December 21, 2011

The longest night

Christmas always makes me think of zombies. I stopped going to shopping malls years ago, but I started going back, once a year, so my son could have his picture taken with Santa Claus. The shambling about of the general populace in that environment, as they moved, soullessly from one horrible, fluorescent-lit nightmare to the next, made me feel like I was living in a George Romero movie. Yes, maybe I took the underlying, cultural commentary of “Dawn of the Dead” too much to heart, but there is something about Christmas shoppers that makes me want to start hoarding guns and canned goods.

While there are some people who embrace the warmth of the season, smiling at one another and saying “Hi” as we pass on the sidewalk, the more common demeanor is to blankly charge through crowds, bumping into strangers without saying a word, driven by the need to accomplish a hopelessly long and meaningless list of tasks that will ultimately be forgotten in a week or two.

One of my irreverent friends recently suggested that Jesus, because of his supposed resurrection, is the King of the Zombies. Not only did he (supposedly or metaphorically) come back from the dead, he was (supposedly or metaphorically) able to bring other people back from the state of being dead, and just before he died, he told his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Pretty grim stuff, if you ask me.

I looked it up on dictionary.com and found that a zombie is “a dead person given the semblance of life, by a supernatural force.” That fits the Christ myth pretty well, as far as I can tell. Of course, it doesn’t explain the desire to eat flesh. For that we need to consider film history.

Hollywood first introduced us to zombies in the 1932 Bela Lugosi feature “White Zombie,” which embraced the original concept of corpse reanimation by means of ceremonial voodoo. Some 10 years later, in 1943, Val Lewton revisited the concept somewhat faithfully in the classic “I Walked with a Zombie.”

Meanwhile, as early as 1937, a pharmacological explanation for zombie-ism was suggested by writer Zora Neale Hurston when she was researching a curious incident in Haiti. In the 1980s, Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, explored this theory more fully in his book, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” which provided the basic inspiration for a movie by Wes Craven.

Elsewhere, Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend,” published in 1954, introduced a new kind of zombie. Here, an epidemic of zombie-like behavior is caused by exposure to an unknown pathogen. “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price (1964), was the first big screen adaptation of Matheson’s book. It was remade in 1971 as “The Omega Man” with Charlton Heston. Most significantly, however, “Legend” provided the basic inspiration for George Romero’s “The Night of the Living Dead” (1968), which is widely regarded as the blueprint for all subsequent iterations of the zombie ethos. This was where the zombies started wanting to eat human flesh.

“Night” had two sequels, “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead.” The series was spoofed in “Return of the Living Dead.” The spoof featured the introduction of the zombies’ desire to eat brains. Danny Boyle’s feature “28 Days Later,” the comedy “Shawn of the Dead” and the current AMC television series “The Walking Dead,” which was based on a comic book written by Robert Kirkman, borrow equally from Matheson and Romero.

As an ongoing TV drama, “The Walking Dead” presents an endless struggle for survival against overwhelming odds. There has been the vaguest suggestion that the “walkers” can be cured (as was the case in “The Omega Man,” for instance), but it doesn’t seem likely. There aren’t enough human survivors, and the “walkers” are everywhere. Meanwhile, there is no clear suggestion as to what has caused the zombie epidemic. Could it be gluten? Or high fructose corn syrup?

Whatever the cause, it seems to me that our tendency to become zombies in the real world has an easy cure. Like Charlie Brown’s pathetic (and apparently dead) Christmas “tree,” all it takes for any of us to become whole and vibrant and alive is to give (and receive) a little love.

For further consideration: Randy Newman’s appearance on “Austin City Limits” in November was truly amazing. If you don’t know his music, you might want to check out some of his songs. You could start with a YouTube clip titled “Randy Newman sings Losing You.”