Life Among The Living Dead

Things You Hear on the Radio as a Kid

I was too young to go see George A. Romero’s seminal horror film, Dawn of the Dead, when it was released in 1978. But it still scared me. You see, I did hear the ads on the radio, and they were plenty scary on their own. They flogged the thing with the unnerving line, “When there is no more room in Hell the dead will walk the earth!” I was 12 years old and that idea was the stuff of nightmares. Just between you and me, it still is.

George Romero (raised a Catholic, I understand) had done a number of interesting things in an earlier horror outing, Night of the Living Dead, back in 1968. For instance, he started a trend of making horror films that were all about social commentary (well, he solidified it anyway). He had a black action hero (who slapped a white woman on screen). And for the first time, at least in movies, he made the term “zombie” mean not a slave of a voodoo practitioner but rather a reanimated corpse that set about to feed on live human victims. Those victims, once dead, would hop up and join the chow line. “Living death” was something you could catch and the only way to stop a zombie was to aim for the head. He would revisit this idea in his 1978 follow up. It was a nasty idea. It still is.

Most people who have so much as heard of Dawn of the Dead know it as “that zombie movie that takes place in a mall.” They’re right. The set-up? A rag-tag gang of flawed heroes flee the gruesome zombie hoards that now outnumber humans and are taking over the world one city at a time. They find shelter at an abandoned shopping mall, the perfect home were it not crawling with murderous corpses. The cynical social criticism is not hard to decipher: next time you are at a mall just look at all the shambling, mindless crowds of figures who appear to have no real idea why there are there other than to consume. For many years after I actually saw the movie I had a hard time at malls: they were creepy places. Anyway, that’s not what is interesting.

Evidence of Why I Should Never Deliver a Homily

The idea of this kind of zombie is much more interesting—and deeply frightening—to me as a Catholic than any anti-consumerism parable.

Let’s face it: we Catholics don’t really believe in “death” as it were. We must all experience a bodily death, to be sure, and as profound a truth as that is to even the most fervent believer, the greater truth is that death was conquered over 2,000 years ago at no less a cost than God’s own Son. Our spiritual life—our identity—is assured for us for all time by His sacrifice. To a theological simpleton like me, physical death is akin to the first big lift hill on a roller coaster: if you get past the really unnerving bit the rest is great. But I digress.

Now for my “duct tape-and-string” theology. Romero’s zombies have not experienced physical death as we understand it: they walk, they groan, they kill, they eat (yuck) and yet when we experience physical death our bodies do none of those things. So what sort of “dead” are we dealing with here?

Jesus Christ has an answer, I think. Consider Matthew 22:32…

And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.

Stay with me: as death has been overcome by Christ, physically dead is not spiritually dead and God is still our God and we still live. If these zombies are not physically dead, then we are left with the idea that they must be bodies that are spiritually dead. And now, God is not their God anymore.

I submit that these monsters can seem so frightening precisely because they go about a horrific pantomime of life, devouring anyone truly alive and subsequently converting them over to their own spiritual death and the absence of God. How’s that for a parable?

It scares the hell out of me, frankly. And what’s more frightening yet is that the living dead are among us now.

Getting All Paranoid and Preachy

We all know people in our lives that are the spiritually dead. At the very least we see them on the street, on TV, and in the news. They are in business and schools and government. They are people who have lost identity, have lost purpose, have lost decency, have lost all trace of human compassion. They do not “do unto others” but instead simply consume: first goods, to be sure, then the people in their lives and ultimately the lives of people they have never met. They have chosen for God to no longer be their God and are walking around as dead as a doornail and not even realizing it. They grimace and groan. They attack anyone and anything that shows signs of spiritual life. They seek to bring their victims down to their own miserable, “divorced from God” state. They seek to devour our children’s minds. They even devour the unborn.

These spiritual dead are the real living dead and they are as horrific on the inside as their film counterparts are on the outside. If they get their teeth into you you’re a goner. And they are everywhere. So how do we survive? How can one fight them?

With love. With faith.

It’s tough to love a monster but we have been instructed to do so by the highest Authority.

In the movies, as everyone knows, the way to bring down a zombie is to shoot for the head. In real life, to survive in the land of the dead we must shoot for the heart. It’s a daunting proposition. But I believe that each and every one of us alive in the Spirit, once we understand we are in a battle, will know what to do.

And I also believe, despite all the fear and dread that life among the living dead can breed, that this living death is not the only thing that is contagious. True life—radiant, breathing, joyful, spiritual, genuine life—is contagious too. As Catholics we are commanded to spread it.