the nemesis of all things undead.

The indignation that energizes World War Z is the indignation of a truth denied, of a human need left unfulfilled for too long. Such indignation is the essence of the ur-horror story: implacable forces arise to impose a pitiless judgment upon arrogant man for neglecting and belittling the fundamental rules of life. And this is the rule that zombies rise to vindicate: men are born to die, so worthy societies ought to prepare men for death. As our wealth and privileges have distracted us from such preparation, we cheer a little when fictional catastrophes restore a more humane moral order. How strange: it takes the undead to teach men how to die. Or perhaps not so strange; Chesterton taught us that tradition is "the democracy of the dead," and we know from current events that democracies can wage passionate war in the name of ideals like freedom, orthodoxy, and virtue. Egad! That means...

The dead are rising and they're leaning neoconservative! Ayeee! Run for the hills!

The author is a lawyer and TCS Daily Contributing Writer.

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14 Comments

Douglas Kern: A man to watch... Carefully.
Mr. Kern has a distinguished record of finding interesting ways to frame issues. From an article using Civilization IV to discuss societal malaise to an article using a zombie apocalypse to suggest the need for our youth to learn the most important fact of life (the fact that it ends,) you can always count on something unique.

I think Mr. Kern made a point that is applicable in a much wider-context than just aging baby boomers. I think that the total failure of most people in the West to prepare themselves for death, and the tendency to view death as some horrible lottery rather than as a natural part of human existence has manifestations elsewhere that are particularly dangerous.

Take the "safety" lobby, for example. Ralph Nader and friends pursue some fictional goal of ultimate safety in vehicles without any sort of regard for the fact that there is no such thing as a "safe" activity or product. The result is millions of dollars in lawsuits and PR expenses that raise the cost of cars and harm the welfare of millions of people through inadequate access to transportation. Their work on air and water pollution has been similarly useless and harmful to many, diverting resources to clean up infinitessimally small quantities of chemicals that could be more helpfully used to deal with real problems.

The same sort of thing is true of the FDA. They fear approving any drug that might kill somebody, because it will mean inevitable congressional hearings. In the meantime, drugs that could help ease the suffering of many are either kept off the market or forced in to endless runs of testing before they can be sold. Tort lawyers do the same thing for vaccine producers. With the combination of government price controls and massive potential for lawsuits, many companies have gotten out of the business of designing and selling vaccines entirely.

Finally, there is the public outcry over any sort of casualties during wartime. Public outcry (or the fear of politicians,) over deaths in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia led to America cutting and running without the job done. Today, leftists are trying to do the same thing in Iraq. Fear of death is perfectly natural, but this obsession with preventing every death is now leading us to the point where we will not be able to complete one of the most successful military operations of the modern era.

Shortly after I turned fourteen, I became very ill. I was peeing every fifteen minutes. I was lightheaded, vomiting, with a headache that never went away regardless of the amount of Tylenol I took. I went to the doctor, he gave me some antibiotics, and told me to see him in two weeks if I didn't improve. I lost 120 lbs. over the course of the next two weeks (I weighed 240 lbs., all muscle in those days.) I was so weak I could barely walk to the bathroom. I had to have help to get up and down stairs. I ended up in the ER at that point, where they told me I was a juvenile diabetic. They gave me insulin and fluids, but I was still in an extremely bad state. A resident, who was competent but lacked a certain awareness of his surroundings, told my parents that I was probably going to die that night while the door to my room was still hanging open.

I panicked a little at first, like everybody does under those circumstances. However, knowing I only had an hour or two left gave me a lot of perspective on life. For the first time ever, I really prayed. I actually thought about what I had done with my life and whether I was proud of how I had spent my days. That careless resident canged my life, and I thanked him for his indiscretion later on. It is only once you really know that you are going to die that you can decide what is worth dying for, and really start to think about how you are going to live your life.

Really looking in to the abyss gives you a lot of perspective on life and its many myriad risks. The unfortunate fact is that many people never get a chance to stare death in the face, and therefore put their life in perspective. The unfortunate fact is that until most of the kooks of the world see the Reaper, they are going to keep pursuing a world of zero-risk. The dangerous truth is that without a little perspective, these kooks are going to kill others with their quest for safety and risk-reduction.

Got the book for free at the SD Comic-Con
In the beginning... (hmmm..) of the book, there is a scientist in China who was looking for "patient zero", a little boy who first became a zombie. They had him shackled inside a hut. WHen the scientist tried to examine him, the men holding doen the boy so he wouldn;'t struggle broke his arm, and the boy proceeded to RIP HIS OWN ARM LOOSE FROM HIS BODY, and crawl across the floor to eat the scientist.

Later, ona video conference, his superior asked, "Do you have a gun?"

"No," replied the scientist, "Why would I need a gun?"

(insert sound of hand slapping forhead, agonized groan)

Food for thought (or was that, thought for food?)
Great article! We should all be thinking a little more about what we'd like to accomplish on this earth before them zombies come and eat our brains.

I was wrong
I thought he was going to related zombies to jihadists. Same thing --- they're "dead" and don't care who they kill.

DOUG AND AND ZOMBIES
DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE THAT ZOMBIES AND JIHADIST JUNKIES DON'T CARE WHOM THEY KILL? IS IT ANY BETTER THAT THEY CARE WHOM THEY KILL? YOU SHOULD BE DISBARRED FOR ADVOCATING DEATH CULTURE SO FREELY AND PASSIONATELY, OR BECOME A GOOD FRIEND OF DOCTOR JACK KEVORKIAN, I'M NOT SURE WHICH.MAY DEATH CONSUME YOU FOR YOUR PROMOTION OF THE DEATH CULTURE, SLOWLY AND PAINFULLY OR QUICKLY AND COMPASSIONATELY WITH DIVINE ASSISTANCE AND GRACE! YOUR HUMBLE SERVANT IN CHRIST JESUS AND MARY THE VIRGIN QUEEN OF HEAVEN, FOURTH DEGREE KNIGHT OF COLUMBUS, AND NASSA-SUFFOLK CHAPTER DELEGATE,(SIR)AND BROTHER DANIEL M. J. TOBIN, YOUR FUTURE PRESIDENT 2012, RECIPIENT OF AWARD OF APPRECIATION FOR 87 LIFETIME BLOOD DONATIONS FOR THE NY BLOOD SERVICES.CHAIRMAN OF ETHICAL HUMANIST SOCIETY'S JUNE 2003, JUNE BLOOD DRIVE, AND THE LEADER OF MALVERNE SYNAGOGUE'S AUGUST 2004 BLOOD DRIVE.

Blaming Bush
"World War Z" started out as a very cool story. I was really enjoying it until first the "ex-CIA agent" and then the "American General" in their interviews obliquely blamed the Bush administration for the zombie outbreak getting out of control.

The American General in particular says that the public was so tired and disgusted at their betrayal over "the recent middle east brushfire war" that they didn't respond to government calls to arms.

In other words even though flesh eating monsters were wandering the streets people were still too upset about Iraq to do anything about it. I can buy zombies, but that stretched my suspension of disbelief past the breaking point.

There's much more, including the UN, somehow miraculously transformed into an agency that can actually help people, riding to the rescue of the poor Americans, but you get the idea.

Argument for assisted suicide...
I'm not sure what to make of this essay other than it appears to be a call for the acceptance and promotion of death. Perhaps the best method for accomplishing this objective would be to legalize and promote assisted suicide.

In Oregon, we have an entirely reasonable law that allows people to off themselves when they feel that their physical bodies are no longer functional and they want to make the transition to the "other side".

For some inexplicable reason, the same people who decry attempts to develop the biotechnology to cure aging also oppose this perfectly reasonable law we have in Oregon. It is precisely this schizophrenic attitude towards the life/death issue that make such people absolutely contemptable.

Personally, I believe that biotechnology (such as SENS and other efforts) will lead to the conquest of aging and death within the next 30 years. My main purpose in life is to make it through this period, making as much money and having as much fun as possible, until I have the opportunity to live the "Lazarus Long" like life that radical life extension will make possible. I call this the "pro-life" position.

Of course, this course of action is predicated on the notion that human consciousness and, thus, ourselves does not survive physical death. If we do indeed survive physical death, then we already are "immortal" (but not in physical bodies) and biotechnological efforts such as SENS and the like are unnecessary. However, the following corollary that physical bodies are no more than instruments (like cars and airplanes) that can be disguarded when no longer usefully functional is also true. For some reason, the advocates of this view (i.e. religious members) are loath to accept this corollary. It is specifically the rejection of this corollary by the the so-called believers of the life after death memes that lead me to reject utterly any life after death meme (aka religion) in my early 20's. I have seen no reason to reconsider my worldview.

He must have eaten the wrong brain
" DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE THAT ZOMBIES AND JIHADIST JUNKIES DON'T CARE WHOM THEY KILL? IS IT ANY BETTER THAT THEY CARE WHOM THEY KILL? YOU SHOULD BE DISBARRED FOR ADVOCATING DEATH CULTURE SO FREELY AND PASSIONATELY, OR BECOME A GOOD FRIEND OF DOCTOR JACK KEVORKIAN, I'M NOT SURE WHICH.MAY DEATH CONSUME YOU FOR YOUR PROMOTION OF THE DEATH CULTURE, SLOWLY AND PAINFULLY OR QUICKLY AND COMPASSIONATELY WITH DIVINE ASSISTANCE AND GRACE! YOUR HUMBLE SERVANT IN CHRIST JESUS AND MARY THE VIRGIN QUEEN OF HEAVEN, FOURTH DEGREE KNIGHT OF COLUMBUS, AND NASSA-SUFFOLK CHAPTER DELEGATE,(SIR)AND BROTHER DANIEL M. J. TOBIN, YOUR FUTURE PRESIDENT 2012, RECIPIENT OF AWARD OF APPRECIATION FOR 87 LIFETIME BLOOD DONATIONS FOR THE NY BLOOD SERVICES.CHAIRMAN OF ETHICAL HUMANIST SOCIETY'S JUNE 2003, JUNE BLOOD DRIVE, AND THE LEADER OF MALVERNE SYNAGOGUE'S AUGUST 2004 BLOOD DRIVE."

Andre Gide
Pub Jr offered a very thoughtful comment on this piece, which also elicited some thought-less responses. Andre Gide said that only those who know they will die are able to fully live (a paraphrase but close). This is all Pub is saying. Jihadists can kill anyone remorselessly because they not only are prepared to die, they want to. How can you care about others' lives, if you don't care about your own? Being prepared to die and wanting to die are very different.

2700 soldiers (volunteers all) have died in Iraq since 2003. Every 3 weeks 2700 Americans die in car accidents (all, or at least most, not volunteers). A great nation of 300 million can't abide the death of 1000 volunteer soldiers a year in the pursuit of vital national interests?

Cutting and Running
Should we assume that the "Jr." means you're too young to remember that the US didn't cut and run from its South Vietnamese allies? That war was won in 1973. The job was done. Saigon fell in 1975, after a Democrat controlled Congress squandered the battlefield gains by cutting off aid to the South Vietnamese, leading to even more bloodshed in Southeast Asia. The same thing would have happened to South Korea had Congress acted similarly two decades earlier.

Take a look at my posts here....
Search for the article: Bipolar Disorder: America's Schizophrenic View of Warfare

Read the post: "For all practical purposes, we won Vietnam, and we can win in Iraq."

I agree with you, and back up your opinion with refrences.

Thanks for the Junior remark, though. It does me good to see our side assaulting each other without thinking and descending to the same sort of tactics as the loony leftists.

Perspectives on risk.
Thank you for your post.

I particularly want to thank you for bringing up the idea of comparitive risk, something I wish I had included.

Your example of comparitive risk, the number of deaths from automotive accidents versus the number of deaths in Iraq is an excellent way of illustrating the point.

Another way of doing so is by comparing similar wars in the past. For example, to free half in the D-Day invasion alone, we lost 2,500 soldiers. The entire invasion of Normandy cost us 54,000. Military accidents kill around 1,286 per year, according to http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/011443.php.

Perspective is the key to thinking about these issues, and unfortunately the left seems to have left their perspective behind.

Kurt, what are you smoking?
Where are you getting this stuff?

PubliusJr hit it right on the head, saying what the author was hinting at even more clearly, and succinctly - There is something of value in occasionally looking closely, even personally, at death. Not to glorify it, or to revel in it, or turn it into a form of entertainment, as movies (especially horror movies) often do. Not to minimize it, or trivialize it, downplay it, or turn it into the mundane (i.e. your argument for assisted suicide). But rather to remind ourselves that death is not confined to movies, mortuaries, and the infirm. Death is for US, and SOON! We (our society) tend to push it away, out of sight, out of mind, more than we should. I don't think we should dwell on it continually, in a morbid sense, but neither should we hide it, ignore it, or cover it up as we often try to do. The very fact that most people are so uncomfortable with death suggests that they have not truly come to grips with it, and are in a mild form of denial, preferring to sweep it under the rug (for now). If (when) we are finally forced to deal with it, up close and personal, it is often unpleasant (both sad and scary) but the results are some serious soul-searching, and (if we don't chicken out, and sweep it back under the rug the first chance we get) some serious personal growth.

Now, on to your confused commentary about "religious members are loath to accept the corally...that physical bodies are no more than instruments"...What?!?

Here. Let me volunteer myself as one of those "so-called believers of the life after death memes" that you somehow blame for your "utter rejection of any religion". How can I help you? Please explain exactly what your objection is. What corollary do I refuse to accept which is causing you so much trouble?

My best guess is that you think that if we accept the idea that our physical bodies are just instruments, we should never object to those instruments being wantonly destroyed.

Or too many cookies and orange juice
That's the first time I've EVER heard ANYBODY citing how many times they gave blood as a qualification for ANYTHING!! Perhaps we can chalk this anemic post up to hypoxia.

Interesting mix of religious mumbo-jumbo! MARY THE VIRGIN QUEEN OF HEAVEN...ETHICAL HUMANIST SOCIETY...MALVERNE SYNAGOGUE...I'm afraid to even ask!

" DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE THAT ZOMBIES AND JIHADIST JUNKIES DON'T CARE WHOM THEY KILL? IS IT ANY BETTER THAT THEY CARE WHOM THEY KILL? YOU SHOULD BE DISBARRED FOR ADVOCATING DEATH CULTURE SO FREELY AND PASSIONATELY, OR BECOME A GOOD FRIEND OF DOCTOR JACK KEVORKIAN, I'M NOT SURE WHICH.MAY DEATH CONSUME YOU FOR YOUR PROMOTION OF THE DEATH CULTURE, SLOWLY AND PAINFULLY OR QUICKLY AND COMPASSIONATELY WITH DIVINE ASSISTANCE AND GRACE! YOUR HUMBLE SERVANT IN CHRIST JESUS AND MARY THE VIRGIN QUEEN OF HEAVEN, FOURTH DEGREE KNIGHT OF COLUMBUS, AND NASSA-SUFFOLK CHAPTER DELEGATE,(SIR)AND BROTHER DANIEL M. J. TOBIN, YOUR FUTURE PRESIDENT 2012, RECIPIENT OF AWARD OF APPRECIATION FOR 87 LIFETIME BLOOD DONATIONS FOR THE NY BLOOD SERVICES.CHAIRMAN OF ETHICAL HUMANIST SOCIETY'S JUNE 2003, JUNE BLOOD DRIVE, AND THE LEADER OF MALVERNE SYNAGOGUE'S AUGUST 2004 BLOOD DRIVE."

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