The Kind of Murder-happy Characters We Have Here

[30 October 2008]

By Stephen Graham Jones

After accepting zombies as a fact of life, one of the first dilemmas you’ll face will be: would you rather get shuffled after by a doting grandmother who’s joined the legion of the undead, or would you rather have a zombie ninja on your trail?

Important stuff. To even approach an answer, you have to first decide which theory you subscribe to: Do the undead retain the characteristics of their former lives, their living selves, or does death, compounded by a ravaging hunger, make equals of both grandmothers and ninja (the two being, for the purpose of this exercise, mutually exclusive)?

Granted, if you’re suddenly in a tight hallway, the sole light overhead flickering in the most unhelpful way, the only exit on the other side of some zombified former neighbor, you’re of course going to prefer that undead neighbor be the skinny teenager rather than his overweight dad. Just because you need to slip past that zombie if you’re going to live, and there’s only so much room in the hall.

But that doesn’t really get to the issue of whether this undead teenager’s brought his own ‘ravenous’ hunger over with him, to add to his undead hunger, or whether the zombie dad still remembers what you did to his window five years ago. It’s simply mechanics — though, yes, the teenager’s down-slashing arm, due to it being thinner and lighter, thus faster, might finally be just as dangerous as the dad’s girth.

However, too, if you’re trapped in a hall with a zombie, especially one of the contemporary, fast ones, then all you can really hope for is that it’s nobody you know and love. As many of the undead would attest, were they so articulate, it’s easier to have your flesh eaten by strangers. It makes your own transition to the other side easier, as you tend to submit faster, rather than saying things like “No, Mom! It’s me, what are you doing! That’s my — ” (all dying declarations to feeding zombies are, by necessity, incomplete).

Too, when talking ninjas and grandmothers, at least in the context of zombiedom, you’ll of course soon realize that the dilemma can be reduced down even deeper than professional affiliation or social categorization — each of which, having been somewhat conscious choices (when alive), could, in the ‘unconscious’ state of living death, simply get sloughed off.

Gender, however, that’s something you carry with you. At least the artifacts of it, the sexual dimorphism, the various apparatus. These apparatus, though, as suggested both by the undead’s seeming indifference to their presence, or even their exhibition, and by their often vestigial appearance, would seem to establish that gender is either serving a different purpose for the undead, or no purpose at all. In point of fact, zombie society would seem to be much more homogenous: there is no male, no female, at least not to them.

Could this be because their method of reproduction doesn’t require pair coupling (‘love’), or could it have something to do with the gestation period for ‘infant’ zombies (the recently deceased), which can often be measured in minutes if not seconds, thereby hardly allowing any of our conventional mammalian ‘commitment’ to the young? Never mind that, as the young antelope can run moments after birth, so can the newly born zombie dine, even further unburdening the (single) zombie parent of any of that nurturing duty that the pair-bonded couple would traditionally share. Or could it be simply that sex, at least for the undead, who can breed from the moment of birth on, is markedly oral, even cannibalistic.

Biting is the way they reproduce, as documented time and again. Should this in turn give us pause? Granted, it’s most definitely hunger that animates them long after life has ceased to, but that hunger, it may be of a distinctly sexual nature, or at least sexual in means: contrary to any theory of either population or herd control, each of which apply here (zombie population and us, their ‘herd’), they would seem to want to both eliminate their food source and increase the number of mouths that need feeding.

A paradox? A flaw in the design? Likely not. Nature — or, as some would have it in the case of the undead, ‘Unnature’ — bound as it is by the strict laws of biology, by natural selection, by the undying compulsion to persist, could never be so careless. Rather, witness that, in the absence of the living, the undead, instead of starving en masse, will usually just shuffle around. Wasting away, yes, but the integument holding them together now, and keeping them upright and moaning, it’s not of the sort that needs conventional calories.

Note, however, that these (un-)starving zombies, these ravenous undead, the one thing they have carried with them from their former lives, even when gender and profession and social roles and age differences have fallen away, is the basic taboo against eating their own kind. They may nip or growl at each other when trying to share a single thrashing victim, sure, but it never goes any farther than that.

Leaving us then to ask the perennial question: is the taboo so deep-seated in them that it can, even in the absence of thought, overpower their insatiable hunger, or is it that the ‘nutrition’ they derive from us, be it located in the brain, the throat, or wherever, is of a kind very specific to us? To say it another way, this nutrition, it must not be contained in them, anyway, lest we have to believe, as propaganda would have it, that the dead do in fact ‘hate’ the living.

Hatred, however, is a distinctly not-undead reaction, often steeped, as it were, in the basest types of fear. Meaning we, the living, could indeed hate the dead, perhaps as a result of them having eaten many of our relatives and turned them into groaning, slackfaced reminders of their former selves. But the zombies, having nothing to fear from us aside from our absence (which is perhaps how they know us best: as ‘those things that are always running away’ – however, we could just as well be pre-infants to them, the ‘unborn,’ whom they must midwife with their teeth), should be immune to infection by hatred, either on the individual- or the species-level.

In this way, then, the undead are more pure than we are, above these base concerns. And, like angels, they’re beyond gender as well, it would seem. Our better selves, the selves that persist after life has come to end.

However, say you’re still in that hall, and there’s a zombie lurching around the corner. Perhaps the real question isn’t would you rather that zombie have crochet needles or a katana, but which is initially (and finally) going to make you run faster? Whose appearance will best facilitate your escape?

If your scrambled senses can lock fast enough onto the gore descending from the grandmother’s chin, or her nostrils flaring around your scent, then the instinctual revulsion there (measured by contrast to expectations) will of course cause you first to fall backwards onto something, but then to keep falling, as far away from her as you can. If it’s an undead ninja at the end of this hallway of your last stand, however, then, assuming it’s in full wardrobe — how else would you know it’s a ninja? — then maybe those out-of-place black pajamas will register first, so that by the time you lock onto the lifeless eyes rolling over to you now, you’ll already be running, faster and faster yet, even scrambling on all fours as you round the corner, because, in this scenario, granted, the zombie’s humanity has been stripped away, literally, but so as well has yours, friend.

Welcome to the new frontier. Welcome to the world one movie gave us 40 years ago. Welcome.

Stephen Graham Jones’ most recent two novels are Ledfeather and The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti. Before that it was the horror novel Demon Theory. As for all the unpublished stuff, one of them, yep, is a zombie novel. Because some love affairs never end, maggots and teeth and all. More at Demon Theory.net

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/the-kind-of-murder-happy-characters-we-have-here/