You don’t generally think of the zombie apocalypse as a religious experience, but that’s what it’s been, more or less, for Gregg Garrett. Garrett attended Episcopal seminary, and is a licensed lay preacher. He is now an English professor at Baylor University–and he says he sees pop culture criticism as a kind of religious vocation. “I go out and ask larger questions about the culture and where the intersection might be between religious questions and cultural stories,” he told me.
His latest book, Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse, is about the dead rising up and feasting on the living, from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Days Later, World War Z, Zombieland, all the way to Marvel Zombies, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. But it’s also about “trying to figure out what we’re doing here, and how we’re supposed to live. The funny thing about the zombie apocalypse,” Garrett says, “is that this story about the end of the world is filled with all of this wisdom about how we are supposed to live or might live.”
So, yes, as you’re all fleeing from the shambling flesh-eaters, Garrett is the guy who stops to ask them to explain the meaning of life. To find out what he got from the zombie’s mouth, I spoke to him by phone about his book, the living dead, and his least favorite zombie film of all time.
People often say that zombie stories are particularly popular right now. Is that accurate? Daniel Drezner has quantified zombie films and well over a third of them have come out since 9/11. Which is kind of amazing when you consider that the first zombie film is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. So we have a long, long stretch of time where we have been making that kind of story.
The Walking Dead’s ratings are down a little bit this year, but the previous four years it’s the most popular television show in the world in the young adult demographic. Even beyond Game of Thrones and zombie films, there are hundreds of thousands of zombie products on Amazon: zombie games and zombie app. There’s very clearly a lot of interest.
Was this zombie virus sparked by 9/11? In a way, I think it is. But also, there are these flash points in human history when it looks like things are going badly and people get really scared. And so one of the things that happens in art and literature is that death becomes a major concern. It happened in the Middle Ages at the time of the Black Death; it happened in the trenches of World War I; it happened in Holocaust art and literature.
So whether that’s zombies getting up and walking around or death with a capital “D” interacting with human beings, by putting death, actual death in front of us, one of the things that the zombie story allows us to do is confront our fears head on.
Max Brook, who wrote World War Z and the Zombie Survival Guide, has done some really thoughtful conversations with the Washington Post about why he’s drawn to zombies. And he says that zombies can stand in for anything that represents ongoing threats. Whether it’s terrorism or ebola or zika or global unrest—whatever it is that keeps you up at night.
Are zombies frightening because they’re so different from us? Or because they’re similar to us? One of the things that makes zombies scary is that they are like us and not like us. They resemble us and in a lot of the movies, in Shaun of the Dead, for example, there is this continuing comic gag where we are so much alike that it’s sometimes hard to tell us apart.
And in some ways that’s a philosophical statement, that we can be so sunk in lives that don’t matter that we’re not that different from the walking dead. But also what scares us about that is, here are these things that look a lot like us, and how are we different? And that’s something that goes all the way back to George Romero and the original Dawn of the Dead, most of the movie is set in a shopping mall. And the heroes are hiding out in the shopping mall, and the zombies are drawn to the shopping mall.
That’s a philosophical statement, that we can be so sunk in lives that don’t matter that we’re not that different from the walking dead.
They shop; we shop. What’s the difference? I think what makes us different is our ability to make choices, to choose communities, our ability to sometimes do things that are not part of our animal appetites. We sometimes do things that are not necessarily even good for us, but that seem like the right thing to do.
Empathy, compassion, heroism, self sacrifice. Zombies’ rudimentary wiring does not permit them to do those things. And that’s part of what makes us human.
Is it ethical to kill zombies? Yes! I think it is.
One of the things we think about in most of the wisdom traditions is that murder is a bad thing because it’s another human soul. And however you understand that from your tradition. In my tradition, here’s a creature made in the image of God.
And zombies aren’t. But one of the really interesting things I discovered in the course of the book, even though people agree that zombies are not so great and they will eat you if they can, and so probably it’s okay for you to destroy them–in all of the stories there seems to be a psychic cost that goes along with it.
I ran across an article by a psychiatrist who talked about how basically everyone surviving the zombie apocalypse would have post traumatic stress disorder–which is a little bit how I felt after watching all the tv shows and movies to write this book. It’s impossible to experience all of this violence and gore and even to be the agent of it and not to be affected in some way.
So the arc of Rick in The Walking Dead is an interesting thing to explore. The first time he kills a zombie, it’s accidentally. They’re in the hospital and wrestling and they fall down the stairs. The second time he does it, it’s with tears in his eyes, because there is so much of the human remaining in that creature.
And then further down the road we’re seven seasons into the tv show and now when he meets a new person on the road, it’s, “How many zombies have you killed? How many human beings have you killed. Why did you kill them?” And so he’s moved from a “this feels terrible” to what looks like in season seven, this hardened belief that this is the world we live in and this is what we have to do to survive.
What’s your favorite zombie narrative? I will tell you, as important as the Romero movies are, I don’t prefer them. I’m more drawn to an affirmative ending. I would say that my favorites are the movies Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. And probably it’s not coincidence that they are zomcoms or even romzomcoms if you want to say it that way. I’m drawn to the affirmative endings of them and to the idea that life goes on, because in a lot of the zombie stories it doesn’t. It’s the end of everything.
But at the end of the day I’m drawn to stories that talk about the resilience of the human spirit. If I get to choose between hope and despair, I’ll choose hope every single time.
And what about your least favorite zombie movie? Well, I’ve seen a lot of really bad movies. This is going to be shocking but…Night of the Living Dead.
Partly because it’s so bleak. The ending of it is just “Oh. really? I spent all this time and this is what’s going to happen.”
It’s 50 years old next year, and it was made on the super cheap, and the production values are not stunning. So that I think would probably be my least favorite. There are some movies you watch because they’re historically powerful or important. I teach the original Birth of a Nation even though it’s terrifyingly racist, and it’s not because I enjoy it, but because it’s a movie that matters. And that’s where we are in the zombie tradition. Night of the Living Dead is right in the middle of the road, and you can’t walk around it. But in terms of what I would watch for pleasure as opposed to what I would rather not watch at all, I think that would be my answer. With all apologies to Mr. Romero.