Are Zombies America's Godzilla?

Illustration for article titled Are Zombies Americas Godzilla?

Zombies have been enjoying a heyday of late, but why are Americans so obsessed with the walking dead? One theory is that Westerners love zombies for the same reason Japan loves giant monsters: they represent technology gone awry.

James Turner, an editor for O'Reilly Media, claims that zombies share a kinship with Godzilla. His theory is that, just as Godzilla was inspired by the dropping of the atomic bomb, Western filmmakers (Romero aside) latched onto zombies in the wake of Three Mile Island, the recognition of AIDS, the Ebola outbreak, and similar medical and technological disasters. He goes on to posit that the increasing popularity of zombie movies involving a biological outbreak suggests a Western ambivalence toward biotechnology.

It's an interesting thought, though perhaps a bit reductive. Certainly zombies have been used to comment on biotechnology, but they've also been used to comment on a number of social issues, including consumerism, corporate greed, and the objectification of women. And what causes the zombie outbreak is often less important than what comes afterward. Still, Turner makes an interesting case that biotechnology-based zombies could evolve to more acutely reflect our biological and technological fears:

Blackberry-spawned abominations, anyone? Dawn of the Single-Payer Healthcare Undead? What about, They Came From H1N1?


He's far more convincing when he talks about the important differences between giant monsters and zombies, namely that it's the military and scientists who fight Godzilla, where zombies fall to resourceful and self-reliant survivors.

Americans must like the idea that, as out of control as our hubristic science might become, a good machete and a 12 gauge in the hands of a competent man or woman can always save the day. The 2003 bestselling title, The Zombie Survival Guide, offers the same message of self-reliance. (I'm not sure what lesson we can take from the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.)

A Brief History Of Zombies [Forbes]

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Turner's analysis of Godzilla is fundamentally flawed - and Lauren, I fear you bought into it.

While he correctly states that "Godzilla fought scientists and the military," he fails to note that humans almost always lose those battles. In twenty-eight movies, Godzilla is killed exactly once by human science (the 1954 Godzilla), and once by human military equipment (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II). And in that last case, Godzilla is resurrected by Rodan's self-sacrifice and goes on to defeat the human military.

No, when Godzilla's actions are seriously affected by humans, it isn't by massive group endeavors like battles - it's always by individual action. Whether it's some child putting out school chairs in the shape of the Mothra symbol in a plea for help, or Miki Saegusa telepathically asking Godzilla to turn away, or the Okinawan priestess summoning King Caesar to help Godzilla defeat Mechagodzilla, or the pilots of Moguera deciding to assist Godzilla by attacking Space Godzilla, some individual or very small group always takes responsibility in a way society can't or won't.

Even in the one case where Godzilla dies and actually stays dead (for a while) - the original 1954 Godzilla movie - it's not the military that does it. It's Dr. Serizawa single-handedly taking the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla, and knowingly losing his life in the process.

Godzilla is the product of societal hubris, and if he is "defeated" by human actions, it is always by one person or a very few people standing alone and saying, "I don't care what anybody else says, I don't care what the government or that powerful group wants, THIS is right and THIS is wrong, and THIS is what needs to happen," and then making sure that's exactly what happens.

Turner's summary of the Godzilla oeuvre is very shallow. When you get outside of the 60s kiddie flicks, many of those movies address serious societal and moral questions, and come up with answers that are quite surprising and rather subversive when seen from a Japanese group-think perspective. #zombies