September 17, 2010

The Modern Zombie

There has been much talk of zombie virus' so far this week. However, Nev from Nev360 has a different theory.  Fact or fiction? Sinister whimsy or dire warning? You decide...

Zombies, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, are all around us. Like witches, werewolves, wizards, fairies, elves, orcs, goblins, moomins and especially teen-dream vampires, they have reached out from the volumes of literature and from the elaborate prosthetics and fake-blood of cinema and pulled themselves into our own living world. They are here, and walk among us.

Of course, unlike most of these fantastical creations, zombies don’t herald from some picturesque medieval land populated by plucky dwarfs and stirring orchestral scores. Moomins, I grant you, don’t either, but I’m sure they could find a small glade for them somewhere there, and vampires these days appear to have so thoroughly permeated every sphere of life that I’d be surprised to see a world or genre they haven’t punctured. But zombies are a little different. Popularised by another George – Romero – they are a modern day monster. They lack cunning, intelligence, awareness, empathy, work-ethic or collective vision for a better future, but they have power in sheer volume of infectious numbers and incessant primal craving to satisfy their gross desires. Oh yes, they are all around us, and are far more dangerous than the occasional witch or goblin (which have never truly adapted to the pace of city life).

Clearly, we can recognise the difference between visions on the big screen and our own mundanely plodding existence. Cinema needs to snappily exaggerate features of living in order to capture our interest, for our minds are often numb enough without having to deliberately subject ourselves to watching reality on screen. Therefore, cinema may mirror reality but only in the way a magic mirror transforms the ugly duckling into a beautiful princess. Or something like that. While the camera never lies, the flash-bang of cinema certainly distorts and paints in a certain light, therefore the popular image of a zombie is usually in its more active phase – rotting, chewing, single-mindedly meandering. Clearly, this type of zombie is not rampant in today’s urban landscape. But just as we don’t take George Lucas’s Star Wars productions as the literal truth about space physics, neither should we take George Romero and his associates’ zombie tales as the gospel truth on the daily life of the 21st century zombie.

The truth is that today’s modern zombie is a little more subtle. Insidious, yes, but subtle. Yet a threat, in the words of yet another George, not to be misunderestimated. The cinema zombie, for all its menace, makes itself easy to identify by its single-minded, if slow, pursuit to tear you to pieces and eat you; the modern zombie doesn’t crave the immediacy of your flesh, rather it is the slow absorption of your very soul it craves, until you too are one of them.
In order to explain this creeping phenomenon I will use my own experiences. I work offshore in the oil industry, and this job takes me all over the world, experiencing a range of different cultures aboard anonymous industrial metal platforms surrounded by vast expanses of sea. Typically, I might be offshore, on an oil rig usually, for a few weeks at a time, and typically these oil rigs have something like the number of 120 people on board, invariably all men. In this very limited space among the population of a small but demographically off-balance village, where everyone must eat in the same room at roughly the same time, there is no place to hide. The same faces daily pass.

About half the population of a rig are there for the duration of a single job – temporary workers, only. But the other half are fixtures of the rig, employed – so it is claimed – on a month-on, month-off basis. It is not difficult to spot which are which. The eyes give it away. Look into the eyes of a temporary rig worker like myself, and there is usually a degree of life, a spark, still something of a soul behind these windows. But look into the eyes of one of the permanent fixtures and there is only glaze. Sometimes this is tiredness, sometimes it is the effect of another day of absolute routine. These qualities alone do not make a zombie but observe more closely, and that vapid worker seems to only shuffle about lethargically, he opens his mouth to emit only a groan-like noise, no semblance of human emotion is apparent, and his skin is usually dull and grey. Often he will smell. On occasion, when chance forces an encounter between myself and such a rig worker, his unclear words are vague and confused and make no sense whatsoever, although I will always nod and smile to placate him. This specimen does not, Hollywood-style, reach for me to tear and eat my flesh, but rather our encounter leaves me feeling a little more dead inside. After a few weeks on a rig, there is no doubt I feel less of a human being than before. The process has begun? I hope surely not, for I escape the rig usually to never return, and can recuperate at home.

I believe the rig to be a microcosm of society. In science it could be considered a sealed environment where experiments can run their course more quickly. On the rig, I witness a neutralising of emotion and empathy, a greying of colours, yet an increasing single-minded focus on the task ahead. Having so far resisted the abyss, when I return home the increased intensity of colour and feeling of real life is all too evident – as is the increasing numbers of shuffling, aimless, dying, wretched creatures that wander the streets. Because the walking dead are not confined to oil rigs or offices or shopping centres. No – they are everywhere. I used to live in Aberdeen and so thought no more of it, but since having moved to Edinburgh I realise these undead creatures truly are all around. Wandering, quietly moaning, desensitised to humanity. Sometimes our paths cross and leave me just a little more dead inside. After years of this, I look in the mirror and what do I see? It’s not a beautiful princess.

So it is with me. After over four years in this unholy profession, large parts of my life spent in the concentrated atmosphere of rigs, I no longer relish my mirrored reflection. I can see my greying flesh, my glazing eyes, and in conversation I often wonder what I’m actually talking about and observe my companion in conversation nodding and smiling before quickly moving on. Sometimes I smell. I still know of such things as joy or pain, and can experience them, but yet they feel shadows of how the once felt in younger days. Maybe this is just ageing and its inevitabilities, or maybe...

In his seminal novel, 1984, George Orwell warned of a future filled with privacy intrusions, computer-generated music, lack of personal liberty, omnipresent television screens and general lack of any hope whatsoever. But not once did he mention zombies - so what did he know? While all the above certainly pose a grave threat to today’s modern society, none threaten the very existence of mankind as the modern zombie. So be warned, don’t arm yourself with chainsaws and shotguns (though they will work, I suppose) in anticipation of a bloodthirsty but dim-witted mass attack of rotting humans, rather steel yourself and your soul for the incremental changes that the modern zombie quietly brings about. Stay alive, stay thinking, stay vivid. For otherwise you too, one day, will look in the mirror, without caring, and see the undead before you.

Up next on Week of The Living Dead...
Joni, AKA Kitchen Witch shares with us her zombie contingency plan for all the family.