Zombies in Popular Media

Registration starts in a week here at Columbia, and I’m getting ready for my Zombie class before I take my sabbatical.  Here’s the flyer for this year:
Zombies in Popular Media, 2011

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Philosophical Zombies

Zombie toddler and papaI heard a very interesting panel at the Northeast PCA conference on the 23rd.  Dien Ho gave an excellent talk pondering the philosophical ramifications of zombiedom, particularly as related to stress and work, called “What’s So Bad About Being A Zombie.”  (Tim Madigan and Kate Razza gave great talks as well, but their subject matter didn’t overlap so closely with my own interests.)  Ho considered the zombie lifestyle from the perspective of practical experience — they’re goal-oriented, focused, only bothered by one need (instead of the many we feel), and they’re essentially immortal.  On the other hand, they’re not sentient.

It was a good discussion that got me thinking about the philosophical zombie again, so I thought I’d lay out a little bit about it. Dale Jacquette sums it up nicely in “Zombie Gladiators,” an essay appearing in Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy:

Philosophical zombies were dreamed up by philosophers as a thought experiments to test concepts and illustrate a variety of theoretical problems about the nature of consciousness and the mind’s relation to the body.  Philosophical zombies look and act just like you and me, so that, in contrast with Hollywood zombies, there is often no way to know the difference.  Indeed, the only difference between philosophical zombies and non-zombies is the stipulated fact that the former have no conscious states of mind such as feelings of pain, joy, belief states, desires, or the like.  (106)

In other words, for philosophical thought, the zombie helps us asks what it would mean to encounter a seemingly sentient figure whom we know to have no soul.  Jacquette proceeds to make some really interesting arguments about what that might indeed mean, but I want to focus on some of the ramifications we discuss in my class (often drawing on other writers too).

  • Jacquette asks if we would be justified in killing these people.  They seem sentient but we know that’s just an effect of their lower brain.  This assumes, of course, that we understand sentience in a thorough way, and that we can declare, definitely, that our own kind of sentience is the only one worth having.  I often frame this discussion for students through the competing perspectives of artificial intelligence on display in the Turing Test and the Chinese Room.  In short, for something to be sentient, does it have to know what it’s doing, or just appear that it does?  How can we really tell the difference?
  • Where do we draw the line between human and non-human?  The philosophical zombie creates the most extreme version of the questions we have about much more sticky problems, like people in permanent vegetative states.  Are they people in the strictest sense?  Or people with degenerative brain diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or Alzheimer’s–at what point would someone cease to be a person?  Alternately, can something we make ever be a person? C.F. also, Bicentennial Man
  • Are we always already embodied?  Would it change us irrevocably and beyond comprehension to be, say, uploaded ala Ray Kurtzweil?
  • To what degree is our body irrevocably us?  In history, we have long thought of our bodies as important, even after we die.  We build shrines to them and are outraged when we learn of those shrines being desecrated.  I wonder if the zombie is scary, in part, because we always suspect that we‘re trapped in there somewhere.  “Don’t let me walk around like that.”

In short, what responsibility do we owe to non-human life forms?  There’s a great line in Robin Becker’s Brains in which someone spots the narrator, a sentient zombie, mugging for the camera.  When she mentions it, the other uninfected people pooh-pooh her claims, telling her not to anthropomorphize the zombie (a funny thing to say anyway, since zombies are anthro, certainly).  But it brings up a point: at this point we already have allegiance to some creatures based on our various cultural prejudices and anthropomorphizing–dogs and cats, for example.  How are we to say that other animals with similar human/body brain mass and extensive communication systems really aren’t as intelligent or sentient as we, just because they haven’t developed language we can comprehend? (C.F. Radiolab’s fascinating episode about how animals communicate way more information in their calls than we would have thought: “Wild Talk.”)

As a side note, I recently heard, as a tangent on an archived edition of the web show The Atheist Experience, a discussion of the problematic notion of identity and teleportation.  To whit, most people would agree that if

a) we built a Star Trek-like teleporter that disintegrated you on Earth and re-integrated you on Mars with exactly the same brain state and physical configuration, the new person would be you.
b) But what if there were a malfunction and you materialized on both sides of the teleporter, so there were two of you?  Which one would be you?
c) And what if after scenario b, the you standing in the Earthside teleporter got killed?  Would the you on Mars be you?

In the context of religious discussion, the host of the web show was asking what happens to the soul in these cases.  Does the soul get divided between the two bodies, leaving each with half a soul?  Can it be copied?  Is a copied soul a second individual then?  This presumes, of course, a Naturalistic view of the “soul” as something that must intervene in the physical world if it’s something that’s real.

These are the kinds of thinking about zombie films that I find most interesting.  Good zombie films tell us a bit more about ourselves, demanding that we consider how we know who we are and what we think we will become.

Nazis + Zombies + Snowmobiles = arctic gold

Dead Snow
Dead Snow

Dead Snow

Dead Snow is exactly what it appears to be, a zombie movie about a bunch of young punks (Norwegian med school students, in this case) who find themselves besieged by angry zombies crawling out of the snow.  It’s actually pretty enjoyable, with solid production values, a decent script, and an amusing premise.  The plot’s a little weak, but come on, this is a movie about Nazi zombies.  A few thoughts:

  • As if it was intentional, the filmmakers hit all the key tropes: urban kids in a rural environment, no cell phone service, creepy local who shows up to warn them about their terrible behavior, debauchery linked to death.  They also hit a number of minor tropes that appear in lots of zombie movies but not all of them: the accidental harm of a friend, the transformation of meek people into badass fighters, the vengeance zombies (these zombies have motives straight out of E.C. comics), the gore-covered warrior, and more.
  • They do use one trope I’d be happy never to see again, the horror-movie geek.  While there is some amusement in the idea of the horror-movie fan trapped in a horror movie, it was done already in Scream, and it worked better.  Note to screenwriters: while it may be cool to quote movie lines to your friends, it’s never cool in movies.
  • Two of the short stories I wrote this summer spring from ideas I had that depend, directly or no, on other texts.  I was asking a friend if the intro letters I’ll write when I send them to be published should mention the reference.  He advised against it, suggesting that to mention the reference would mark me as an amateur, and that the text should stand on its own without the reference, but people who have it would get more from that extra layer.  That said, clever movie references, are usually enjoyable.  When two of Dead Snow’s med students find a tool shed full of yardwork implements (including a chainsaw), one says to the other, “You know what to do.”  Then there’s a tool-grabbing jump-cut sequence reminiscent of Evil Dead 2 and all films that count it as an ancestor.  For an example of how not to do this, see The Dead Hate the Living, where the creators wear their homages on their sleeves.
  • In case you’re wondering, these are fast Nazi zombies.   They run, though the knee-deep snow slows them down somewhat.  They also seem to die from regular gunshot wounds, rather than just head wounds.  That would be good news for the med students if there weren’t a whole platoon of zeds.

This movie did highlight, for me, one distinction to be made in zombie movies: is the movie a world that has zombie stories already, or not?  There are lots of movies that seem remarkably modern (Shaun of the Dead or Dawn of the Dead, for instance) but have the zombie film excised from their collective memory.  Demolition Man handled this best when Sly noted with horror that Arnold S. had been elected President.  In case it’s unclear, Dead Snow definitely DOES know about zombie movies.

Brains: A Zombie Memoir

Brains by Robin Becker
Brains by Robin Becker

Brains: A Zombie Memoir by Robin Becker

Brains follows former English professor Jack Barnes on his journey through the post-apocalypse zombie-infested landscape.  His ability to think and write makes him special, so he hooks up with a few other thinking zeds and they go on an adventure (?) to try and find the man who created the virus.  It took me a little while to warm to the tone (another way to say this is that the beginning overdoes the snarky comments that define Jack’s character), but after page 20 or so, I enjoyed it quite a bit.  A few thoughts:

  • Like David Wellington’s Monster cycle (Monster Island, Monster Nation, Monster World), there are some zombies that have intelligence, and many many that do not.  Becker doesn’t explain why some zeds maintain their intelligence, but the book doesn’t need it.
  • I always have trouble with books where the main character is a dislikable sod, and this is definitely one of those books.  As a human, Jack was a jerk.  (There’s one line where he complains about how his wife was angry about an “insignificant” dalliance with a graduate student.)  As the book goes on, he becomes more sympathetic.  But the book depends on you sympathizing, at some level, with the shifted priorities of the undead.  They need to eat people and can’t feel guilty about it all the time.  It’s hard to cross that line in this book, perhaps because Barnes still wants zombies to be respected as sentient beings.  The hypocrisy of wanting respect and chowing down on people didn’t quite work for me.
  • The English professor humor (setting aside the overdone ‘intellectual egghead’ aspect) works really well.  There are two ill-fated soldiers that Jack nicknames Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who have, at one point, thoughtful conversations about their situation reminiscent of the Tom Stoppard play.  There are lots of little gems like this.

Most interesting about the book is the prospect of thinking zombies and the ways the human characters deal with it.  At one point, several of the humans describe Jack’s mugging as “anthropomorphizing,” which I thought was really funny.  The best moment in the book, for me, comes early on, when Jack is in a corn field being hunted by some hillbillies (ala Night of the Living Dead).  Jack gets shot once in the shoulder by a hesitant boy named Bobby, who is prodded by his asshole cronies to go finish the zombie off:

I crawled away, elbow over elbow, and hid in a stand of corn.  I took out the only weapons I had: my notebook and pen.

Help me, Bobby, I wrote.  Spare me.

The letters were shaky and the pen strokes thin; it looked like it was written by a child.

Bobby rustled through the stalks.

“Hurry up,” his comrades yelled.  “There’s another group on the horizon.”

With my head down, not daring to look young Bobby in the eye for fear I’d attack, I held up the paper.

“Holy shit,” Bobby said.  “What are you?”

Gunshots rang out from another part of the field.

“Bobby,” they called.  “What’s going on?”

I cradled my head in my hands, protecting it, supplicating before this farm boy.  Bobby shot the ground next to me.

“Got ‘im!” he yelled as he ran off.

Thank you, Bobby, child of the corn.  I owe you my life.

At the same time, Jack ignores similar pleas from other people, like Susan, the pregnant lady Jack bites in the thigh and takes as his zombie bride.  I feel like the book does a good job of shaping this dualism, but many readers might not recognize it.

A Little Bit of Lovecraft

"Door" by 18 55 Photography
"Door" by 18 55 Photography

From “The Horror at Red Hook:”

The flat, he thought, must hold some due to a cult of which the occult scholar had so obviously become the centre and leader; and it was with real expectancy that he ransacked the musty rooms, noted their vaguely charnel odour, and examined the curious books, instruments, gold ingots, and glass-stoppered bottles scattered carelessly here and there.  Once a lean, black-and-white cat edged between his feet and tripped him, overturning at the same time a beaker half full of a red liquid.  The shock was severe, and to this day Malone is not certain of what he saw; but in dreams he still pictures that cat as it scuttled away with certain monstrous alterations and peculiarities.  Then came the locked cellar door, and the search for something to break it down.  A heavy stool stood near, and its tough seat was more than enough for the antique panels.  A crack formed and enlarged, and the whole door gave way–but from the other side; whence poured a howling tumult of ice-cold wind with all the stenches of the bottomless pit, and whence reached a sucking force not of earth or heaven, which, coiling sentiently about the paralysed detective, dragged him through the aperture and down unmeasured spaces filled with whispers and wails, and gusts of mocking laughter.

3G Summit panel session

You’ll remember that I helped moderate a panel at the 3G Summit (Girls, Gender, and Gaming) this fall.  Here’s the video:

Learn more at Columbia College Chicago: 3G Summit

It Gets Better

Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family and neighbors. I’ll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it, at school and at work. I’ll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and other bullied teens by letting them know that “It Gets Better.”

No commentary needed, I think.  Have you taken the pledge yet?

Aetheric Mechanics

Aetheric Mechanics
Aetheric Mechanics

by Warren Ellis and Gianluca Pagliarani

I picked this up because I’m a Warren Ellis junkie, and will read anything with his name on it.  I’m particularly fond of his APPARAT publishing project, in which he writes comics that might have been if not for the comics code and the superhero takeover.  Sort of.

Anyhow, Aetheric Mechanics is a steampunk alternate history London in which quantum mechanics are available to turn-of-the-century technologists, such that Britain has ships in space.  It follows the story of a doctor returning home from the front to reunite with his friend the eccentric police consultant…. The mystery they investigate is one of a partly-invisible man who seems to be orchestrating some mass kidnapping of aetheric specialists.  The solution to the mystery borders on the Alan-Mooresian, feeling a bit like an issue of Promethia or something equally self-referential.  A few other thoughts:

  • The art in the comic is good, of course, with the Holmes doppleganger looking a lot like Jeremy Brett.  At the same time, I prefer less dense images when the artist doing the inking doesn’t use much shading and the images are in black and white.  Like Juan Jose Ryp’s stuff, I’m not as keen on the very dense images the larger panels in this comic use.  That said, the cool Victorian space-age dreadnoughts and towering robots are awesome.
  • Ellis does a nice job of revealing the Holmes aspect of the story.  It occurred to me — oh man, doctor coming back from the war, returning to his “eccentric” roommate — just about the time that it’s actually confirmed for us.
  • The resolution is satisfying, but not as amazing as some of Ellis’ other work has been.  I guess it’s pretty hard to do that with a novella.

2010-10-24 Tweets

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on eMusic’s new pricing system

A quick couple thoughts on eMusic’s new pricing system.  For those of you who don’t know, eMusic has long used a track-based pricing system, with every track being worth 1 credit.  The membership gives you tracks at roughly 50 cents per, or thereabouts.  Up to now I have paid 11.99 per month for 30 tracks.  This is because I joined before the most recent pricing redux, so I got to keep my old rate despite the new rate (which would be something like 14.99 for 30 tracks).

In the new move, each month we’ll get credit for however much we pay (11.99 in my case) that you can then spend on whichever tracks you want.  This will mean that some tracks are going to cost more than you were paying before.  Since I was getting tracks for less than fifty cents, I imagine all the tracks will cost more for me.  As a way to salve that pain, eMusic is offering those of us on old plans bonuses ($2 a month, in my case) for sustained subscription.  So I’ll pay $11.99 and get $13.99 in credits.  If you went and signed up right now, you wouldn’t get a bonus for this, the cheapest of plans.

Stephan Mathieu's Gramophone
Stephan Mathieu's Gramophone

I imagine there are some people angry about this change, and I’ll admit I’m a little miffed that I’m not getting as good a deal as I got before, but such are the vagaries of commerce, I say.  I don’t begrudge them their attempt to increase their audience and database.  If I wasn’t happy about it, I could always drop my subscription, but so far I’ve enjoyed the service and I suspect I still will.  If my number of tracks per month doesn’t drop significantly, I will probably be happy.  The biggest question will be the “full album” cost.  I usually get more than 30 tracks each month because I buy full albums which give you extra tracks (say 10 credits for 12 tracks).  That will still be the case with the new system.  At 49 cents apiece, I would get 28 tracks instead of thirty.  That’s not too bad.

My biggest reservation was the ‘loose change’ that would be left at the end of the month.  They’ve taken care of that:

If at the end of your billing cycle you’re left with too little money from your membership plan to buy even a single song, that “loose change” will carry over into the next month. For example, if you have $.48 or less, it will carry over to the next month. However, this rule only applies to your normal monthly membership balance – booster, free trial, and other special credits will not carry over.

That sounds fair.  I’m going to give it a try and I suspect I’ll stay because it’s still a far better deal than pretty much anything else, and I’ve found a lot of good music through the service.

Thirty-Three Teeth

Thirty-Three Teeth
Thirty-Three Teeth

Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotteril

The second of the Dr. Siri mysteries, set in Communist Laos in 1977, Thirty-Three Teeth follows a number of different murders as Dr. Siri wrestles with his new role as a spiritual coroner and nurse Dtui continues her efforts to further her education.  Some quick thoughts:

  • Like the last book, the spiritual part of the story is almost entirely dismissable (at least in terms of believe vs real-world actions), with the exception of the couple spirits that more than one person saw in the same place at different times.  It’s an interesting line, though in this book it becomes much less ambiguous.  It’s almost more like The Dresden Files or other magical story, rather than something more realist.
  • The depiction of Communism is equally mixed too, still showing Dr. Siri’s strong belief in it even in the face of atrocious failures of the system.  Really reinforces how individual freedom ought to be the center grounding point for a society, even a socialist one.
  • The three different series of murders (two burnt, bullet-riddled corpses, two men found dead in the middle of a street on top of a bicycle, and some victims of a wild animal attack) don’t really drive the story as much as the two main characters (Siri and Dtui).  That said, the first two victims were a particularly good red herring, as the last book was about a politically sensitive murder and this book appeared like it was going to be again.  Good dodge, Colin!

All in all, another enjoyable book.  I probably won’t seek out any more in the series, but I wouldn’t mind reading another one if it happened my way or the mystery book club picks it.

“They’re Not Aliens! They’re ZOMBIES, okay?”

Undead, 2005

Undead has the modern sensibility we’re seeing from movies out of Australia and New Zealand that seems to descend from Peter Jackson’s old approach.  The movie feels a lot like Black Sheep and a little bit like Slither.  It’s not as funny as either of those, but in the same ballpark.

The film starts with a strange meteor shower that turns people into zombies.  A battered group of people end up in a farmhouse where a crazy, bearded, shotgun-wielding fisherman protects them in a strange bunker.  There’s lots of hilarious gunplay and zombie dismemberment.  Then aliens get involved and the movie becomes less and less interesting.  The first half is pretty great, the second half is just mediocre and then less great.  A couple other thoughts:

  • The bearded farmer has an hilarious tendency to toss his guns in the air and catch them to shoot with.  Not completely dissimilar from Shoot Em Up.
  • The zombies are somewhere between Romero’s lurching blue Dawn of the Dead zombies and the somnambulent corpses of Zombi 2.  Not very creepy, really.  But enjoyable.
  • The survivors are an amusing collection of stereotypes: the grim, bearded gun-toting farmer, the pregnant(!) nurse, the beauty queen (who ends up in her underwear for a few minutes, of course), the hick-boy farm pilot, the panicked angry cop and the jittery newbie cop.  Excellent.

Pakistan Flood Relief, and games

DriveThruRPG is offering another aid bundle, not unlike the Haiti aid bundle they offered last January.  I haven’t even had a chance to crack open the dozens of rulebooks and other bits I downloaded last time, but I’m buying this bundle too.  It’s $700+ worth of stuff from the website for $25.

DriveThruRPG Pakistan Flood Aid bundle

Good until Monday, I believe.

Thanks to Rolfe and Sarah for pointing this out.