What Should Christians Have to Say About Zombie Movies?
- Marc T. Newman AgapePress
- 2005 25 Jul
The first question that might arise from simply looking at the title of this article might be, "Why would Christians even watch zombie movies must less want to have anything to say about them?"
In response I need to emphasize that MovieMinistry's role is not that of the film critic, but of the cultural critic. We do not recommend or promote films, we explain them so that Christians can see inside the driving cultural forces underlying the stories movies are telling us to see if we can use them to explore the gospel. And, believe it or not, horror films are ripe with myths and analogies that can be used to our advantage.
And that is what drove me to the cinema at midnight on a recent Thursday to view the latest installment of George Romero's "Living Dead" franchise. Romero is a famous low-budget horror film maker, and his "Land of the Dead" is no exception. Made for $15 million (peanuts by most Hollywood film standards) it is guaranteed to turn a profit because millions of young people in the film's target demographic will turn out for the mayhem.
The story concerns a group of survivors carving out an existence in a world dominated by zombies whose only desire is to kill and eat the remaining humans. In the midst of the seemingly simple story (and the amazing amount of gore), Romero makes statements about consumerism, greed, and (I think) the human condition. Most noteworthy are the way Romero's films – and most zombie movies – make use of death, decay, insatiable appetite, and meaninglessness to expose the contemporary problems facing culture in the West.
The first emotion that zombie films prey upon is our natural fear of death. In Romero's films, if a person is bitten by a zombie, infection sets in followed by death. Immediately after, the dead come back to life as zombies. Zombies are not a pretty sight – but neither is death.
For millennia humans have been dying. With the exception of Enoch and Elijah, every human born has died. One would think we would be used to it by now – but we are not. Every time it happens, regardless of how long we have to prepare for it, death comes as a surprise. I am certain that just before Methuselah died at 969 he said, "Is that all?"
Our recognition of death as unnatural would seem silly unless we believed that we were not meant to die. The Bible explains that physical death is the unnatural result of the curse pronounced on Adam and Eve following their initial sin in the Garden of Eden. Yet Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has placed "eternity in their heart." We know we are designed to live forever, so death always appears as the relentless enemy.
Fear of death is not the sole province of the zombie film – death on the battlefield in war films frightens us as well. The fear of death is heightened in Romero's films by the fear of decay. As zombies shamble about in Romero's films, they have a hard time literally holding themselves together. It is disquieting to see the human body profaned.
In the Old Testament, Numbers 19:11-22, God explains to the children of Israel that dead bodies are a source of uncleanness. He commands ritual washing and purifying of anyone and anything that comes into contact with a dead body. Those who touch one are unclean for a minimum of an entire week.
Because death is unnatural, decay is as well. God did not intend for our bodies to perish – they were designed to last forever. The Bible tells us that Jesus' body did not suffer decay (Ps. 16:10), and those in Christ are promised that their own corruptible bodies will put on incorruption (1 Corinthians 15:53).
Zombies are the living dead – animated decaying corpses that feed on human flesh. Their appetites are insatiable. The films warn that zombies will not stop until they run out of food – which means that by then, everyone will be dead.
Even though by this fourth film, Romero has his zombies evolve into beings with low-level thinking and organization, what they have not developed is a morality. They are walking hunger that cannot be sated. Zombies represent primal lust – and they will kill anything that stands in their way.
In that sense, the zombies are little different from most of the humans in the film. Kaufman, the leader of a city of surviving humans, keeps his position by a careful use of the spoils system. His supporters live luxuriously, while his detractors inhabit the slums. Kaufman lives a life of indulgence, and if he is threatened he does not hesitate to kill. In order to keep the rabble pacified he says that he "gives them guns and vices" including a "show" in which a live human woman is thrown into a cage with two zombies to encourage them to fight over which gets to eat her. In weighing the relative morality of the zombies and humans, in many cases it is a tough call.
In a telling scene from "28 Days Later" (not, technically, a zombie film though it has many of the trappings) some of the world's last defenders are discussing the impact of the "infection." A sergeant concludes that since the human race has only been around for a relatively short time, if the infection wipes them out it will just be a return to normality. But the commanding major concludes that since the infection all he has seen is people killing people – which is precisely what he had seen in all the weeks before the infection. He concludes that they are currently in a state of normality. Zombie movies put the insatiable lust of sin front and center. There is no sugar coating, no attempt to make sin look nice. All we see are the ravages of the horrible behaviors across the globe squeezed into a small area so that we can witness them more easily.
The Bible speaks of the universality of sin (Romans 3:23) and its lethal outcome – sin breeds death (James 1:15). The same people that might cheer zombies – because they recognize that the death is not real and the gore is created with special effects – are horrified by atrocities such as those we witnessed in Rwanda, where men, women, and children were hacked to death by machetes – some while seeking refuge in church. The problem of zombies is that they are everywhere and their desire to do evil cannot be quenched – a world remarkably like our own, without the special effects.
Early in "Land of the Dead" the protagonists discover that the zombies are beginning to organize. Many of them appear to be attempting to perform their old jobs. One human comments, "They're pretending to be alive." Another responds, "Is that what we're doing? Pretending to be alive?"
If life is merely existence then there is no difference between the zombies and the humans – both are struggling to survive, and are battling for ascendancy. The zombies go through the motions of work, love (one zombie couple is repeatedly seen holding hands), and making music – but all of it is meaningless. On the human side, the sexual relationships are furtive, the world is divided into menials and the privileged, and the music is Muzak. Most of the population is controlled by force, or by pandering to vices. There is no vision beyond survival and personal prosperity. The lack of distinction between the two camps is highlighted when Kaufman's henchman, Cholo, is bitten by a zombie. When one of Cholo's lieutenants asks if Cholo wants to be killed in order to avoid being "zombified," Cholo responds, "Nah, I always wanted to see how the other half lives." Cholo sought power and vengeance in life – we discover he seeks it again in death – there is no distinction. As the writer of Ecclesiastes would say, it is all striving after wind – all is vanity.
The Real Living Dead
Without Christ, all human beings are the living dead. Ephesians 2:1-3 describes how humans are dead in their sins, enslaved to their lusts, and (as a result) are objects of wrath. Like the humans in Romero's films, we cannot create a trustworthy way of escape – the living death is always nipping at our heels and will eventually overcome us. It is interesting that there is a minor character in "Land of the Dead" who calls for the inhabitants of the human city to repent and turn to Jesus. In John's gospel, Jesus says that those who believe in Him have eternal life and have "passed out of death into life" (John 5:24). If we are to escape the death promised by sin, we cannot hope in guns and vices; we need to turn to Christ.
Marc T. Newman, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president of MovieMinistry.com (www.movieministry.com) -- an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.
Publication of this analysis does not constitute endorsement of the film. MPAA has given this movie an R rating for pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality, and some drug use.
© 2005 AgapePress. All rights reserved. Used with permission.