Friday 10 January 2014

Zombies, Jews and the End of the World.

I watched the movie World War Z the other night. It was more interesting than I thought it would be. I mean, I'd read the novel it was based on, and that was okay - a clever attempt to do something different with the genre. The book was more a collection of short stories, with each one adding something to the underlying narrative, but as a plot device it was a bit lumpy. A lot of stopping and starting. I read about half of it, stopped at the end of one of the stories, then never got round to picking it up again. There was nothing really to make me want to keep reading - it didn't follow one character, and the underlying narrative of how the zombie virus spread didn't interest me overly much. Had I been really into zombies, then maybe I'd have been fascinated enough to carry on, but the whole undead thing doesn't really grab me, as I know it's a pure fantasy that has less chance of happening than an alien invasion. Or, say, a world takeover by the UN. So to me it was just a setting for some interesting characters to do stuff in, and as the characters themselves were just another part of the setting, rather than the driving narrative, I never felt compelled to return to the story at all.

Maybe I'll finish it one day. Maybe I won't.

The movie however, from the original trailer, just looked like a Brad Pitt vehicle, with lots of CGI, Go-Go-Go action and not much else. It certainly didn't look like it had borrowed anything from the book at all.

But it turned out not to be quite as different as I thought - it kept the global outlook, the whole Israel sanctuary thing, and of course, the UN. It also wasn't completely a mindless action flick. I mean, mostly it was, but not completely. You're thrown into the action very early, and it goes all Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow on you, but then it segues into 28 Days later, complete with English accents, with a passing attempt at some science and a view of the Welsh Hills. Or their fake equivalent, anyway.

So I ended up enjoying it more than I thought.

The featurette on the DVD extra was interesting though, especially when some film executive tried to explain the whole zombie phenomenon as 'the fear of death'.

Attempts by movie directors or actors to explain the philosophy behind plot decisions often make me laugh. I mean, these people are obviously very good at their craft, but when it comes to sweeping generalisations about philosophy or the meaning of life (or their own movie) these people are just clueless.

The whole horror genre can be explained as 'the fear of death'. As can disaster movies, war movies, murder mystery movies, action hero movies, etc. It's kind of a dumb explanation that doesn't explain anything, really.

And then of course there was the reference to 9/11, which apparently every action/disaster movie is supposed to be referencing now. As if these kinds of story had never existed before then.

The roots of the zombie movie, and indeed alien invasion movies, don't begin with 9/11. Nor do they begin with the Cold War, as some have alluded to. They don't, in fact, have anything to do with anything in the 20th Century.

The idea of the world being overrun by unstoppable zombies, unstoppable aliens or unstoppable anything is in fact a legacy of Judeo-Christianity. It's just another version of the Apocalypse.

The ancient Jews, while considering themselves the chosen ones, were acutely aware of their fragility. Whether enslaved by Egyptians or crushed by the Romans, they knew that their world could come to an end. And when they were exiled from the Holy Land, that's precisely what they felt was happening to them.

The Christians were also aware of the fragility of world orders. They had witnessed the crushing of the Jewish kingdoms, then the collapsing of the mighty Roman Empire. Born among Greco-Roman ruins, the early Christians expected things to come crashing down any time soon, with mankind extinguished by plague or demons or whatever. It was explicit in the Christian mythology that went on to underpin modern Europe.

And modern America.

America was, and to some extent still is, a profoundly religious country. As the Jews were exiled from the Holy Land, so the first Protestant soon-to-be-Americans were exiled from the collapsing Papal empire in Europe. And they brought their apocalyptic beliefs with them. This is why George Washington warned his fellow Americans about the need for vigilance, in order to maintain their freedom. Not some existential idea of freedom, like human rights (that came later), but actual freedom from that dastardly British Empire which might still try to win the colonies back and enslave free Americans under the yoke of monarchy again.

This is why America, with the mightiest military in the world, has remained so paranoid about being overrun by anarchists, communists and, lately, Islamists. The US military could take on the combined armies of the rest of the world and completely wipe the floor with them. Yet deep in the American psyche remains the fear that they will be overrun as they make their last stand.

And if it's not the godless commies or the fanatical muslims, then it's the mindless zombies or the technologically advanced aliens. Or some awful punishment unleashed either by nature, Gaia or God. Take your pick.

It's part of the very fabric of Western mythology, and it's very, very old. Is it a coincidence that the zombie storming of Israel's Masada-like fortress in World War Z mirrors the orc assault on Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings? No.

"Help, the old virtuous order is being overrun by demonic, evil things."

When it comes to story telling, it's in our Jewish-Christian DNA.

The Apocalypse is coming, it's always coming, so grab your popcorn and stare wide-eyed at the end of the world, just so's you can wonder how you'd survive.

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