Personal Essays

Poster from the 1943 film

A Taste for Flesh

America has a problem with death; zombies have a problem with life. The difference, explained by more than 60 zombie movies.

If civilization is ever overrun by zombies—which for the purposes of this essay shall be defined as reanimated corpses who feed on the living until they’re dispatched by a gunshot to the head—I know exactly what I will do. I will gather my family and I will take them to Wal-Mart.

From our home in suburban Arkansas, my wife, two daughters, and I are within walking distance of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. On most days, this is a mixed blessing, as the convenient access to cheap groceries is undercut by an endless caravan of obese malcontents and their SUVs. But when the walking dead pull the curtain on the 21st Century, it will be an unqualified boon. To Wal-Mart we will go, for only Wal-Mart contains everything that a small, ragtag group of survivors will need—canned goods, bottled water, and shotguns—to survive the initial months of the zombie plague.

Our Supercenter is also equipped with a fully stocked pharmacy. (I’m thinking both of medicinal staples such as antibiotics as well as more recreational drugs such as Percocet and Oxycontin. Who wants to face the apocalypse sober?) There are no windows, and steel shutters slide down over the doors. A group of 10 to 15 people could live comfortably in a Supercenter for almost a year; a larger group would consume essentials at a faster rate, but, given the chaos following the initial outbreak, when survivors will be killed by automobile accidents and explosions at least as quickly as they will be eaten by the walking dead, it’s unlikely that a large group would ever make it to the Supercenter. A group of 10 to 15 also offers the best ratio of labor division and specialty skills versus ease of governance and organization.

I know all of this because I watch zombie movies. I own 22 separate films on DVD; since my 10th birthday, I have seen more than 60. Indeed, I have watched so many of these movies, and some so many times, that over the years the specifics of their plots have blended into an ur-batter of the ultimate zombie narrative. Some guys get the Olsen twins spanking each other with diamond-studded paddles in their dreams; I get a recurring, somnambulant battle with the walking dead. If there’s one thing zombie movies have taught me, it’s that life is rarely fair. And whiners get eaten first.


* * *

The first dead body I ever saw belonged to a childhood friend. Rob owned every Transformer action figure ever made, which made him a celebrity in our first-grade classroom. Rob and I were friends, except when we argued over some ecclesiastical matter, such as whether Megatron could take Optimus in a one-on-one fight, or whether Scoop was really the dumbest Dinobot. The last time this happened was on a Tuesday. I don’t remember the specifics, but the fight must have been bitter, because I found myself sitting alone by the merry-go-round during both the morning and afternoon recess periods. Nevertheless, I expected to be reinstated with the cool kids the next day. That’s how these banishments worked. They were forgotten as soon as the final bell rang.

No one faints from fear; it’s the kind of response natural selection would have weeded out long ago, had it ever existed. (People who faint while being chased by a tiger are eaten by the tiger.)I don’t remember being told Rob was dead. I don’t remember the next recess at school, or what the rest of us did to entertain ourselves without his toys. I remember walking up the cracked concrete stairs to a towering set of wooden doors, each painted midnight blue. Inside, a long dingy carpet led to the single lighted corner of an otherwise dark room. The coffin sat below the light. We were almost the same height, the coffin and me, and the peak of Rob’s nose and the polished tips of his shoes peeked over its rim. Rob was a big kid, and they’d put him in an adult’s coffin, a plain brown box that was longer than the longest tube tunnel on the school playground.

Years later, while working as a newspaper reporter, I interviewed a scientist who said that one way to differentiate between fear and disgust is the impulse to faint. Contrary to what you’ve seen in many horror movies, no one faints from fear; it’s the kind of response natural selection would have weeded out of the genome long ago, had it ever existed. (People who faint while being chased by a tiger are eaten by the tiger.) Fainting is a response of disgust, a way for our consciousness to avoid an overwhelming, but not inherently dangerous, experience. Standing in the doorway to the funeral parlor, I didn’t feel at all faint. Instead, my chest went cold, my feet began to sweat, and my mouth ran dry. It was my first encounter with horror. Now, those sensations are the barometer I use to measure the effectiveness of my favorite films.

Something you should know about me: I never vomit. In 28 years, I have vomited four times: twice from drinking and twice from a stomach virus. I say this in lieu of saying what I saw inside the coffin, because, filed away inside my memory, where that image should be is only a blur of pale rouge. He’s wearing lipstick, I remember thinking. My next memory is a snapshot of the quartz and slate in the gravel parking lot, where I gagged on my hands and knees. Even on a beautiful woman, the sight of makeup still sometimes turns my stomach.

Rob’s was the last casket I ever approached. I’ve attended funerals since then, some for family and some for friends, but I always sit in the back, my eyes on the hymnal. Since first grade, the only corpses I’ve seen have been on screen.


* * *

The zombie genre began with the release of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. After 39 years, the film stands not only as the foundation of one of horror’s favorite subcategories, but as an icon of low-budget filmmaking.

Romero went on to make three more zombie movies (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and, most recently, Land of the Dead), all staples of the genre. Their success and timing have made Romero’s zombie the canonical zombie, against which all others are measured. A brief study reveals the following zombie characteristics:

  1. An insatiable appetite for human flesh.
  2. A steady, lurching gait (real zombies do not run, jog, or even power walk, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.)
  3. A bite that kills ordinary human beings by means of an unknown infectious agent, which quickly reanimates the bodies of its victims, transforming them into new zombies.
  4. Poor coordination and little-to-no ability to reason.
  5. A mortal weakness—a zombie can be permanently dispatched by the destruction of its brain.

Also established in Romero’s films was the basic plot of a zombie film. It begins with an unexplained outbreak of the zombie contagion, during which the zombies quickly multiply and chaos ensues. As the last remnants of civilization collapse, a small group of resourceful survivors arm themselves and seek shelter. They quickly realize that the hungry dead are the least of their problems. The real trouble lies within, in the hidden motivations and secret desires of the survivors.

Funeral directors sell their products as a final test of love, like Lear questioning his daughters before giving the kingdom away.The cause of the outbreak is never important. Exploring the source of a zombie infection has doomed more films than I can remember (Romero’s Day of the Dead chief among them). What’s compelling in a zombie film is not how the dead are able walk the earth and feed on the living; what’s compelling is that they are, and you’d better run fast and shoot straight if you plan to survive.

Still, the best of these films present more than just gore and guts. Movie critics are quick to point out the genre’s concerns with social equality (the heroes in Romero’s movies are always either women or black men) and America’s insatiable consumerism (the sole benefit of being a survivor in the zombie apocalypse is that, while most of the people are dead—or at least dead-ish—the shopping malls are just fine). Having no interest in serious criticism, I mention this only as an aside.


* * *

Walter was my mother’s second husband. They married a couple of years after my father’s death. I was 20 at the time, and predisposed to hate anyone taking my dad’s place, least of all a short, loud-mouthed, racist, gun-loving Republican from Texas. Walter was all of those things, but he was also more: an inexhaustible defender when his friends or family were threatened, a shrewd provider, and, behind all the reactionary rhetoric, the most generous person I ever knew.

Unfortunately, he was also a smoker. Lung cancer found him two years into their marriage, and he didn’t last long. A fiscal conservative to the end, he left my mother a sealed envelope that contained exactly enough money to cremate him and provide for a modest funeral service. She was under strict instructions not to let those “sons of bitches at the funeral home” sell her a coffin.

She carried the envelope in her lap when I drove her to see the funeral director. Once inside, he handed her a brochure full of coffins and immediately started the hard sell. He talked about the importance of a final gesture to signify the meaning that Walter provided in our lives. He waxed poetic about the symbolism of a Christian burial, the different liturgical meanings of various kinds of wood used in coffin construction. When her lip started to tremble, I took the brochure from her hands and told him we came for a cremation and an obituary, and that was all we came for. Walter would have been proud.

America has a problem with death. It remains the only part of our lives that can’t be bought, sold, or consumed (at least not legally, or presuming you’re not Keith Richards). It can’t be mitigated by marketing. No amount of money can make death any more palatable. This is something we all know instinctively—it’s why we’re burdened with a cultural imperative to grieve quickly, and then get back to spending. It’s why funeral directors sell their products as a final test of love, like Lear questioning his daughters before giving the kingdom away.

In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the survivors seek refuge in a mall. Once they finish the messy business of eliminating and disposing of the zombies inside, they’re positively giddy at the thought of possessing all that stuff. In one montage, we see them run through a clothing store, a candy store, and an electronics store, filling cart after cart, bag after bag. In one of the final images, they ransack a small bank, stuffing wads of 20s in their wallets. I can’t watch this without thinking of that envelope in my mother’s hands.


* * *

An obsession with zombie films is difficult to defend among educated people, and, though it sometimes pains me, educated people comprise most of my friends. I try to overcome their native snobbery whenever possible by introducing them to some authentic American art: namely, the zombie film. Every few months or so, a select group of graduate students and professors are invited to my house for a feast of bratwursts and beer, followed immediately by a zombie double feature.

The standard box cover for a horror movie offers everything that boys want to see: blood, action, and beautiful women in various stages of terror and undress.Generally, I start people out with Night of the Living Dead, which, while not a terribly original selection, is the most logical. An obvious second choice is Dawn of the Dead, arguably the best film Romero ever made, but I rarely go there. Instead, the second half is usually Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, an adaptation of a short story by pulp master H.P. Lovecraft. This movie is somewhat heretical in its presentation of the zombie (it’s also one of the few movies that gets away with positing a cause for the zombie plague, mostly because it keeps the science so wonky and outrageous), but it makes up for that with a lot of charm and several groundbreaking scenes. Chief among these is an exploding head, a life-and-death struggle between a mad scientist and a reanimated cat, and, most notably, a scene in which a severed head attempts to perform cunnilingus on a nude, bound, and screaming co-ed. Taken together, the two films establish both the genre’s artistic legitimacy and creative possibilities, or so I’ve always believed.

To be fair, these screenings meet with limited success. The most notorious ended prematurely during the last third of Re-Animator, when a PhD candidate ran out of the living room with a hand over her mouth. When she came back, she quickly ruled out the possibility that her upset was caused by the bratwurst. She said the film was pure trash, a hateful, gratuitous, and misogynistic depiction of excessive violence that was sure to corrupt and desensitize even the juvenile, morbid emotional cripples who were demented enough to view it. The camera’s fetishization of torn and mutilated bodies, even if softened by special effects that were so over-the-top as to be silly, made a mockery of human suffering. Only someone completely unfamiliar with real pain, with real death, could summon the dearth of imagination and empathy necessary to enjoy such a film.

I may not have the order exactly right, but those were her arguments. She emphasized her final point by poking her long, thin finger into my chest. I couldn’t help but notice that, during the movie, she’d chewed the nail raw.


* * *

If someone had to be blamed for my interest in horror films in general and zombie movies in particular, that person would be my father. Growing up, my dad was a big part of the reason that all of my friends wanted to spend the night at my house. He was older than most fathers (54 when I was born), hard of hearing, and, around 6 p.m., sure to be completely engrossed in a book. My mother was the same age as my friends’ mothers, but unlike those women, she worked a full-time job. Compared to a standard middle-class home of Protestant sensibilities, our house seemed to have no rules. This wasn’t strictly true—if you dropped the f-bomb loudly enough to penetrate my dad’s hearing aid, he would look up from that night’s mystery novel long enough to tell you to watch your goddamn language—but, with few exceptions, so long as we didn’t open a vein or start a fire, we could do, say, read, or watch anything we wanted.

Liberty, however, makes people conservative, especially children. Give a kid a blank check, and he somehow can’t bring himself to draw in a number. That’s how it was with us, anyway. All we ended up doing was nagging my dad for a ride to the video store so we could rent some R-rated movies.

It’s not healthy to fixate on the dead. But I do not fixate on the dead; the dead fixate on me.Do I need to say it? The standard box cover for a horror movie offers everything that 10-17 year-old boys want to see: blood, action, and beautiful women in various stages of terror and undress. The horror section ran parallel the store’s large front window, and outside, parked in our family’s shit-brown Plymouth station wagon, my father would wait, holding an old paperback.

When I was summoned to his deathbed on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, six months shy of my 18th birthday, it was those trips to the video store I remembered most. Death comes for people in horror movies in a big, dramatic way: the slasher drives a spike through you and your girlfriend in the seconds before orgasm; a drooling monster rips the intestines from your guts while your children scream. Not so on this side of the celluloid. In real life, death couldn’t be more banal.

There was no blood, that day in my parent’s room. My father lay unconscious in a hospital bed that my mother had rented some months ago. He’d been sick for a long time, and no paramedics were called, no ambulances dispatched. A blood clot broke free from a clogged vein in his left leg, we would learn later, and took the roller coaster ride through the vena cava back to his lungs. In effect, he suffocated. He just wound down, gasping and wheezing in slow succession, an old, carburetor-run engine ping-ponging on fumes.

So I did what I was told to do. I stood there and I watched. But I couldn’t get my mind to where it was supposed to be. I couldn’t appreciate what was happening. The most absurd details overwhelmed the emotional reality. Someone had brought my 90-something-year-old Uncle Paul, and throughout the entire protracted death he shuffled up and down the hallway, moaning, “Oh, Dauber, Oh, Dauber,” (Dauber being my father’s nickname)—except on their long journey to my father’s room the words lost definition, so that all we could hear was a low, throaty moan and the sandpaper scuff of leather slippers over worn tiles. I stood there and watched, trying to understand, and when it was over I ran away, out the nearest door and into the hallway, where I was stopped cold by Uncle Paul, frozen mid-shuffle, standing in the dark at one end of the hall, shoulders slumped forward, whole body listing to the right, mouth ajar in a stroke victim’s permanent angular gape. I took note of this, filed it in the permanent-irrevocable-horrors file deep in my brain, and then I locked myself in the bathroom, where I rocked back and forth on the edge of the bathtub while apologizing for God-knows-what to God-knows-who.


* * *

The symbolism of the zombie movie is too obvious to require much expounding—zombies are, quite literally, our own deceased friends and loved ones, come back to eat us. They are mortality itself, risen from the grave in Aunt Edna’s best Sunday dress, grief given license to stalk us in a pair of worm-ridden Nikes.

I know this. And I know that, in modern culture, it’s considered excessive to grieve for more than a few weeks when a loved one dies. Death is an industry, and industries pride themselves on efficiency. Part of being a good consumer is knowing when to stop. It’s not healthy to fixate on the dead. But I do not fixate on the dead; the dead fixate on me. Now, 11 years after his death, I think of my father far more than I did when he was alive. Then, I was apt to forget Father’s Day, even with my mother reminding me. Now, awareness of it darkens the entire month of June. It’s the same with Rob, who stands next to me whenever I walk with my daughter through a toy store, the same with Walter, who grumbles in my ear whenever I balance my checkbook.

Oh, but don’t worry; I’m not delusional. If something is different about me, it is something slight and benign, a refusal to share in a communal lie. Zombie movies tell the truth, for only there do the departed keep company with the living with the same voracity as they do in a grieving mind. Though we place them in pine boxes and bless them with murmured psalms, the dead do not die. And while it may not be flesh, they always come to demand their due.