I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Military and the Living Dead, Part Two

If you haven't read it yet, The Military and the Living Dead, Part One is available here.

If you have ever taken a writing course, there's a chance you've heard the line, "Write what you know." When I write about zombies and the military, a fair reviewer might say, "Justin Tiemeyer doesn't really know anything about the military." Fortunately, I make up for this by being fairly knowledgeable of zombies and zombie affairs. I've even been called in as expert counsel when Lime Green Shirt devoted an entire podcast to zombies.Rather than deducing how the military would respond in the event of a zombie apocalypse according to my partial knowledge of modern military, I wonder if we might gain more insight into the matter by examining the situations presented in zombie films.

The central "text" when it comes to zombie films is George A. Romero and John A. Russo's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. While this is certainly not the first zombie film, it is easily the foremost zombie film. Night of the Living Dead makes an article like this possible, because it presents the zombie film genre as one of the most significant critiques of society and so-called human nature. If you can't survive an attack by unintelligent, slow-moving, single-minded, hobbling bodies, then there's something wrong with the world. There's something wrong with us.

After Night of the Living Dead, Romero and Russo went their separate ways. Romero continued the franchise as "of the Dead" films: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009). Russo offered a series of "of the Living Dead" films (The Return of the Living Dead: Part One in 1985, Part Two in 1988, Part Three in 1993, Necropolis in 2005 and Rave from the Grave in 2005) that refer to Night of the Living Dead as a fictional account based on true stories. His films are usually looked upon as more of a farce than a continuation of the Night of the Living Dead story. In light of the works of these giants, all latter zombie films are seen along this spectrum, from insightful to ridiculous.

Romero's zombies are weak and slow. (You would do well to forget the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.) Their decomposing bodies would break apart at high speed. They can sense the bodies of living human beings and attack with vicious strength once they are within melee distance. These zombies can be disabled if shot int he brain or whacked hard enough on the head. There is no reason small groups of human beings shouldn't be able to survive in Romero's depiction of the zombie-infested world, and yet by the time of Dawn of the Dead the structure of the nation's government already appears to be crippled. It can be argued that Romero has a negative perspective on human nature. The only reason we can't rise up against the zombies is because we're too busy arguing with fellow survivors. I don't see this as a negative perspective on human nature so much as I see it as an accurate reflection on the world sociopolitical climate. It's just a fact at this point in history that humans are incapable of getting along with one another at any level of organization for any extended period of time.

In Romero's world, the military is an unorganized force. It exists as small pockets of armed men, besieged by zombies and left to make their own decisions. Like everyone else on the planet, life becomes a matter of "taking care of me and mine." The negative image of the military merely points out the important moral question that Romero poses: How does one act in the absence of rulers to tell one what to do? Without the leisure time needed to contemplate ethical issues thoroughly and/or restructure society, the answer seems to be: We fall apart. The accusation is never made solely against the armed forces; all of humankind, the military included, are on trial here.

Russo's vision is more of a comedy of errors, and it poses a serious accusation against the military. Unlike Romero's vision, we always see the chain of command of the military and the system of American government completely intact. The zombie evil is created by a chemical that was invented for spraying on fields of marijuana. By fighting what is viewed as an unnecessary war on pot, the U.S. has inadvertently created an invincible army of brain-hungry infected undead. Russo's zombies are juggernauts that are just as deadly without their brain intact. Burning them simply spreads the re-animating chemical in the form of acid rain. The military's only response is to store these zombies in metal barrels. But the barrels roll off of trucks. They break easily. They're opened in order to weaponize zombies. The result is always a zombie outbreak. How is containment accomplished? Nuclear detonation of an American city by the U.S. military is the answer in the original Return of the Living Dead (further spreading the re-animating chemical). Shooting anything that moves, zombie and human alike, from a militarized perimeter is the answer in the first sequel. Russo, as we can see, poses a much more difficult accusation against the military.

As a dark comedy, the Russo line of zombie films does not present a probable account of realistic events. Instead, it presents military foibles that the viewers cannot rule out as impossible in light of current events. Is the government involved in science and technology that could have unexpected results? In light of terrorism and war, we'd be foolish not to. Is it possible that military engineers could fail to keep citizens safe from an immanent threat? The ninth ward of New Orleans is proof of this possibility. Would the military drop a nuke on U.S. soil to stop an otherwise unstoppable infection from wiping out the continent? While every military commander seeks to minimize collateral damage, there is always a level if justified risk. Nuclear destruction becomes a matter of calculus if we think like this. It's Jack Bauer utilitarianism.

For both Romero and Russo there is a process. Observation is the first step. People argue. People war. People make foolish mistakes. People abuse power. We see it on the news eacha nd every day. Then comes analysis. A certain ethic or sociology or concept of human nature emerges that represents these cases. Finally, there is a new creation. Romero and Russo translate what they see every day and their judgments on this phenomena into movies. Zombie movies are a reflection, whether realistic or hyperbolic, of everything we learn about humanity from day to day. If the military were the only problem in zombie movies, I might raise my own objection, but zombie movies present a world where civilian and soldier alike live in corruption and idiocy.

The accusation is against all of us, not the few and the proud; in some sense we're all responsible for this zombie apocalypse we're currently experiencing.

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