The Return of the Genre

The Return of the Genre
You Are What Eats You

Ray Huling | 3 Jun 2008 08:47
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Forestalling the Zombocalypse
The moral conflict inherent in killing zombies - they're just sick people, after all - explains why imagining life after the dead have risen is at once so pleasurable and so disquieting. It also explains why the most shocking scenes in zombie media are the human versus human ones. The clarity and force of the zombie genre and its ability to address a plenitude of issues come from the human focus of its conflicts. Nothing demonstrates this better than the work of Zombie Squad, a zombie-themed disaster preparation organization.

Founded in St. Louis in 2005, Zombie Squad promotes both survivalism and volunteerism through the conceit of being a zombie elimination task force. In mid-June this year, they'll host the fourth annual Zombie Con in Irondale, Missouri. A couple of hundred people will head into the woods to learn about primitive fire building, ham radio operation, self-defense techniques, campfire baking and navigating by the stars. They'll also watch zombie movies in an impromptu theater. Along with survivalist training, which includes a trip to a shooting range, Zombie Con will also hold a panel on charity fund-raising. It's the latter work that really distinguishes Zombie Squad.

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"There's not a whole lot of zombie charities out there," says Kyle Ladd, one of Zombie Squad's founders. Nor are there all that many survivalist organizations that sponsor blood and food drives or do fundraising for Habitat for Humanity, as Zombie Squad has. There are three other chapters outside St. Louis: in Arkansas, New Jersey and Toronto. Zombie Squad's charter agreement requires that each new chapter put on a charity event. They've also just started the Volunteer Award Program, which will provide ZS T-shirts, pins and patches to Zombie Squad members (they have 758 card-carrying members and 9,903 on their forums) for accumulating volunteer hours.

This community focus contrasts with the individualism a survivalist mentality usually promotes. Zombie Squad recognizes that getting through a disaster requires cooperation, not just self-reliance. Of course, this approach benefits individuals, too. As Ladd says, wryly, "The more people who are prepared, the less crazies I have to deal with."

Thus, it makes perfect sense when Ladd says that "the zombie thing filters out weirdos." You need a sense of humor to take Zombie Squad seriously, but the "zombie thing" also relies on an understanding that humans are social animals. It frustrates us when the survivors in a zombie film can't work together. It upsets us when a character we like gets turned into a zombie, because that person can no longer communicate with us. A zombie is forever divorced from the group. As Paffenroth observes, "Zombies are individualized, but they've lost all personality."

This is why Zombie Squad exemplifies the meaning of the revival of the zombie genre. They confront the horror of the zombie by strengthening community bonds. A zombie has a horde, but no society or social concerns; a zombie is an island in a way that no person is. Zombie Squad concerns itself entirely with connecting people. The same goes for zombie folk art, which affirms community in ways that zombie media can't. A zombie represents the loss of the essence of humanity, and people like Faulds, Motil, and Ladd are all about celebrating precisely that essence.

Ray Huling's a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. He can't wait to escape from New York back to Lovecraft Country.

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