228. Zombies! (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a two-part series about zombies! Right-click here to download.

Small Donate ButtonThis episode is all about zombies – the undead, flesh eaters, walkers, biters, the infected – whatever you want to call them, zombies have become an indelible part of our popular culture now. There are zombies in the cinemas, zombies on TV in shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead, zombies in computer games, zombies online, even zombie walks in which people get together in large groups in order to dress up like zombies and walk around going “uhhhhh”. We’re pretty obsessed by zombies, and I am too. I love zombies and zombie films. Maybe that makes me some kind of sick and twisted individual, but I’m not alone. In fact, I think that zombies are perhaps as popular and present in our culture as vampires and ghosts. But, what is some of the history behind the zombie phenomenon? Where do they come from? What do they want? Why are we obsessed by zombies? How can you survive if zombies really attack? And, how do we talk about zombies in English? That’s the focus of this extra-special and extra-creepy episode of Luke’s English Podcast.

This episode is in 3 parts (and 2 episodes). In the first part we’re going to examine the zombie as a popular cultural phenomenon, then in the second part I’m going to test my survival skills by taking a zombie survival quiz. You can join me as I make various decisions that will affect my chances of surviving the zombie apocalypse. In part 3 we’re going to consider some conditional structures. That’s 0, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and mixed conditionals.

Part 1. The Zombie in Popular Culture
Zombies seem to be more popular than ever, but why? (The Walking Dead, zombie films like Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead and computer games like Left 4 Dead or Resident Evil)

The origin of the word “zombie”.
The concept has been popularly associated with the Vodou religion, but it plays no part in that faith’s formal practices.
In Haitian folklore, a zombie is an animated corpse raised by magical means, such as witchcraft. Zombies featured widely in Haitian rural folklore, as dead persons physically revived by the act of necromancy of a bokor sorcerer (the bokor is a witch-like figure). Zombies remain under the control of the bokor as their personal slaves, since they have no will of their own. Some people say that zombie voodoo magic is real, but others claim that it’s just a chemical or hypnotic control of a living person – causing them to act like mindless slaves of the bokor sorcerer. That’s certainly very creepy and fascinating from a social, biological, chemical and psychological point of view.

The history of zombies in movies and games
There were a few books and films made in the 1930s that used the voodoo legend to create creepy stories, but it wasn’t until I Am Legend, a 1954 horror fiction novel by American writer Richard Matheson and then principally the film “Night of the Living Dead” by George A. Romero that zombies properly entered popular culture. Romero’s film created the image of the zombie that we know today: dead people who return from the grave – the undead, who pray on the living and feed on their flesh, a world in chaos, the individual against masses of brainless enemies. One of the most interesting things about Night of the Living Dead is the subtext of the film. The hero is a black man in America, during the era of the civil rights movement. The ending is particularly relevant as we see that not only does the hero have to deal with the zombies, he also has to deal with the living and their prejudice.

George A. Romero went on to make a number of other zombie films, and really defined the genre and the whole zombie subculture, including most of the ‘rules’ for zombies and the general standards by which all other zombie culture is measured. The thing about zombie movies, and zombie culture in general is that there is always some kind of subtext – a criticism of consumer culture, a comment on the horror of the uneducated masses or the brainlessness of the population at large. For example in his 1978 classic “Dawn of the Dead” the main characters find shelter in a large shopping mall. The zombies too choose to go to the mall, but only out of some distant memory of being alive – they brainlessly walk around the mall in death just like they brainlessly walked around the mall in life. I suppose the subtext is that consumer culture is turning us into mindless mall zombies – unable to think for ourselves, acting like sheep, easily manipulated by marketing, branding and the allure of materialism.

Computer games took over from movies in the 1990s with the release of the Japanese computer game series “Resident Evil” which perfectly captured the lingering dread, the sudden horror and enjoyment of the zombie subculture. Resident Evil…

Then around the millennium we got Danny Boyle’s film “24 Days Later” which brought back zombies, but with a twist. They’re now able to run really fast! This re-booted zombie movies and it wasn’t long before we got a remake of Dawn of the Dead complete with running zombies.

The genre began to ‘eat itself’ and got even more postmodern with the brilliant comedy/horror/romcom (zom-rom-com) “Shaun of the Dead” which was directed by Edgar Wright and starred Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. This is such a brilliant film as it combined the romantic comedy with the zombie movie. In it we follow Shaun, who is not going anywhere in his life. In fact, he is becoming increasingly like a zombie by not challenging himself, being lazy and unabitious, getting stuck in a routine. His girlfriend dumps him and he has to grow up, realise his responsibilities, change his life and try to get her back. While this is all happening to him he doesn’t realise that London has become over-run with zombies. He ends up having to battle them while also saving the girl he loves. It works on lots of levels, it’s quite scary and it’s really funny.

More recently the film Zombieland was a big hit. That was an American made comedy featuring zombies and it’s definitely worth checking out. Now we have the massive hit TV show “The Walking Dead” which is one of the most successful American shows on TV at the moment. At it’s worst it’s just a soap opera with zombies. At it’s best it is a terrifying look at the ways in which people have to survive genuine hardship – how it unites people, how it tests courage and fortitude and how it can test the limits of a person’s morality.

Rules of Zombies
Like vampires, zombies have rules too. Let’s just evaluate those rules.
They’re ‘undead’, meaning they were dead and have come back to life.
You have to die to become a zombie.
Usually you become a zombie by being bitten by one. The bite kills you by infecting you with a virus and then you turn into a zombie.
Usually zombies are caused by some kind of virus, but the outbreak can have more mysterious origins.
Often the cause of the outbreak is somehow connected with the actions of secretive government departments. It’s usually the government’s fault. They’ve been doing medical tests, testing on animals, or have caused some kind of radiation leak that somehow causes the dead to come back to life and start feeding on the living.
Zombies have a taste for human flesh, not dead flesh, although they have been known to feast on recently deceased bodies.
They don’t have super powers, although their powers are a bit ambiguous. Do their muscles retain their full strength? Probably. What actually causes them to move? We’re not always sure. I think it’s an infection of the central nervous system which causes the brain to ‘turn’ and then operate the muscles, usually with one intention – to feed on living flesh, especially brains.
How do you kill a zombie?
You have to remove the head or destroy the brain. That’s it.
Zombies are quite sensitive to sound, and they can see.
If you don’t do that, the zombies will keep on coming, even crawling across the floor without legs.
Some things I’m not sure of: How long can zombies keep going? Can they swim? Is it possible to hide among zombies if you copy them? If you remove their jaws and teeth do they become harmless?

What do zombies represent to us? Some different ‘readings’ of the zombie as a metaphor.
– Disease or viral infection
– The herd mentality of people in society – mindless followers of religion, politicians, or social convention and the way that zombies want to annihilate individuality.
– The drudgery of every day life. Habits turn us into zombies.
– Consumer society and cultural imperialism.
– Fear of overpopulation and the potential for catastrophe, or natural disaster.
– Blaming the establishment (it’s usually due to a failing by the government, or some big thing which is out of the control of ordinary people)
– USA Libertarian fantasy
– Back to basics fantasy
– Post-apocalyptic fantasy

Part 2: Zombie Survival
The Zombieland 32 Rules of Zombie Survival

That’s it! Click here for episode 229. Zombies! (Part 2)
Nick Frost & Simon Pegg’s Guide to zZombies:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3