How science decimates immersion in the zombie milieu
brought to you by Geoff as part of the A to Z Challenge of April 2012
Z is for Zombies
As I’ve written previously (not to say beaten-the-carcass-thereof) I detest unnecessary rehashing of classic themes and stories with different window dressing. And when it comes to new Zombie stories far-reaching creative thought and the genesis of originality is the proverbial ballistic slug perforating the cranium of the closest shambling corpse of this tired genre. But as the macabre parade of new zombie fiction lurches ever forward there will be no end of contented and happy squishy zombie aficionados with rosy-pink brains who will march out to become the all-you-can-eat buffet of the zombie financial windfall.
Regardless of what bitter curmudgeons like me think, I still believe people should enjoy whatever they enjoy as long as they do not delude themselves into believing hack stories are greater than what they are. Perhaps with a little self-honesty we can guide the zombie fiction horde into growing their bloated milieu into something more relevant and meaningful, shepherding them past poor literary conventions into territory that can recapture the spark that made us love stories of cadavers gurgling dramatically. So to prove there’s no hard feelings, I offer a point of conversation and consideration to help your enjoyment of zombie fiction, or at the very least give you a small pause between reading the plot synopsis and opting to purchase a new book of cannibalistic undead.
One of the largest problems when a genre explodes past its origin point is that it becomes difficult to keep a certain level of “newness” to yet another additional story. Zombies have, since their inception, spread from abandoned farmhouses and cemeteries to malls, cities, lands, re-imaginings of classic fiction, and everywhere in-between. As a friend of mine gleefully pointed out of a new film in his zombie collection the defining characteristic of combining both aquatic and nazi zombies, it struck me how far the genre has become specialized. The sheer number of permutations offer little breathing room for new creators of zombie fiction, leaving some to guide the genre down bad alleys and paths in an effort to stand out from the horde. In their misguided desire to carve out a new area for themselves they derail what we love of zombies at their core. While it would be tedious to address each and every bad choice I think we can tackle one large grouping of all-encompassing fat on an otherwise proper steak by pointing out that the introduction of science to explain the existence of zombies is anathema to what we subconsciously enjoy of the genre.
Let us first examine the primal beginnings of zombies and view “Night of the Living Dead”, Romero Be Praised. As the original flyers for the movie stated: “When there’s no more room in hell the dead shall walk the earth”. This simple marketing blurb is a perfectly sufficient explanation of the zombie apocalypse shown in the movie. The dead rise from their graves, and any who fall during the apocalypse rise again, except for those dramatic deaths where some people eaten just stay dead and eaten. Throughout the movie the survivors hear news reports from the more technologically blessed pockets of the still living where it is referenced that scientists were “working” on the problem of what makes a dead body get up again. Multiple red-herrings were given for the apocalypse, from possible space origins to chemical attack, but these were never finalized and just served to fuel the panic of the masses with the terrible realization that science couldn’t explain why the dead walked and why they hungered for the flesh of the living.
In making the undead unknowable they defied the hubris of our supposed understanding of the world. Against all that we have come to know and believe, here stands defiant the rotting carcasses of our grave misconceptions of the universe. An all-consuming entropic force that will eclipse us as they wipe us from the planet, with naught that we can do but stall our inevitable extinction as all that we have wrought and created is cast down by an alien nature we cannot fathom. THAT was the terror felt in consensus for those of us who chose to place our imaginations into the original story. The mystery of “why?” will always be greater than the solution. The terror of what we cannot understand is much more rich than any explanation or twist ending could ever hope to approach. Romero understood this truth well, an aggressor explained is an aggressor defanged from its own horror.
This concept can be easily proven with “28 Days Later”, a zombie film that decided that its contribution to the zombie apocalypse would be a scientific virus explanation that magically gave all zombies a great cardio regimen. Quick plot synopsis (“spoiler alert”, as if you haven’t seen it already): a fluid-borne virus hits Britain that turns its victims into cannibals capable only of savage attacks and driven only by animal instinct (or at least only the instinct to feed, as it pretty much skips all the other animal instincts such as consuming water, resting, disposal of bodily waste, hiding from greater predators, reproduction, etc.). The idea was that this would be a scientific approach to the zombie apocalypse that would enhance our tension by scientifically explaining the zombies and virus transmission. The “28 days” in the title was the projected rate of starvation for the infected in Britain without food sources (no, they apparently have strong feelings of infected solidarity and never attack one another for food). The movie did not make any real attempts to explain how some infected were able to function with many organs being virtually in absentia, nor did they create a fully formed scientific explanation for how zombie metabolism could function under such extremely adverse bodily conditions, focusing only on the idea that they could starve to death…uh…again. And here is the crux of my point, when science is left out of the equation for a zombie apocalypse the shambling undead stay frightening because they defy what should be. Try to include hard science and you have a virtual sea of plot holes and scientific inconsistencies that you must frantically dance around as you ask your audience to suspend bigger and bigger amounts of disbelief in order to enjoy your story.
I know some of you are already thinking up a defense of whatever soft-science focused zombie tale you love right now but let’s be clear here, all of our movement, senses and cognition is predicated on the viability and functionality of our living systems. We need air, foodstuffs, water, and the ability to process all of them to have the energy required to maintain and use any part of our viscera. We need the ability to process and dispel waste to dispose of matter we cannot use to avoid body shutdown from excess or harmful mass being left within the body. We need a functioning nervous system to allow electrical impulses to trigger muscle and organ groups throughout our bodies to facilitate movement and motor control. We need functioning sensory organs to make sense of the world around us, eyes to see, ears to hear, noses to smell, and we need a viable and functioning brain to take the data that the rest of our body cannot interpret and make the sum of our parts progress towards any endeavor. Zombies cannot, from a scientific explanation, fulfill any of these requirements. Especially when most zombies are missing a virtual shopping list of required organs and functioning systems to operate on even the barest of levels. Without fully functioning eyes, ear canals with all parts present and functional, nasal cavities intact, and a brain fully working to interpret all this sensory data zombies cannot detect us. Without fully intact nervous systems and undamaged spinal cords zombies cannot send signals to various muscle groups to facilitate movement, hence zombies cannot move to chase or reach after us. Without operational digestive systems, working and unperforated lungs, and a fully functioning and contained circulatory system zombies cannot procure and sustain the massive energy requirements necessary to stave off continued cell death and decay, let alone have the energy to even process food obtained from the living, nor expel the unneeded waste generated from feeding. In short a true hard-science approach towards zombies would make for very boring and non-dramatic reading. And a soft-science approach to the same would only open the door to these kinds of observations, ruining any sense of immersion an observer might have.
Our zombies will always work best when it simply cannot be explained why they defy the very laws of nature, they will be much more terrifying as an enigma. Our loved ones lurching towards us without the slightest bit of recognition in their eyes is a much more harrowing experience than “grandpa’s just really sick”. The introduction of scientific explanation as a new permutation is a dead end, if you’ll excuse the pun, for the evolution of the genre. Unless of course you use the sci-fi convention of aliens making it all happen, but if you resort to using that tired old cliché in your writing you deserve to be tragico-poetically devoured in an as-yet-undiscovered Korowai tribe’s ritual (look it up).