A metaphor for human greed and self-destruction
Zombies are no horror genre, they’re a social commentary, maybe a study of hunger or greed. Food is an underlying, if not a central, theme to any zombie story. Like a shadow, it follows every character or, to be more precise, every character follows it, whether predator or prey, the ever-hungry, never-full zombie most of all, but also the survivor who needs to eat to stay alive.
In life, food does follow us too or we follow it. Each day we wake up to smells wafting from the kitchen, we ask ourselves, “What’s cooking?” It’s a different world now, though, that many of us wake up in condos, where smells from kitchens, such as tuyo frying on the pan, are forbidden.
With friends, the question “Where to eat” or “what to eat” is synonymous to “Where do we spend time together?” On a date, what, where, why, and how we eat answers a lot of questions about who we are and who we are eating with. It’s fair game to judge the way we handle the utensils, how we chew our food, what we choose on the menu, how we treat the staff, and how we behave when the bill comes later.
Food consumes us as much as we consume it. I read in an old article in Time that we are healthier from hunger than we are from the food we eat that, when wrong, causes inflammations in our system that later become diseases, such as cancer or diabetes. If we can withstand hunger, we are more likely to avoid such diseases, though of course there is no denying that food is essential to survival. There is no denying either, however, that we eat like zombies.
Why have we come to define zombies as brain-eating creatures? In recent zombie encounters, whether in the 2022 Spanish film Valley of the Dead or the Mira Grant trilogy Feed, they aren’t such picky eaters who can tell between the meat off bony fingers and the soft matter in the skull. As long as it’s live flesh, they’ll eat it.
But the brain is central to humanity. It houses the worst of our vices and the best of our virtues. It is the source—and incubator—of our hopes and dreams, our fears and doubts, our malice and malevolence. In the brain lies our power to build or destroy the world, ourselves included.
Zombies are a metaphor for human greed and its propensity for self-sabotage. No wonder zombies are after the brain—that’s where self-destruction tastes best, with all the nuanced flavors of our humanity.
After all, some of our noblest achievements, which made giants of some of us, such as the automobile or electricity or fast fashion, are proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
But a good intention rarely comes without vested interest. It’s always about a thirst we cannot quench, a hunger we cannot satiate. It’s the desire to imitate a wild cat that propels us to skin a tiger, a leopard, a cheetah.
It’s the ache for the ultimate in comfort and convenience, thus the need for cars, for air-conditioning, for disposables, for bottled water, for plastic bags, plastic straws, and plastic utensils, or even floor or toilet seat heating. It’s the clamor for supremacy that prompts us to exterminate the bugs or our next-door neighbor. It’s avarice and the lust for power, which gives way to oligarchs, monopolists, imperialists, and terrorists, who need to protect their loot with wars and armaments, including weapons of mass destruction, whether cultural, biological, chemical, nuclear, or radiological.
None of these are expressed for what they are. We pursue them in the name of commerce and free enterprise, the freedom of expression or personal style, ease of living, maintaining world peace, or the protection of people. In 1942, during World War II, the US with Franklin Roosevelt as president led a desperate effort, code-named the Manhattan Project and under the direction of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, to develop the first atomic bomb for fear that German scientists and Nazi officials were making headway with nuclear research. It was detonated for trial three years later in a desolate desert near Alamogordo in New Mexico, and had only since been used twice in a war, both by the Americans, who dropped them over Japan, first, the uranium-based “Little Boy” in Hiroshima and then, second, the plutonium-based “Fat Man” in Nagasaki. These bombs killed 80,000 in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki on impact. But no one would want the blood of 120,000—and many more in later years due to radiation exposure—on their hands, unless it was for a Machiavellian purpose, such as the end of a war or the pursuit of world peace.
Now, climate change hovers over us like a thousand atom bombs falling from the sky and we’re frantically searching for the simplest solution for what appears to be a very, very complex problem. Meanwhile time is ticking away in the form of super storms, killer droughts, severe heat waves, rising sea levels, melting icebergs, and the mass extinction of animal and plant species.
In 2007, American journalist Alan Weisman wrote a book we all must read. It’s called The World Without Us, which imagines the fate that awaits natural and built environments if one day all humans, including their domesticated pets and their cultured plants, get wiped off the face of the planet. It’s humbling to realize that a dung beetle does more good things for earth than we do, that is, if we factor in all the harm we cause it.
There’s a thought: Maybe the simplest solution to save the planet is to get the humans out of it. Or—Just as we are smart enough to have invented spaceships and smartphones, the nail or the wheel, or penicillin, maybe we could invent a pill against our ravenous, insatiable hunger that has destroyed our world and turned us to zombies.