The theology of the living dead

The zombies are coming!  The third season of the hit show “The Walking Dead” is out.  This hit TV show is based on a popular comic book series by the same name. This new series is not your typical ‘horror’ show. It is less about the blood and gore (although it has plenty) and is more about the characters.

Not all ‘zombie’ movies are equal.  Search any movie data base and the majority of such tales are as bad as a movie can get.   The grandfather of zombies is George Romero.  His movies stand above the rest.  “Night of the Living Dead” really introduced the whole genre to the world.  “Dawn of the Dead” was mostly set in a shopping mall and has a slight materialism/consumerism commentary.  People die and as they walk around brainless they are drawn to what they love which is to mindless wander around a mall. Romero followed this with “Day of the Dead” which has a military comment going for it. Other movies have followed.  Romero’s “Land of the Dead” is the strongest ‘message’ movie as he takes aim at social inequality. Romero has continued to delve into this world but you get the picture.

Others have followed. Remakes and new versions of Romero’s work along with some really bad attempts have occupied many DVD players. The classic and hilarious “Shawn of the Dead” stands out as a fresh approach to the undead. The other great comedy is “Zombie Land.”  More serious movies have made plenty of money.  “28 Days Later” was quite unique (set in England) and was followed by a less than great sequel. The video game series “Resident Evil” has played with the zombie concept with over the top special effects. But the recent “Walking Dead” is really the smartest written series to date.

So why is a preacher writing about zombies? It is Halloween time but still I believe there are several theological musings regarding the genre.  The zombie craze is really an additional version of the apocalyptic world story narrative. Many movies have depicted our country as desolate and destroyed. It isn’t always zombies.  It may be vampires, robots, or disaster that has left cities like New York in ruins. In a post 9-11 world that isn’t too hard to grasp.  And of course conservative Christians have their own version in the rapture movie “Left Behind”.  The latest word is that movie is now going to be remade with a bigger budget and starring Nicolas Cage.

What is that fascination with a destroyed urban society? From Mad Max to Will Smith we see the image clearly in our minds thanks to Hollywood. Is it the fascination with what humanity would really do if all that we know and love were taken from us?  Is it that idea that we live in a frail and fragile world and we fear that everything is going to come apart one day?  Is there something in us that wonders what really makes someone human and what courage is about?

And so bring on the zombies.  Sometimes they are fast and other times slow.  Sometimes they are dumb and sometimes they are not quite as dumb as we believe. But they are coming.  And heroes must decide how to carry on.  Perhaps the zombie motif is a comment to our fear of death itself. Perhaps we fear the entire reality of our mortal fragile state and the idea of Uncle Ralph walking aimless around looking for brains is really our entire discomfort with admitting that one day we will cease to be alive? Maybe I’m thinking too hard but who knows. And perhaps it is also a bit of our fears of disease and could something really bad leak out of the CDC in Atlanta?

The truth is that 9-11 did accelerate our fear of society falling apart. When we saw those towers fall many said it was like watching a Hollywood movie. We had seen America attacked time and time again at our movie theaters but never in reality. Maybe for a moment we realized that this kingdom we built is not invincible. We’ve seen whole cities in ruins in other countries but we just couldn’t imagine it here at home. We see the video and the pictures of foreign lands occupied and destroyed but we just can’t accept that we could possible face that kind of world.

And so if all fell apart what makes a person human? Would we band together to help our neighbor and the stranger next door? Or would we forsake everyone else and fight for our own survival no matter what it cost others? If our society were destroyed what type of society would we recreate? What type of world would we seek to remake? Would the best of humanity rise up and win or would we fall apart like the kids in “The Lord of the Flies”?

All I know is I have seen enough to be ready. If the zombie uprising comes I’m locking myself in Wal-Mart until we can find an isolated island out there is discovered to escape too. Until then maybe we should change the channel and watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.”

Derik Hamby

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Dr. Derik Hamby serves as pastor of Randolph Memorial Baptist in Madison Heights, Va. He enjoys history, religion, movies, music, and pop culture.

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