Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Oh the [In]humanity: A Theological Apology for Zombie Films

Zombie movies often have a heavy veneer of superficiality. The Resident Evil movies, Grindhouse and Doom all make this point nicely. On the other hand, more 'refined' zombie flicks have given way to social commentary: Romero's Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later both fall into this category. These movies have often been used to question and critique 'mindless' consumerism, the breakdown of the family, and the ascension of the individual over society, among other issues.

Yet, theological reflection seems scant. I would submit that zombie movies in particular can be used as vehicles for theological reflection.

All of this came about when my beloved friend had an evening free from his wife to see the new Resident Evil 3: Extinction with me. As we are both theology students are discussion always are reduced to questions of God. Yet, my beloved friend and I seemed unable to respond to the movie theologically. So with some good ol' Samuel Well's "theological imagination" I came up with some ways Christians can begin to redeem the damned:

1) Immortality through worldly means is distortive and vain:
Through the consequence of sin we all must suffer death. As death looms over us with inevitability we seek immortality through worldly ends instead of Godly ones. Paul shares, "To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life" (Romans 2:7). The virus that causes the zombie outbreak in the Resident Evil trilogy was created to essentially create worldly immortality. However, it only leaves to a mere immortality, but not sanctification; a deformation, but not transformation. More than just medical means to extend the length of life there are a myriad of ways we try to vainly grasp immortality. Through fame, career, status we all seek out a means to an end that if extended to such a point or brought to their logically outcomes all still lead to death. Christianity does not deny the reality of death, but reassures us that Christ conquered death for all.

2) The consciousness of humanity permits the knowledge of Good and God:
Most horror movies and almost all zombie movies convey to the audience the intrinsic value of civility and humanity. The grotesque zombie places into relief the virtue of man. Even as humanity is still marred by sin, grace is given by God so that man may still know the Good. Zombies, I would argue, cannot know the Good, as they are soulless and consequently spiritless, unable to self-transcend, ergo unable to know the Goodness of God. This assumption that Zombie's do not have souls leads into the final point – and was also discussed in another blog.

3) Christian resurrection will not be zombie-like re-animation:
If zombie movies promise anything it is an illustration of what is to be rejected when a Christian considers the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Paul said, "But someone will ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come? Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sounds, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality." (I Corinthians, 15:35-38). The resurrection of the dead will not be grounded in a crass physicalsim, and cannot be separated from the mind. Zombie movies are a via negative for understanding the resurrection of the body.

The professed creed ends, "We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen." Thus the resurrection of body cannot be denied, but in what fashion it is raised makes all the difference. In Luke two disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus, and are joined by the risen Christ. Though they do not recognize Jesus until supper they do not confuse him for some walking dead. The zombie is relegated merely to this image of illustrative death. Thus, it entails all the horror of the anthropomorphized understanding of death – literally, death incarnate. Such a future bears little good news for the faithful, and thus zombie movies are properly in the genre of horror.

I would like to thank both my beloved friend and Coptic Christian for their insights into this issue, and without whom this post would have been impossible, or at least far far less insightful.


Anonymous said...

WOW--Zombies and God all twisted together like the red and white of a candy cane. Don't think I've ever read anything quite like it.

Rach=) said...

First off, all horror, be it fiction or film, is a morality tale. The basis for horror as a genre is the morality tale; stemming form ancient myths from where the evil element is used to illustrate a point. Modern horror stems from a long standing Judeo-Christian hell, fire, and brimstone - where there is a definitive antagonist, be it Satan, demonic forces, or a serial killer. All modern horror has a definitive antagonist. The zombie movie as a "morality tale" is quite simple to understand. Aside from poking fun at consumerism, etc. zombies are quite straight forward antagonists. They are the soulless bodies of the dead which came back to devour the living. Although in actual zombie myth, from Santeria and Voo-Doo, zombies do not necessarily devour the living.
Romero astutely noticed that in the Bible, in the end of days it is said that the dead will rise to consume the living - which is an obvious reference to the dead will out number the living. Taken literally, it means that the dead will devour the living. In the zombie movies the major themes are: man's arrogance causing his downfall (e.g., a man-made virus)/zombie plague movies, the soullessness of follow-the-leader mentality (because all zombies are essentially a mob), and a fear of other people (the original Romero intent in “Night of the Living Dead”).

If anything the zombie movie would be a great topic for discussion on whether these zombies element has a scientific rational explanation or is an incarnation for the wrath of God. Both explanations are given in the various movies in the zombie genre and sometimes in the same movie depending on the spirituality of the character giving rationalization. One thing to notice about zombie movies is the rate at which the horror builds. In a good zombie movie, the horror builds slowly coming to a complete chaos and utter destruction - which mimic the ways in which zombies attack people in movies. You will notice that the way zombies devour people in these movies are either by out-numbering or cornering people. This shows how easily it is for man’s creations to get out of control – in a way “Frankenstein” was a zombie movie. I think your problem is your failure to distinguish between “resurrection” and “reanimation”. “Resurrection” only occurs as an act of God – either directly or through an agent of God. “Resurrection” brings back both body and soul. “Reanimation” on the other hand, can be accomplished through man’s ingenuity or his deals with some sort of demonic forces. “Reanimation” brings back the body, but without the soul (i.e., “Pet Cemetery”, “Re-animator”, the Romero zombie movies, etc.). “Reanimated” bodies are considered to be “un-dead” whereas “resurrected” bodies are considered living – these are not the same concept. Examples of undead creatures, aside from zombies, are vampires, wraith, ghouls, skeletons, skeletal warriors, and the ever dreaded lich. The “resurrected” body is usually brought back in tact whereas the “reanimated” body is usually damaged.

The Catholic Atheist said...


Thanks for posting.
I would have to quibble on your assertion that I need to distinguish between reanimation and resurrection. The distiction was one of my three enuermated points.