April 21, 2010

The Zombie / Virus Connection

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Although I've been known to voice my boredom in response to the overwhelming number of unoriginal films these days that present zombiism as spread by viral infection, there's one truth I cannot deny. The zombie / virus connection is a perfect thematic match. Other than the virus, no other force on the planet is so like the walking undead as envisioned by Romero and his followers.

First of all, scientists cannot conclusively agree on whether viruses are living organisms. Like zombies, they appear to act like living organisms but lack the internal mechanisms of living things. For example, when a virus is dormant, it shows no biological activity. We can liken this (unscientifically, of course) to a corpse in the ground. It's made of organic parts, but it's not alive. When a virus comes into contact with a host, it is activated and displays behaviors and properties we would liken to those of living organisms, such as reacting to its environment and self-replicating (1). The zombie too comes out of its dormant state to walk and feed and create more zombies. The striking thing, however, is that although both the virus and zombie act like living organisms they don't have the inner-workings of typical living organisms. For example, the virus is more like a chemical machine than living thing:

... a virus consists of nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) enclosed in a protein coat that may also shelter viral proteins involved in infection. By that description, a virus seems more like a chemistry set than an organism. But when a virus enters a cell (called a host after infection), it is far from inactive. It sheds its coat, bares its genes and induces the cell’s own replication machinery to reproduce the intruder’s DNA or RNA and manufacture more viral protein based on the instructions in the viral nucleic acid. (2)
Likewise, the zombie appears to act like a living organism, but based on our definitions of life it shouldn't be alive. A zombie goes on "living" without blood, without taking nourishment from its food, without oxygen, and in some films even without a brain. The true terror of the zombie is that it should not be. In many ways, the virus is the same. Viruses and zombies are scary because they blur the distinction between biology and chemistry as well as living and non-living. Exploring the zombie and virus leads us to question the definition of "life." For being potentially non-living constructs, viruses can evolve and have a powerful effect on the world. So can zombies. I think it was Max Brooks who once said zombie are essentially viruses walking around in human skin, and he's right.

A second reason the zombie / virus connection is so apt is that both zombies and viruses point out humanity's keen ability to engineer its own destruction. Since the zombie is not natural, it has to be caused by an outside force (explained or unexplained). Sometimes its magical, sometimes its vaguely scientific (as with a toxin or man-made virus). In most zombie films where the cause is explained, it tends to be due to humans messing around with nature. A virus, on the other hand, is natural, but due to its chemical structure can be easily engineered by humans. Powerful viruses and other biological weapons are becoming increasingly easy to produce in the laboratory, so many zombie franchises, such as Resident Evil, have picked up on this idea to fictionalize an apocalyptic outcome: a virus that reduces humanity to violent zombies. On the literal level of plot this makes sense, but on a deeper thematic level it’s even more profound. In the real world, a virus destroys its host from the inside. It invades, infects, replicates, and causes damage internally by turning the body’s mechanisms against itself. Meanwhile, in fictional zombie films, the threat is often not the zombies themselves but the human survivor’s tendency to turn on one another. They snipe at one another, backbite, and work against one another. If we think of the human survivors as cells in the body of humanity, they are not working harmoniously. Their immune system is weak. They leave opportunities for the virus – the zombies – to creep in and infect the body. Yet, when a virus invades a cell, it isn’t causing anything to happen that the body’s not already capable of doing. It just uses those mechanisms for its own replication. Similarly, zombies do not cause people to be greedy, petty, or violent. The stress applied on people by the threat of zombies simply brings to the surface the ugly side of humanity that is already there, exposing gaps in the human condition through which the social body can be infected and reduced to its base function: to kill and feed and replicate. In films where the zombie apocalypse is man-made, the meaning is doubly important. Not only have we created our own destruction at the hands of a man-made virus, but what the virus turns us into (or how it prompts people to act) is already a reflection of our darker nature.

Yes, the imaginary concept of the zombie and the realities of the virus seem made for each other. But from where did this concept of the fictional zombie virus start? It’s important to note that zombies did not emerge already associated with virus and infection. Interestingly, Romero has less to do with the connection than you may first think. In the 20th century, the Western world's fascination with the zombie was fixated on the zombie’s magical roots (seen by the West through a scared misunderstanding of Haitian spiritual beliefs). George A. Romero changed the rules of the game when he released Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and presented zombies as flesh-hungry ghouls. However, viruses and infection were not even an important factor when George A. Romero created Night.

In Night and Dawn of the Dead (1978), anyone who dies without damage to the brain appears to rise from the dead. In Night, we’re told that Harry and Helen Cooper’s daughter Karen was bitten by a zombie and has fallen ill, but there’s no clear emphasis placed on the illness itself causing zombie reanimation. The bite might be deadly and infectious (just as a normal human bite can be dangerously infectious if not treated). When she succumbs to her wounds and rises as a ghoul to attack her family, I don’t think we were meant to think it was the bite that causes her to rise. Rather, the bite brought her to death from which all zombies rise. Later, in Dawn of the Dead, the virus connection is less subtextual but still not evident. The word virus never appears in the 1977 working draft of the script, or to my knowledge, the final film itself. We do learn that “every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them! It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!” While it’s clear that the zombie bite is deadly and infectious, as evidenced when Peter is bitten and develops a rapidly spreading infection, I would still argue Romero never suggests that the virus itself brings the dead back to life. Their bite is deadly, yes, but not the agent of reanimation. Yet, today, we have a number of films in which the agent of reanimation is clearly stated to be a virus. You need only look to the Dawn of the Dead remake to see this shift.

So where did this idea of the zombie virus come from? Less from Romero (who has always left the cause of zombiism unexplained). In my opinion, the cultural influence of Fulci’s Zombi 2, Anderson's Resident Evil franchise, and Boyle’s 28 Days Later have more to do with establishing the zombie / virus connection that Romero’s films. While I’m sure people were reading into Romero’s films and seeing that zombie reanimation was kind of viral (no doubt a result of I Am Legend’s influence on Romero’s script), it was not until Resident Evil and 28 Days Later came along that the idea of zombies created by viruses became a staple of the genre. When Max Brooks ran with the idea in The Zombie Survival Guide, describing a fictional virus called Solanum, the connection was pretty much inescapable. It’s rare these days to see a zombie film in which viral infection does not play an explicit role in the creation of zombies.

While I wish filmmakers would be more willing to explore other causes for zombiism, such as in films like Pontypool (review) or Eat Me! (review), I cannot deny that zombies and viruses seem made for each other.

The zombie is the virus in human form. There's no escaping it. And I don’t think we’re going to see a vaccination for it any time soon.