Friday, January 31, 2014

Zombie Theology: A Developmental View of the Religious Dimensions of Zombie Films

Let me confess, because I've been trained to confess: I struggle with zombies. As a Christian clergy person, I believe we are called to love and serve our neighbor. I have trouble recognizing zombies as "neighbor." Honestly, it's like an existential or ontological or definitional quandary of some sort. Is a zombie a neighbor in need? If they have a need, is it for me to shoot them in the head, or offer them some semblance of loving care, inasmuch as a being out to eat your brain can receive such care?

I'm reminded of a character early in The Walking Dead who has the opportunity to shoot his own wife (now a zombie) in the head, but he can't take the shot. This is the zombie struggle in nuce.

This Zombie-kampf, if you will tolerate the neologism, is all the more difficult because, in addition to the ethical entanglements of love and zombies, they are also, well... just gross. Contemporary zombie movies revel in blood and gore. As a cinema-goer, call me squeamish, I can only take so much. Wading through the entrails of dead but revivified bodies... I'm just not that into it.

Except that I am. I really am. I can't get zombies off my brain. Even though zombies make me sick, I also get that their dominance on the contemporary culture scene gives indication of the sickness of our culture, the neuroses of our waking sleep, the ghastly deadness of our living.

It is for this reason that I thank Greg Moody for this book. Moody has seen it all. He is able to take a big picture developmental approach to zombies on the big screen, and place them in anthropological and theological perspective.

For a pastor with insufficient time to go back and watch the whole back catalog of zombie movies (pre- and post-Romero), this brief introduction to zombies in film is just the ticket. I have read and re-read it, because I find it actually even more interesting than watching another episode of The Walking Dead.

I actually did watch a few episodes of The Walking Dead. And I liked Shaun of the Dead. But there's just something about zombies. Perhaps I'm on the leading edge of the zombie-survivalist movement. I have seen the horizon, and the zombie apocalypse begins not with the appearance of zombies in real life--the zombie apocalypse starts with their appearance, and of our seeing them, in the cinemas and home theaters where we hunker in seats, stale popcorn and sticky soda at our feet, and I, an early adopter and survivalist, have decided to flee the scene before they arrive.

This may be the pacifist option.

Or so I tell myself. But like Lot's wife, I can't not look back. I read posts from friends on Facebook (don't we all), and register their amazement at World War Z, their anticipation of the next season of The Walking Dead. And I remain curious, fascinated. I am a zombie-stalker at one remove, the Kierkegaardian "follower at second-hand." I want to know about zombies without knowing zombies.

I am, I must admit, intrigued by Moody's descriptions of the early zombie movies when zombies weren't undead but rather enslaved or soul-less or in a trance or in some other state, zombies with less appetite and in some form of spiritual slavery. But having caught glimpses of this kind of zombie in the Borg, or Chronicles of Riddick, even here I do not honestly know when I will go back and watch vintage zombie cinema.

For such as me, we have Greg's book. Moody has known the catharsis. He is a complete set-ist. He's seen it all, or at least quite a lot of it. He has walked straight into the fear, and out again. He knows the historical/anthropological origins. But more than anything else, I believe Moody sees the beauty in the horror, the truth in the gore, the revelation in the flat eyes. Haiti. Early film. The Romero transition. Theological interludes. Zombie-r-us. He has plenty of theories, amazing insight, but always threaded in and through the real history of these zombie films multiplying and morphing over a century. Moody tells us a story, and for those with ears to hear, ties the dead heart of zombie undeadness to the beating heart of sacramental Christian faith. For me, this is an indispensable resource for helping me look away from something from which I can't look away.

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