The Rebirth of the Zombie and, Dare I Say it, Walkable City

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[By Paul Goddin, written February 3, 2013, unpublished until now]

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Ever since George Romero’s 1978 film “Dawn of the Dead” (arguably the best zombie film of all time, with a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), zombies have symbolized modern-day anxieties, specifically American consumerism. For what is a zombie but a mindless automaton consuming everything in its path? But give me a little latitude here, because I believe a strong case can be made that zombie movies also mirror migration trends and settlement patterns, and the new movie “Warm Bodies” gives hope that things are headed in the right direction.

Trust me, I get it. Many of you are rolling your eyes already. The zombie metaphor is so overdone it’s outlived its life expectancy several times over (becoming, in its own right, ahem, the walking dead).

But let’s go back to Romero’s seminal original “Dawn.” Beginning in an urban location, a Pittsburgh public housing project overrun by the fictitious horror monsters, the heroes of that movie quickly realize that the cities are doomed, and decide to move to less populated rural areas. After some scrapes with redneck flesh eaters, they settle on a more defensible location, a suburban shopping mall (oh, the horror).

“Dawn of the Dead”, then, mirrors society’s fears of the time, as the middle class left the cities in huge numbers in favor of the suburbs. That movie’s ending, it should be noted, was less than upbeat.

It’s not just “Dawn” though, that depicted this fear of city life. It has become a trope of the zombie genre that the cities were not an attractive location in which to settle. Too many people in close proximity, too easily overrun by flesh eaters. The ultimate gentrification, you could say.

The AMC series “The Walking Dead,” the highest rated show on cable in 2012, continued in this blood-spurting vein, mirroring the migration patterns in “Dawn.” In the first season of the show the heroes looked to Atlanta as their salvation. Finding it hopelessly infested by the undead, the series’ protagonists moved to a farm in season 2, until a horde of zombies booted them from their safe haven.

Now midway through season 3 (returning to AMC in February, 2013) most of the team has settled into a location they also view as more easily defensible: a prison. But a few others have found themselves in a “planned community” that seems too good to be true, and is. It seems a safe bet that the remainder of season 3 will involve a similar mass exodus. For what are these people trying to do if not find a place where they can live, and more to the point, feel alive. Neither a dehumanizing prison nor a planned community in all its artifice seem likely contenders in this endeavor.

Despite my enjoyment of “The Walking Dead,” the show is as bleak and dark as a Wal-Mart parking lot at midnight. Fitting for a show with such a gory backdrop, but it’s not the only way to make a zombie show or movie.

This is why the new film “Warm Bodies” was such an enjoying departure. Riffing off William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the two star-crossed lovers in Jonathan Levine’s film are Julie and a zombie named simply “R,” who is slowly coming back to life. Not unlike the American urban centers, currrently in demand and being resettled in significant numbers.

This is what struck a particular chord with this writer: the way the action has shifted in this original take on the zombie story. “Warm Bodies” is more optimistic than previous zombie incarnations, but its use of place reflects a trend in Americans’ thinking as well, particularly as relates to the city. Cities are no longer places to be feared. They are places, in fact, of life. The “dead zone” in this movie is the suburbs.

So while “R,” that zombie without a name in “Warm Bodies,” slowly returns to life, so too do America’s cities. As always in these movies, the zombies are us, but things are looking up.

Warm Bodies poster courtesy Summit Entertainment. 

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