Obsessed With the Undead

by , October 30, 2012
"The Battle of Yonkers" from the book World War Z. Credit: Daniel LuVisi

On Halloween, an army of the undead will be unleashed upon Mission Bay off the coast of San Diego. U.S. soldiers, Marines, special forces, police and emergency responders will face the challenge of a lifetime as the flesh-eating scourge threatens to devour their ranks — literally.

Of course it’s not real. This is a five-day “counterterrorism summit,” but we’ll just refer to it as yet another — albeit extremely creative — government boondoggle. Starting this week, more than 1,000 people participating on the taxpayers’ dime will get to break away for five days from the daily grind and the Xbox 360 to play Resident Evil zombie hunter on a 44-acre reserve (luxury resort) blown out with “immersive Hollywood sets” that feature everything from authentic looking villages to “pirate havens” and hospitals soon to be filled with ill-fated good guys suffering from ersatz bite wounds.

Move over, George Romero. No one can recreate the over-the-top zombie apocalypse like a private security firm (in this case, Halo Corporation, a beltway bandit operation formed by ex-special operations and intelligence agents) flush with government contracts and corporate sponsorships, and access to the best weaponry, surveillance gear and other technological wizardry the post-9/11 paranoid domestic security state can buy.

“This is a very real exercise, this is not some type of big costume party,” insists Brad Barker, president of Halo Corp. Yes, nothing says “serious exercise” like a legion of gray-faced actors moaning and shuffling (or will they be the running kind?) with fake blood oozing out of their orifices and their limbs akimbo. Nothing says “serious exercise” with Cindy McCain flying over to be the keynote and Michael Hayden, former director of both the CIA and National Security Agency, now a demon on the speakers’ bureau circuit, taking the microphone to talk about … monsters. Want to bet this former spook’s fee is scarier than anything he’ll be able to conjure up in a 30-minute speech?

“No doubt when a zombie apocalypse occurs, it’s going to be a federal incident, so we’re making it happen,” Barker told The Associated Press this weekend. Barker, no rookie when it comes to marketing his security enterprise to the mainstream couch potato (in other words, The Lounging Dead), pointed out that since Halo announced the event in September, they’ve had calls from “every whack job in the world” about Zombie Armageddon.

We could say it takes one to know one. Really, Barker is encouraging a thousand adults to run around like fourth-graders at a laser tag birthday party, and he’s calling the curiosity-seekers “whack jobs”?

But Barker is neither a trailblazer nor a kook, he’s merely jumping on the bandwagon, a haunted hay ride barreling straight toward the bank. Uncle Sam is already on board. Always ready to awkwardly assert its relevancy, the Department of Homeland Security launched a zombie invasion preparedness campaign last month via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (you’d think the Frankenweather would be enough to keep FEMA busy), insisting that if you’re ready for the zombie apocalypse you’re prepared for anything.

This cringe-worthy effort ran parallel to the Centers for Disease Control’s zombie “Preparedness 101.” There is something extremely ghoulish about Googling CDC + zombie and getting 2.2 million hits. Of course it’s all “tongue in cheek” (they could have said “teeth in cheek” just to gild the lily) but again, we’re not paying the CDC to crack jokes. Plus, if fiction is going to be our guide, the CDC will be no help whatsoever during the zombie infestation, at least according to AMC’s The Walking Dead.

We can probably ascertain that much of the zeal behind imagining and training for the zombie apocalypse — at least in the military/national security world — has some roots in the brilliant and deservedly popular novel by Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. That book, written in 2006, is a rich and complex documentation of the before, during and aftermath of a global contagion that kills and then reanimates corpses to become flesh-eating zombies that nearly wipe out the earth’s population. The chronology, told from myriad, multi-national and ethnic perspectives, is as heart-wrenching as it is horrifying, and is strangely enlightening and spiritual in its course.

The irony here is the military seems to be all jacked up by the significant role it plays in World War Z, but the miracle of Brooks’ tale is it underscores in a million different ways how governments and super-charged modern netcentric armies with their big fat bombs and stealth aircraft all failed when the zombies overran civilization. So, unless these one thousand soldiers of the apocalypse on Wednesday agree to toss all their fancy toys and preconceptions aside for five days (not on your life!), there’s no reason to believe they’re taking this new warfare strategy any more seriously than a paintball game in the woods (which, by the way, the Brits are doing, keeping with the zombie theme, later this month).

Why Zombies?

World War Z is an implicit condemnation of the post-9/11 Bush Administration, but easily a metaphor, too, for the self-destructive politics pulling at the levers of American power today.

Political hubris in Brooks’ “fictional” Washington so blinds the leadership at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that when honesty and clarity are needed the most, the White House stonewalls, stalls and sacrifices time and lives before finally setting a straight course for survival. For millions in World War Z, it is too late.

Though there are as many disquisitions on the subject as there are movies, books and television series, it’s no stretch to suggest that this mistrust of government ultimately fuels our overall fascination for the undead. Sadly, we could imagine a government that causes and covers up toxic spills, dangerous pandemics or even zombie outbreaks. After a decade of real war, our sense of security and control has eroded so sharply and in so many ways we hardly believe anything the government says, ever.

Think about it: screenwriters had to go all the way back to Abraham Lincoln to find a president worthy of taking on the role of heroic zombie hunter. And he didn’t do such a bad job, either.

The Night of the Living Dead was released as Romero’s auspicious cinema debut in 1968, the same year as the Tet Offensive and the beginnings of real mainstream public backlash against the Vietnam War. In years since, the genre has tracked our Western neuralgias: when Romero did Dawn of the Dead in 1978, the plastic “me” generation was in full swing. The zombies in the deathly suburban mall, were in fact, us.

That’s still the case, but after 9/11, zombies in many ways became the embodiment of “the other”: the enemy-monsters we’ve been conditioned to fear overseas. This is no more evident than in the U.K. film Devil’s Playground (2010), which features freakishly performing zombies who resemble super-soldiers sporting the strength of ten men and jaws to match — certainly not the slow moving granny walkers in Romero’s early imaginings.

Devil's Playground

Western culture is even more conformist than it was 30 years ago, but as individuals, we seem more inclined to tribalism, more inward looking and insular within our own families and networks, therefore our neighbors, the strangers among us, become “the other” in today’s zombie renderings, a domestic paranoia fed not only by the security state, but by the media culture’s obsession with murder, mayhem and criminal behavior.

La Horde

This is smartly suggested in so many zombie films, but especially in The Horde (2009), a relentless tale set in a nearly abandoned high-rise in the middle of an urban ghetto just outside Paris. What starts as a Pulp Fiction-style raid on a drug den, turns into a terrifying siege in a building once home to hundreds of families and thousands of individuals, now an elaborate nest of reanimated corpses. Trust between police and criminal is fleeting, enjoined by the shared goal of blazing a bloody path through the flesh-eating former residents with testosterone-fueled enthusiasm. There is no redemption here, however, as the remaining cop kills the remaining criminal and sets out to face the urban hordes outside the high-rise, alone.

The Walking Dead

The tribal theme is quite prevalent in The Walking Dead television series — that, and the desire for reinvention and empowerment, which jibes neatly with a modern ethos exacerbated by uncertain times. How many of us would love to overcome our social and physical limitations, freed from the constraints of society, economics and status, of dysfunctional lives and long ago lost dreams of personal exceptionalism? In many ways, dystopia is the great equalizer, a new start.

This is a familiar subtext. With just the right dark humor, Shaun of the Dead (2004), allows a twentysomething slacker to become a better son and boyfriend, a hero and the man he always wanted to be. He just has to club his way through a neighborhood of zombies to do it.

Maybe there’s some of this going on at the Zombie Summit in San Diego this week. Maybe subconsciously our security community wants to feel like it’s being proactive about something, even if it’s zombies, and even if they’re not real.

More likely than not, the zombies are just a creative marketing tool, used to attract security types who want to network and exercise their shiny new equipment, paying exorbitant amounts (of our money) to Halo Corp for the privilege.

The bottom line, zombies are scary because they are the epitome of the unknown. The military can train all they want, but at the end of the day it’s just guesswork and shadowboxing.

To that end, it might be fitting to conclude with some thoughts from Todd Waino, one of the characters in Brooks’ amazing book, describing the gravity of this truth so chillingly. He recalls the Battle of Yonkers, the first major loss for the modern American army in World War Z:

Sure, we were unprepared, our tools, our training, everything I just talked about, all one class-A, gold-standard clusterf-ck, but the weapon that really failed wasn’t something that rolled off an assembly line. It’s as old as…I don’t know, I guess as old as war. It’s fear, dude, just fear and you don’t have to be Sun freakin Tzu to know that real fighting isn’t about killing or even hurting the other guy, it’s about scaring him enough to call it a day… “Shock and Awe”? Perfect name, “Shock and Awe”! But what if the enemy can’t be shocked and awed? Not just won’t, but biologically can’t! That’s what happened that day outside New York City, that’s the failure that almost lost us the whole damn war. The fact that we couldn’t shock and awe Zack boomeranged right back in our faces and actually allowed Zack to shock and awe us!

They’re not afraid! No matter what we do, no matter how many we kill, they will never, ever be afraid!

Happy Halloween!

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Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos