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World War Z and the River of the Dead

World War Z

The other night I watched World War Z (which I didn’t hate, although that’s another story) and in the course of watching it I was struck by a couple of things. The first is the fact that the fast zombies actually aren’t as scary as the slow, shuffling ones on The Walking Dead, which is interesting, because it suggests to me that as with John Wyndham’s triffids, the scariness of zombies is more about their inexorability than their savagery (although even as I say that I’m reminded of how scary the fast zombies are in 28 Days Later and of the fact that some the scariest moments in The Walking Dead are those in which we glimpse walkers which seem to retain some intelligence).

But I was also very struck by the two scenes in which the zombies pass around people in the streets of Jerusalem, parting, as Brad Pitt’s character puts it in a moment of surprising poetry, like a stream about a stone. We’re meant to notice it because it’s a plot point, but it’s a powerful image, and interestingly one that’s reiterated in the film’s use of aerial shots to capture the cataracts of zombies pouring through the streets of Manhattan and Jerusalem. Think, for instance, of the scenes of the great tide of walkers gathering and moving along the roads in the final episodes of Season 3 of The Walking Dead, or more potently, the way the motifs of rivers, oceans and tides recur in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (a book which continues to haunt me, two years later), not just in the final, very moving descriptions of the dead flowing through the streets of New York, but in what remains for me the book’s most ineradicable moments, that of the stream of the dead moving along the road below the window of the toy shop in which two of the characters are holed up.

There is, I suspect, something significant in the way these images of water, of flows and tides and streams recur, because they’re all images that emphasise the way becoming one of the dead is to be submerged, subsumed, one’s individuality, history, volition washed away.

Exactly why it’s such a potent image is a complex question. On his blog a while back M. John Harrison argued that the appeal of zombies lies in their blank otherness, the fact that we can kill them without compunction. I think he’s partly right (let’s not lose sight of the fact The Walking Dead is basically a Western), but I’d suggest the appeal of them lies less in the fact we can kill them than in the way they speak to our own anxieties about loss, about being swept away. I’ve written before about the way our fantasies of apocalypse recur and mutate, but when you get down to it the real power of zombie films isn’t in the visceral charge of the chasing and the biting, or even in the way they speak to survivalist fantasies, but in their evocation of an empty Earth, the same image that underpins science fiction from Wells’ The Time Machine to George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (the final instalment of which I reviewed recently and keep meaning to write more about). They’re not about fantasies of power but fantasies of powerlessness and anxieties of decline (as I’ve suggested before, I suspect they’re also about the anxieties of empire, but that’s a story for another day).

Nor, I suspect, is it coincidental that they speak to the other ways water pervades our cultural imagination. Isn’t the image of water parting, of the way it washes us clean, also what we seek to access when we wash for prayer, when we wash away our sins in baptism? How can we see people stand inviolate amidst a river of death and not be struck by the way their survival invokes that idea in strangely altered form? Or by the fact that the river lies at the heart of our culture’s conception of time, and therefore the passing away of things? Or that these streams of the dead are themselves echoes of the River Lethe? For in all we feel the way time bears us up and on, sweeping everything before it.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Maureen #

    ” the appeal of them lies less in the fact we can kill them than in the way they speak to our own anxieties about loss, about being swept away.” Do zombies remind us of the nameless, uncounted dead? And of our own future namelessness? So many people believe in an afterlife and I confess that even though I don’t I find it so difficult to grasp that someone that was is gone.

    This is a lovely lovely post. Thank you for it.

    September 20, 2013
    • Thank you. And I suspect you’re right about them embodying something of our inability to grasp the numb fact of death’s erasure (I also remember Hershel in The Walking Dead remarking that “Christ promised the resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.”)

      September 20, 2013
  2. Interesting analogy to water. You have also got to be the first critic, to my memory, who’s stated the obvious about why the undead are such an appealing branch of fiction: they go hand in hand with the apocalypse. I’ve read countless beard-stroking pieces by literary critics who feel compelled to explore why zombies are a more popular horror trope these days over other traditional types like vampires and werewolves, and completely miss the point that zombie fiction has always been about society collapsing as well. I won’t deny that the facelessness or their numbers or the fact that they can absorb you into their ranks isn’t a factor, but I suspect that for 95% of viewers it’s the apocalyptic themes that appeal.

    And, more importantly, an apocalypse with a pervasive, ongoing threat, as opposed to something like a plague. I read The Dog Stars earlier this year and while it’s a very good book, I just didn’t buy the idea that a plague which kills 99% of the population would result in the survivors becoming Mad Max-style plundering, raping, all-male gangs – in a world with no scarcity of resources.

    Are there any zombie stories that don’t involve the apocalypse? All I can think of is the early Resident Evil games, which… can be put aside, as far as story is concerned.

    September 23, 2013
  3. Stephen #

    Very nice review thank you James. Very clearly you are someone who appreciates a decent zombie and I have to agree that these characters were special and clearly based on poker machine players you see at most RSL clubs.

    February 17, 2014

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