Lately it’s been all undead, all the time. My friend Linda B. has been recording the deeply creepy series “The Walking Dead” for me, and the two of us saw the zom-rom-com film “Warm Bodies” together. Last weekend, DF and I attended opening night (and the world premiere) of “At Home With the Clarks,” described by its author as “Father Knows Best” meets “Night of the Living Dead.”
All three got me thinking about class and consumerism.
In the TV series, survivors of the zombie apocalypse are ultra-stripped-down consumers. The mostly desperately prized items are food and bullets and, this season, baby formula since one of the characters died in childbirth and no one in the group is currently lactating.
People wear the same few clothes over and over. They drive whatever operational vehicle they can find. When they need shelter or a defense against the undead they must MacGuyver-up solutions with what’s currently at hand.
Barely making it, always hungry, no chance to plan for the future because they’re too busy surviving the present: Clearly, they are the working poor.
Always chasing the ghost
The zombie leading man of “Warm Bodies” is a collector. While the other undead mostly shamble in endless loops around the airport, “R” has built himself a little nest in a passenger plane.
He’s got a stereo system and all sorts of decorative tchotchkes. No food, of course, but what single guy keeps more in his fridge than some Coronas and a couple of limes? (Not that I wish to generalize. And not that zombies drink beer.) He’s got a hot red sportscar that he can’t actually drive, zombie reflexes being what they are.
However, none of what R has makes him happy. Once he’s obtained it the stuff is just, well, stuff. When he’s finished stumbling around the airport with all the other brain-dead undead, R retires for the night to his super-narrow condo to sit among his stuff and, um, vegetate. He can’t even sleep (zombies can’t, apparently).
R’s only brief moments of quasi-joy come from nibbling on the brains of any people he can catch. When he does this, he gets fragments of their memories, quick flashes of what it was like to be human. Think of it as zombie meth: It feels great but it doesn’t last long, and it leaves you desperate for more. You’re always chasing the ghost.
I think this makes him…the acquisitive middle class.
The status quo as birthright
And the Clarks? Why, they’re the clueless rich! They’ve got nice furniture, the latest electronics (for that era, anyway) and chirp-happy kids who say things like “Golly gee whillikers” when things are perplexing.
Dad makes so much money that Mom doesn’t have to work. She serves pot roast for dinner on a weeknight and wears a lovely dress even though it isn’t Sunday. They live in “a nice neighborhood,” so nice they don’t bother locking the back door. (Hint: Not a good habit once the zombie apocalypse has taken place.)
Success is as expected and accepted as the oxygen they breathe, and the status quo is their birthright. When warned about an imminent nuclear attack they actually laugh. Even a radio broadcast urging them to seek shelter is dismissed as probably just a drill. Sirens going off in the neighborhood? No doubt it’s just an accident or a fire.
When the mushroom cloud shows up, Mom and Dad chant a Civil Defense ditty about Bert the Turtle. They really believe that ducking and covering will save them. After all, our system is set up to protect people like them. The Clarks are too big to fail.
In fact, some of the trappings of their success – pretty things on the wall, the high-tech (for that era) telephone – do provide some protection. Some small part of the zombie brain is easily distracted by bright shiny objects, slowing them down enough to help the survivors avoid immediate capture and infestation.
And while I won’t reveal the ending, I will say that the status quo does figure prominently: Too much social change too fast is one of the reasons that the crisis happened in the first place. Ahem.
What makes us human
Class symbolism aside, what are we to make of this societal fascination with the undead?
Maybe it plays on our fears of being dehumanized by what an increasingly cold and uncaring world, or by a social structure that turns us into zombies/drones. A scene in the zombie comedy (zomedy?) “Shaun of the Dead” shows people with vacant eyes and expressions, but it turns out they’re just commuters – and by the end of the film, it’s pointed out that tamed zombies make excellent retail clerks.
Certainly there’s a hint of zombiedom in certain consumer behaviors. Plenty of people mindlessly buy the newest version of anything, even if the old one still works just fine and/or isn’t even really “old” (and even if they can’t afford it). If a celebrity shows a new hairstyle or is photographed drinking a particular beverage, how many fans rush to imitate? And as regards social media, well…Don’t get me started or we’ll be here all day.
For me, the fascination/fear stems from the notion of memories. They make me who I am. Memories are my most precious possessions.
True, they’re sometimes strongly linked to material items. Prime example: Why did I drive a U-Haul to Alaska? It would have been much more practical/frugal simply to mail a few boxes, pack a couple of suitcases and dump or donate the rest before getting on a plane.
But there’s no logic to emotion. While I did get rid of a bunch of stuff I kept a lot, too. There was no need for me to bring the grandfather clock that an artist friend made for me, or the outfit my newborn daughter wore home from the hospital, or even some old Tupperware that belonged to my mother. But specific memories are attached to those items.
Yes, I get sentimental about food preservation containers. Sue me. But zombies don’t have memories. (Or Tupperware.)
What defines us as human beings is our ability to care, and to remember. In a recent episode of “The Walking Dead,” a preteen and two other survivors went on a supply run to the city where he’d lived before the infestation. With a whole town to plunder, the kid risked his life to grab one thing: a photo of himself and his parents. (His mother was the one who died in childbirth.)
When chastised about taking such a chance, the boy explains that he thought his baby sister deserved “to know what her mother looked like.”
That ability to think about others before ourselves? The need to cherish family ties? That’s what makes us human. That’s why I fear dementia more than I do cancer, because it would take away everything I have. Or, rather, everything that matters.