World War Z and Zombie Fantasy

I previously mentioned the Max Brooks books, World War Z and Zombie Survival Guide, on this blog. I just found out that the World War Z movie (starring Brad Pitt) will be out in July 2013. My friend Jon C. has been so excited to see this that I wonder if he will be able to stand having to wait that long? I also wonder if I’ll be able to convince Annie to see it with me?  She hates scary movies.

The preview looks like it was inspired by Brook’s book rather than a straight translation to film, mostly because the book is really just a series of anecdotes from different people in different countries following the zombie plague — recollections of people in China who saw the first outbreak contrasted with stories from Frenchmen who exterminated zombies in the catacombs beneath Paris, for example.  It looks like the film makers stitched the different vignettes together with Pitt as a central character; he apparently is some sort of U.N. crisis specialist who is jetting around the world while they try to deal with the whole ‘Z’ situation. Hopefully Pitt is better at his job than that  Brownie guy from FEMA was during Katrina.

The preview doesn’t tell me much, but, wow, rivers of people surging forward instead of the usual shuffling hordes of rotted zombies is a welcome change… it looks like this film might manage to make zombies scary again! With ‘The Walking Dead’ on T.V. and movies like this coming out, zombie fans are getting a lot of entertainment.  What makes us love this zombie stuff so much?

I have a theory. I think one of the things people love about zombie movies is that these films allow us to imagine ‘killing’ people without moral consequences. I remember hearing about how the rationalist, Rene Descartes, used to say that animals didn’t feel pain; he claimed that if a dog howls after you kick it, the ‘pain response’ of the dog was of no more significance than a squeaking of a wheel on a cart. I have no doubt that Descartes was wrong; I believe animals do feel pain, but maybe Descartes was actually seeking to excuse how horribly people treat animals by saying that it didn’t matter. And maybe that’s part of the appeal of the zombie fantasy. Descartes statements about animals have (thankfully) been mostly discredited and Hollywood has discovered that Americans actually don’t like to watch people killing animals (just ask artist Tom Otterness; he was videotaped shooting a dog in way back in 1977 as an ‘art project’ and a lot of people (including me) still think he’s a douche).  We hate to see animals getting killed, but we do like to watch people killing other people (well, at least simulated versions of people killing other people).  One of the advantages of ‘deactivating’ a zombie is that it is not potentially immoral in the same way that shooting another human in the head might be immoral simply because you are not actually ‘killing’ the zombie; it is supposedly already dead. In fact, by ‘deactivating’ the zombie, you are performing a public service since that zombie will just wander around trying to infect other humans, right?

I think another reason that the ‘zombie apocalypse’ has common appeal is that most of us live fairly trammeled lives in which we travel back and forth between work, home, school, etc., and little that we do in our day to day lives has much significance.  Whatever else one might say about a world in which the social order has been destroyed, zombies shuffle or surge up and down the streets while the survivors seek to live just another day (or even another few moments), at least it wouldn’t be boring. Romero had his zombies shuffling up and down the escalators of a shopping mall, and the appeal of that image probably said a lot about how many members of the audience felt like they were not really living, either.  The survivors, on the other hand, need to be quick and clever and resourceful. The irony is that in television shows like ‘The Walking Dead,’ the priciple characters spend a lot of time saying how horrible life after the zombie event is — they are always on the run, dirty, hungry, scared and afraid of losing their humanity — but I can’t help thinking they will also never have to sit in traffic or listen to a mind numbingly boring sales pitch/teacher’s lecture/sermon/power point presentation again.  The zombie apocalypse takes away a lot, but, at least in it’s fantasy form, it appears to give a lot too — bursts of adrenaline as we try to outrun the shuffling hordes, a ‘first person shooter’ experience that would be more immersive than any video game and the chance to remake yourself in a brave new world where the old social order has been swept away and the population is defined in one of three ways: dead, undead and still living. Basejumping and other more pedestrian thrill seeker activities pale in comparison.

Music and Salesmanship

Anyone else remember those pictures of Boris Yeltsin doing ‘The Funky Chicken?’ I can’t decide whether I like Boris more or less after seeing them — sort of the same feeling I got when watching our former President, George W. Bush, funk out with African drummers on the Whitehouse lawn.

Michelle Bachmann recently got taken to task by musician Tom Petty because her crew used his song, “American Girl,’ at one of her rallies. I’m not that familiar with Petty’s “American Girl” pop anthem, but, if memory serves, it’s lyrics might be a bit at odds with Bachmann’s Bible Beater values (something about “making it last all night” makes me think Petty’s American Girl is a bit of a libertine). But I guess since the song has ‘American’ in it, her team feels this gives it relevance. Plus Petty is probably popular with a demographic that doesn’t find much traction in her bible-thumpin’ ways. Anything to appear hip, I guess. But this is apparently just one of a growing number of cases in which a pop star has said to a political candidate, “Hey, stop using my song!”

I remember being a bit taken aback when I heard “London Calling” by the Clash being used to sell Jaguar cars on TV. The context in which I first heard that song seemed greatly at odds with the idea of a luxury automobile. As I recall, the ad just had a few strident guitar riffs and Joe Strummer barking out, “London Calling” and leaving out all those depressing lyrics about the end of the world… perhaps the admen thought that maybe the American ex-punker who had given up on revolution and gotten a career and was now rolling in it would feel the siren song of the half remembered dreams of his former self and head on down to the dealership and buy a really expensive car without really stopping to think about it. Devo as pitchmen for Honda scooters seemed a much better fit.

The world is just getting so fucking weird. Guy DeBord had no idea how right he was.


One of the heroes of my misspent youth was Guy Debord (picture at right) who was born right before WW2 and killed himself in 1994. Debord was a French film maker, artist, philosopher, sometimes poet, dreamer and social agitator whom most people would describe as a ‘Marxist’ but from what I know of him, he was more playful and irreverent than most Marxists I have met (perhaps more of a Groucho Marxist than a Karl Marxist).

I first heard of him years ago when I happened to read an excerpt of Greil Marcus’ book, “Lipstick Traces” in a magazine, got hooked and had to run out and buy the book so I could read the rest. In Lipstick Traces, Marcus interweaves history, philosophy and art criticism, going through the Surrealists and Dadaists and post war European malaise to discover the roots of punk rock, because something in his mind made him realize the world could or might be different when he heard the Sex Pistols sing “Anarchy in the UK.” When he started digging, he discovered other revolutionaries, including religious heretics, artists, madmen, ranters and predictors of the apocalypse and I discovered much of this fascinating history through Marcus’ book, which I devoured. Marcus is a music critic who has written for magazines like Rolling Stone, and he can pull this off because he is much smarter than I could ever hope to be and endlessly curious — unafraid to draw parallels between Johnny Rotten and medieval heretics and thereby trace the current in the cultural river, trying to divine where it came from and where it might go, rather than just saying, “So and so’s new record is cool so why don’t you buy it…”

Through Marcus, I discovered Debord, whom I considered a kind of artistic and philosophical kindred spirit at the time. Debord grew up in post war France, with rampant Western consumerism battling inflexible Socialist ideaology from the East — and he found both to be empty charades at best, death in life at worst. The west offered the ‘freedom’ to have whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it, but intruded in our lives with constant demands that we embrace it’s consumerist ideology. Debord found Soviet Europe similarly oppressive — both East and West offered a life of drudgery and although the bars of the social “prison” were more nicely gilded in France than in Soviet East Germany, Debord didn’t want to live in either of those places.

He wrote a book called, “Society of the Spectacle,” in which he claimed that in the west we lived in a culture of constantly created desires and projected images and messages that replaced our own dreams and imagination. I don’t know if he ever got the chance to read Pahulniak’s ‘Fight Club,‘ (I think it was published after Debord’s death), but Debord was Tyler Durden long before Pahulniak was even born. “Society of the Spectacle” was bound in sand paper — so when you put it in a shelf with other books, it would slowly destroy the other books whenever you pulled it out or put it back. Debord also made films in which he intentionally fucked with and frustrated the viewer. He wanted to shake people out of what he thought was a sleepwalker’s existence. He and his friends collaborated on projects and created an artists collective they called The Situationalist International (or S.I. for short). You can still read their stuff online. They would collaborate on poems, collages, ‘zines and activities. Debord proclaimed that the ultimate Situationist activity was just wandering the world. He said, “We drift.” Maybe that sums up what they did — the artistic freedom to do nothing. Modern day Lollards. I can relate to that.

Years have passed and I’m afraid I mellowed a bit. Unlike the Johnny Rotten of “Anarchy in the UK,’ I no longer “want to destroy the passer by…”

Right! NOW! ha ha ha ha ha

I am an anti-christ
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want but
I know how to get it
I wanna destroy the passer by cos I…

I wanna BE anarchy! (u.s.w.)

These days, I’d be reluctant to join a fight club because I’d be afraid of getting my teeth knocked out (funny how that specific fear scares me the most). Have I given up? Gotten lazy? Sold out? Or was it all just an affectation of youthful bravado on my part? I suspect all of the above.

Debord’s own story does not seem to have ended happily. Years of heavy drinking and drug use took their toll on his health. His critical stance became more and more exacting as the years passed and collaborators became enemies for having violated the groups increasingly stringent ideological standards. Once you were out of the S.I., the existing members were forbiodden to even mention your name. The society founded on creative collaboration eventually became an ideological cult with Debord at the center. I think eventually The S.I. consisted of just Debord alone. Sick, old and probably bored and lonely, he killed himself. Honestly, as much as I admire the man’s brilliant ideas, I suspect he followed them all the way to their natural conclusions…. and I don’t want to end up like that.