The year was 1968, a sleeper between the summer of love in ’67 and the horrors of Charles Manson in ’69, and the talk among horror movie buffs centered around George Romero’s own sleeper, Night of the Living Dead. Made for an astonishly meager $114,000, the film had a thin plot and ho-hum acting, but it will forever epitomize one thing in all our minds: Zombies.
Now, it’s 2012, and what keeps popping up in our news? Zombies. A few weeks ago, we had national headlines regarding a Florida man who was caught on a security camera, stripping off all his clothes and falling onto a homeless man like a wild animal–tearing at the helpless man’s face with his teeth. According to reports, the police who responded had to shoot the attacker four times to bring him ‘down’. The grainy surveillance camera footage is reminiscent of Romero’s cult classic, but it is all too real. Subsequent news articles tell us the attacker was high on ‘bath salts’, a legal street concoction that is bedeviling the citizenry of nearly every town in America right now. The other ‘devil’ in the mix is called ‘Spice’.
Spice, sometimes called K-2, is still legal in many states (though legislation is pending in several) and purports to be synthetic marijuana. I remember reading about related studies when I was at Indiana University in the mid ’90s. Scientists had isolated what they claimed was the ‘active ingredient’ in marijuana, a chemical compound called tetrohydrycannabinol, known to most of us now as THC. Marijuana is a member of the genus Cannabis, which includes the three taxa Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa, and Cannabis ruteralis. Cannabis (also called hemp or hashish) has been used at least since 5000 BC, so it’s not exactly a 1960s discovery.
Linguists argue the etymology of the word ‘cannabis’, some claiming its roots reach back to ancient Iran while others see Hebraic influences. There is no debate however regarding the uses of this ancient herb for medicine, witchcraft, and induced euphoria and hallucinations (visions). No matter what the true word origins, to our modern ears, one cannot escape the near-homonym within: cannibal.
The Florida Zombie story splashed over the papers in late May, so why am I writing about it now? Because since that horrific attack, numerous others have been reported, and today brings yet another. In fact, three headlines grabbed my attention this morning: ‘Zombie’ biting in Palmetto similar to Rudy Eugene Miami attack on Ronald Poppo leaves man wounded; Another “zombie-like” attack? Man eats family dog after police say he ingested synthetic drug K-2; and City holds Zombie Apocalypse Day to prepare officials for invasion of undead.
It’s that third one that really struck me as odd. Why would a city (even Stephen King’s hometown of Bangor) choose to train its officials in how to react in case of a Zombie attack? Well, it isn’t just King’s hometown that thinks zombies are dangerous. Last year, a blog entry at (of all places!) the Centers for Disease Control website pondered the zombie apocalypse scenario. More recently, another zombie post appeared on the site. Tongue in cheek? Perhaps, but the meme is stubbornly rooted now in our collective consciousness. Zombies are out there, and they want to eat us all.
The scenario in Bangor’s preparedness drill postulated the threat of a virus from Jamaica that caused its victims to become zombies. This is right out of Resident Evil (in case you haven’t seen the movies or played the games). The plot in RE reveals a secret experiment underground involving an attempt to use a virus to alter human and animal DNA–to create a super-creature. The underground complex is run by a sentient computer called ‘The Red Queen’. Before the action begins, an activist steals this virus and contaminates the facility intending to use the panic as cover for his escape. However, the Red Queen seals the facility (called The Hive) and kills all humans inside.
Above ground, our heroine, Alice (yes, we have another Wonderland/Looking Glass reference), wakes with amnesia and soon begins fighting zombies while trying to recall who she really is. It should also be noted, that the virus has a different effect on at least one victim: it causes Alice’s friend Matt to mutate into a creature later called Nemesis. This bioweapon virus (T-Virus) has an antidote, but it must be adminstered quickly to work. It is too late for Nemesis, apparently, for he’s taken by the scientists for further study, and (of course) he returns to plague Alice in a sequel.
The Bangor drill featured an attempt by the emergency responders to inject the zombies with a sort of antivirus, which echos the plot of Resident Evil. Are video gamer makers and Hollywood trying to tell us something? If you’re not sure of the answer, check out the list of Zombie films at Wikipedia. Movies like 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, and and Quarantine, that all feature viral infection as the precipitating factor.
If all this seems a little strange and disturbing, you’re not alone. Comments to many of the cited articles I’ve been reading run the gamut from spam to terror. Most see the zombie tales as an online reason for a drinking game (read the word ‘zombie’ and down another), but there are some who take the tales as true. Perhaps, that is the intent. If there really is a secret genetics experiment taking place involving a zombie virus, then the best way to cover it up is to plant an admission (such as the CDC Blog) and then deny, deny, deny.
Of course, while we wait for the other dead shoe to drop, we can all order our Zombie Task Force t-shirts, but hurry. Supplies, so they say, are limited.