Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies: Zombies, Alzheimer’s, and Morality

I’ve always read novels and watched films that are speculative in nature more for the metaphors and meaning and less for the violence and the macabre. My recurring question is often: what do the words and images say about all us as people?

So my fascination with zombies, the undead makes sense. It’s personal because of members of my family are suffering from dementia in their old age. Speculative fiction including the zombie genre, also gets me thinking about the deeper meaning of life including our spiritual lives.

The fascination with zombies goes back further for me as a teen, when I first read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in which various body parts were reincarnated as a zombie whole. I can list many Frankenstein incarnation on film going back to black and white movies.  Fast forward to “28 Weeks Later,” the film, which jump-started the zombie craze in the 21st Century. And we can’t forget AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” still currently on television because of stellar ratings.

ImageThese zombies can be interpreted in many ways but here are just two that I’ve drawn from reading Issac Marion’s zombie bestseller Warm Bodies: zombies as a metaphor for Alzheimer’s and the moral tensions between being undead and human.

There isn’t a more complex map or landscape than the human brain. And when Alzheimer’s takes hold, that map slowly painfully shrinks, reconfigures, and disconnects. The person inside once known as dear grandma or loving father becomes someone else. Like the violent zombies that beloved someone, our beloved someone, can become alien wielding a knife or screaming, really shrieking.

These people, our people, mirror those in Warm Bodies. As is true of the zombie genre, the undead mindlessly seek flesh to continue shuffling along. Our own people suffering from dementia simply shuffle along. Yet for grandma and dad, there is something going on inside, a struggle against the dying of the light. Something of their moral selves sputters and flickers.

The interesting turn with Warm Bodies is the many zombies display varying degrees of sentience as is true of the many stages of Alzheimer’s that ultimately lead to death. R, the central character, has a soul. He’s driven by eating flesh but also grapples with the meaning of God in his life, and the tension between eating and killing in relationship to the sanctity of life.

And it seems love, central to most organized religions including Christianity, truly transforms R, the undead. Will R stop eating flesh because it is the right thing to do? Will love transform him from a killer to the redeemed? Will he make the moral, the right choice?

As the world grapples with increasing numbers of people living longer and dying from dementia or it’s related medical complications, some family and friends forced to stand by and watch a slow death, cling to love. Alzheimer’s patients,our people, ultimately succumb to the disease seemingly undead, particularly in the last stages.

For some, our fascination with zombies is fueled by reality filled with dementia patients including those with Alzheimer’s.

I don’t want to give away too much concerning Warm Bodies’ plot, including the love story. I will tell you I was moved by R, a zombie listing and tilting between right and wrong, moral and immoral. The polarities are fascinating but the inherent moral struggles are enthralling.

If you pick up the book, consider the parallels to Alzheimer’s and morality as you read. The alternative to reading is watching the film Warm Bodies, a zombie romance, which will be out in a theatres near you on February 1, 2013 just in time for Valentine’s Day. I hope the nuances in the novel are ultimately matched in the film.

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The Walking Dead Roadtrip: Disease, Environment, and Humanity

SPOILER ALERT

Ok, there are black people in The Walking Dead! I was glad to see the British actor Lennie James, who was fabulous in the canceled TV show Jericho. Lennie plays Morgan James who is central to the first few episodes of The Walking Dead. In ensuing episodes when the two have parted, Rick Grimes, the lead character, played by Andrew Lincoln frequently invokes Morgan, the first person he met in the new world of flesh-eating monsters.

Rick travels on leaving behind bread crumbs or sign posts (i.e. notes on cars) for Morgan to follow Rick and his rag-tag of survivors of the zombie plague. Their travels show the familiar trope of film and television of the buddy road trip–this is the horror show version–traveling across many terrains. Transforming the trope, a group and not a pair of buddies travel across the land as the group bonds and develops. I have already seen forming and storming. I am wondering if the series will get to norming, performing, forming and mourning in the midst of living dead chaos.

The backdrop to the character development is disease and the landscape.  The disease that triggers the transformation into zombies and the defunct Center for Disease Control (CDC) condemns healthcare system and perhaps even reform in the United States. The plague is winning, and modern science and medicine are losing.

In one of the first scenes is in a hospital. Rick wakes from a coma, stripping off the monitors to the machines that kept him alive; pre-plague, a suspect shot him while on duty as a police officer. He walks the corridors of the hospital stumbling about encountering the first of many zombies to come.

Looking at the environment, the telling landscapes are in the Atlanta Metro area are a grassy “plain” dotted with trees, the Bellwood Quarry, the empty streets of Atlanta, and the CDC.

One of the first times Rick kills a zombie is on a grassy slope, probably a park. I am assuming the scene is somewhere in Atlanta although I cannot name the place.  A mangled zombie drags herself, half of her body gone below the waist, seeking to chomp on a human. Rick watches the futile efforts and then kills the zombie.

Rick’s humanity slowly seeps away, as he becomes less and less human and more and more dead like the zombies he shoots and bludgeons.

That rag tag group was already forming and living near a quarry while Rick was in his coma in the first episode. The location is Bellwood Quarry in Atlanta. The  place is abandoned, unproductive, non-working–much like the people simply surviving in what is essentially a post-apocalypse. No one is planting crops. Great paintings are no longer being created. The 21st century War and Peace or Beloved are not being written. Civilization no longer exists like a quiet rock quarry that is no longer producing slate for kitchen countertops and outdoor walkways.

Before finding his new and struggling community, Rick makes his way to Atlanta in hopes of reconnecting with civilization–which ultimately serves as condemnation of Atlanta and more broadly dying urban life. The empty streets of asphalt and the sidewalks of concrete are an echo of what once was. The buildings tower, almost close in on Rick. Rather than being greeted by “society” he meets swarms of zombies during this first visit. Atlanta once Rick’s place of hope is now hopeless. The city in 2010 is full of empty condos and houses that will not move in the stagnant real estate market. Like many an American city, particularly downtowns, it is a bleak city. Atlanta is a metaphor for modern issues of poverty and crime overcoming ailing cities in the United States with more zombies than humans wandering around. Dead cities, dead people.

You would think the beacon of hope would be the CDC, another of Rick’s stops. Not. They do not use the real CDC which is on Clifton Road in Atlanta. Security did not allow for access, I’m sure. Pike fences surround the real CDC, which is closed off from the street.

The small group led by Rick arrives on the edges the alternate CDC on open terrain still searching for civilization, along with answers. They find dead bodies scattered on the campus; not a good sign. And the undead are lurching about as usual.

When they get into the CDC after much drama, one man, a scientist still remains trying to figure out what went wrong. Why does this disease vector trigger an illness that transforms people into zombies? He does not have the answers sought by this band of gypsies. And the unspoken question: was the CDC responsible for the plague? There’s no answer for that question either.

Without fuel–perhaps an allegory of 21st Century reliance on fossil fuel, the CDC begins automatic shut-down and goes into self-destruct (so the cache of viruses and diseases that remain in the building are not released)  much like the survivors. When the scientist locks them in with him, locks them into his hopeless and futility, they fight to leave and survive.

The band, the cobbled community are still holding tight to their humanity in the midst of the dehumanizing plague. They still have free will, Christian theology for some, choosing to die with the scientist or continue to live on through the journey. The members of the community leave the CDC without a cure, without the answers to spoken and unspoken questions. Others stay behind choosing to die and give up on the journey, a cure, and their community. No matter the choice, there is free will.

Running across the grounds of the CDC dodging the undead, the survivors leap into the RV and other vehicles to continue their twisted frightening road trip.

What new place is next? Will the disease further strip the group of their humanity? As someone who loves show for the tortured troubled relationships, the struggle to create community, and maintain their humanity–not the zombies and many variations on clubbing and shooting them–I look forward to seeing what happens in the city, on the farm, and in the woods.