Yes, I've been continuing to think about zombies. Bruce Cockburn's great song "Get Up Jonah" begins "I woke up thinking about Turkish drummers. Didn't take long, because I don't know much about Turkish drummers." (Watch the performance if you'd like to know how he gets from there to secret police.) Turns out that I know more zombies than I'd realized.
First of all, a thought about zombies and genres. It looks to me like you can put zombies together with superheroes, or quest fantasy, or caper stories, or cyberpunk, or whatever you may have lying around the kitchen cupboards of your mind, in two general ways.
#1. Zombies folded into the genre. If it's cyberpunk, the zombies come about from cyberware used in conjunction with nanotech or biotech. If it's quest fantasy, the zombies are the product of someone's necromancy, whether it's evil human(oid) magicians, the lords and ladies of the underworld on a bender, or some other such. If it's superheroes, it's...well, heck, it could be magic or super-science or just about anything, but the point is that someone did it using the resources of the setting. In Traveller-style space opera, you might it be the result of contemporary human or alien science, or the Forerunners's legacy in its unpleasant aspect. And so on.
The thing about each of these is that there is an explanation and it does fit with the rest of the setting. The zombies are likely to be surprising, and they can certainly be horrifying and terribly destructive, but they're not shock on the deep fundamental level of "this is impossible, this has no explanation". They may seem that way at first, but answers come, and the coherence of the world is restored even if its previous level of goodness and well-being can't be.
#2. Zombies unreconciled to genre. The classic example here is, of course, the original Night of the Living Dead. People in the movie talk about possible explanations, but there's such a vast gap between their blathering and the reality that clearly they're not anywhere in the vicinity of an answer. (This is one of the very few matters on which I disagree with King's analysis in Danse Macabre, and I wonder if he'd still interpret the film now as representing an essentially rational though awful view of its world.) The walking dead just happen. They are what they are, and there's nothing to know about why they are, or what to do about it beyond responding as best you can and hoping for more head shots.
This is not a matter of cross-over. It's not like, say, Sleeper, the marvelous dark comic book series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips about a super-soldier trapped undercover in the organization of the world's smartest super-villain. That takes some of superheroics, some of espionage and noir, and blends them together so that they all fit. That's how crossing genres works, when it goes well: you come out with something that has an organic unity of its own and recognizable bonds with element of inspiration that went in.
But sometimes the brokenness is the point: the idea is specifically to put the pieces together so that they don't fit and see how the characters and environs deal with it. (Or how the audience deals with it, if the story ends with the revelation of the break so that the characters and environs don't get a chance to.) That's what Romero did. What sort of movie would that setup have led to, if there were no zombies? Maybe a romantic comedy, or a wistful bit of nostalgia and thoughts about achieving independence like a Pennsylvania version of American Graffitti, or a hard-edged story of small-town pettiness and vice like something by Jim Thompson. But it would in any event have been a story about mundane people in a mundane world, however dramatically lucky or cursed they might be.
Zombies break all of that. Nobody comes off very well, to put it mildly, and it does bear noting that if everyone had listened to the nasty whiner and gone down into the basement, they might well have fared a whole lot better. Decent people are much more likely to sympathize with the others, who are trying to be responsible, courageous, protective, and otherwise genuinely good folks, but in the face of this incursion, it all goes wrong. There is no right for it to go. The zombies don't fit, and can't be made to.
Thinking about that led me to think of two writers who've been very great influences on me.
William S. Burroughs. This is from his 1962 novel, The Ticket That Exploded:
The "Other Half" is the word. The "Other Half" is an organism. Word is an organism. The presence of the "Other Half" is a separate organism attached to your nervous system on an air line of words can now be demonstrated experimentally. One of the most common "hallucinations" of subject during sense withdrawal is the feeling of another body sprawled through the subject's body at an angle...yes quite an angle it is the "Other Half" worked quite some years ago on a symbiotic basis. From symbiosis to parasitism is a short step. The word is now a virus. The flu virus may have once been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.
Philip K. Dick. This is from his 1975 essay "Man, Androids, and Machine":
These creatures are among us, although morphologically they do not differ from us; we must not posit a difference of essence, but a difference of behavior. In my science fiction I write about them constantly. Sometimes they themselves do not know they are androids. Like Rachel Rosen, they can be pretty but somehow lack something; or, like Pris in We Can Build You, they can be absolutely born of a human womb and even design androids - the Abraham Lincoln one in that book - and themselves be without warmth; they then fall within the clinical entity "schizoid," which means lacking proper feeling. I am sure we mean the same thing here, with the emphasis on the word "thing." A human being without the proper feeling is the same as an android built so as to lack it, either by design or mistake. We mean, basically, someone who does not care about the fate which his fellow living creatures fall victim to; he stands detached, a spectator, acting out by his indifference John Donne's theorem that "No man is an island," but giving that theorem a twist: that which is a mental and moral island is not a man.
Both guys are working with the basic gnostic sense that we are alienated from the world, and searching for paths to a wholeness. They are both looking for some kind of transcendence, though they look in very different places and think very differently about the places they share.
It seems to me that this is what the no-other-genre zombie is all about. It's wrong that the world should let the dead walk and prey, and it's wrong with humanity that we should be susceptible to whatever that thing is. It's worth noting here just how rare non-human zombies are in the literature, and how even rarer they are if you set aside the ones included for comedy/camp value. There's Tim Lebbon's excellent novella The Naming of Parts, with the whole world graying, dying, and succumbing. And beyond that? Yeah, there are some, but just plain not many. Zombies are the sign of something wrong in humanity in particular, almost all the time.
Both Burroughs and Dick took seriously the idea that whatever it was that went wrong with us long ago, it can't now be fixed. Burroughs's characters can pull themselves away from the word virus, sometimes, for a while, but it's now integral, and really excising it excises life as well. Some of Dick's characters get to see hidden truths about themselves and the world, about the black iron prison of deception that keeps us from full humanity and reunion with the creative power that wishes us nothing but good. Others don't, despite wanting and trying, and often the insights aren't enough to preserve well-being or even life in the face of the adversarial forces at hand. There is, generally, at best the hope for a future in which struggle is at last rewarded.
The quotes above suggest a couple of possibilities for zombies in this pure sense.
A Burroughsian zombie apocalypse might begin with someone finding a way to liberate our selves from the word virus only to find that doing so is like curing a cold by cutting off your head. Too much is attached, and when the virus goes, so does everything else but a basic kind of predation. Or you could push it a little further. The would-be cure doesn't work on the living. It works on the dead, who regain just a bit of life when the dead or dying virus goes - maybe the virus's breakdown is itself the source of animation. And there we are, surrounded by the best approximation now available of a primal humanity. So much for returns to Eden. Or, taking it a bit further, zombies begin happening just because they happen, and some of the living find it possible to make themselves more like zombies with a word virus purge, but themselves are explanation-less.
The Dickian zombie apocalypse would have the unexplainable rising, and around it, some people who find the idea of freedom from awareness of or care for others very appealing. Cults of the zombie? Zombie fetishes expressed via drugs and conditioning? That's the sort of thing Dick often wrote about. There'd be those who try to preserve humanity - their own and others's - in the midst of it all, and their fates might not be very good at all.
Thinking about it some more, I realized that Burroughs and Dick share a quality that we don't find a lot of in zombie stories: a very deep compassion for those on the recieving end of life's traumas. (I originally wrote "blunt end", but then considered just how many of the injuries inflicted on those below aren't blunt at all.) The walking dead are, in a sense, the most common of common people: potentially more numerous than all the living, and stripped of every single thing a living person might ever feel proud, satisfied, happy with. We don't have to - shouldn't, in fact, they'd both say - mean that that's license to go ahead and do whatever monstrous thing they're driven to. We can feel for the zombie a kind of sympathy that the zombie cannot be expected to understand or respond to, just as in real life we can feel a sympathy for the loss in true sociopaths even as we don't let them just run amok because, gosh, we're so sorry.
This is a viable companion to the revulsion at common human failings that a lot of zombie stories show, starting with the sundry brutal thugs and just awful people in Night of the Living Dead. One could perhaps try to portray zombies as actually better than living humanity, but I suspect you'd have be someone like Clive Barker to make it work. More viable, for most of us, would be the sort of humaneness Dennis Etchison brought to bear in "The Late Shift", where we wish for the walking dead some scrap of dignity and release, at least. Here the fundamental, metaphysical wrongness of the zombie is an invitation or at least an opportunity to demonstrate some of the potential for fundamental, metaphysical rightness of humanity.
So in conclusion...the next time I'm that confident a subject is played out, just go ahead and bap me on the nose and remind me of this time. Thanks. :)