Why zombies? Why now? Zombies are everywhere. Wikipedia lists fourteen comic books, eight nonfiction books, over thirty novels and anthologies devoted to zombies. I won’t even count the movies and TV shows.
My favorite is AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, which begins in post-zombie-apocalypse Atlanta. Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, awakens from a coma. He finds himself abandoned by the living, and surrounded by the dead. He fights his way to a rural area, where he joins with other survivors in a grim struggle for their lives.
Who are the zombies? Zombies are not our friends. Let’s think about that. Zombies are like us. They are like us in the same way that a mirror image is like us. Zombies bear an uncanny resemblance to the living. But the resemblance is grotesque, a missing leg, half an arm. Then there’s that complexion. Zombies are as singular in their purpose as they are unrelenting. There is no reasoning with a zombie. No amount of mediation will help. They are unintelligent. They are slow-moving. Individually, they are easily defeated, but when they “swarm”, you’re pretty much lunch. Zombies are not our friends.
Or, to be precise, we don’t consider zombies good neighbors. Neighbor is defined by two paradoxical qualities, a degree of familiarity and a degree of distance. The neighbor is both knowable and unknowable. Esperanza and her family have lived catty-corner from me for almost fifteen years. I like Esperanza, and know a lot about her. I know, for example, that she was born in Honduras. But I will never know what it is like to grow up in Central America, to marry a Norteamericano, to become a naturalized citizen.
And that’s what makes neighbors interesting. There’s so much I’ll learn, and so much I’ll never know. That’s not true of zombies. With zombies, we know what they are, and we know everything they will ever be. With the neighbor, this is never that clear. With the neighbor, there is mystery.
And that’s how you make a zombie. First, the concept of neighbor dies. Not the neighbor – the concept of the neighbor. Actually, the zombie who used to live next door, that guy is still staggering around the park. Their home zip codes notwithstanding, zombies are not considered our neighbors. They are the evil other, about whom we know all we need to know. It’s not the zombie who has died. It is, in one sense, the love for the neighbor that has died.
Why zombies? Why now? Because the zombies are everywhere.
Because zombies are Muslim “extremists”. Because zombies are Mexican “illegals”. They are unrelenting and unintelligent. They have no inner life. They look like us, but they have bad complexions. There is no reasoning with them. There is no negotiating with them. Because the problem is not one “illegal”, not one “extremist”. The problem is when they “swarm”. We know what they are. We know all they will ever be. We know what to do. We kill them. We keep them out. If we don’t, they’ll eat us.
This is the world we live in, a world where dialogue is anathema. A recent survey of Tea Partiers revealed that over two-thirds favored candidates who neither compromise nor negotiate. That attitude is hardly exclusive to the right. There are plenty of intractable liberals. Personally, I am neither pro-zombie nor anti-zombie. I simply point out the world in which we live. When Marshall McLuhan first spoke of the global village, we imagined a world filled with neighbors. What we got is a city filled with zombies.
But what do you do with a zombie? In the opening episode of “The Walking Dead”, the deputy sheriff is pursued by a zombie with no legs. She is terrifying. Later in the show, Rick Grimes returns to that zombie. Indeed, he goes out of his way to find her in a suburb of Atlanta. She keeps crawling toward him. She still wants to eat him. But he has a gun. He is no longer threatened by this legless creature. I thought he was going to avenge himself for having been so terrified by her. Instead, he pities her. He says, “I’m sorry this happened to you”. Why? Because this woman, for all her differences, is still his neighbor.
Let me be perfectly clear. I’m not proposing a new immigration policy. I don’t know what to do about terrorism. I’m not that wise. I’m simply saying there are no zombies.