This summer I get to teach both Sci Fi I and II.
What I love about the genre (and I'd put horror in with Sci Fi too) is how it uses various subjects as metaphors for our modern fears.
For example - in Sci Fi II we are currently studying zombies.
We first watched a History Channel documentary on it that did a phenomenal job of analyzing the subject and how it reflects our fears.
Traditional "mindless" zombies reflect our simple fear of losing control and our rights and being enslaved.
Then with the mastery of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, he totally changed the game and gave us something new to be terrified about: contagion. In this case, it's implied that a satellite returns to earth with a virus that begins waking the dead.
It's no coincidence that Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1968 just at the height of the space race. In fact, just a year later Michael Chrichton's The Andromeda Strain came out with the same premise . . . only the disease killed people instead of waking the dead.
This is no different that the small pox epidemic that wiped out the Native Americans or the Spanish Flu that decimated the world's populate in the early 20th century or the black plague that killed up to half of the population of Europe in the middle ages.
This style of story and film reflects the blind panic one feels when everyone around the is sick or dying or trying to kill them.
A decade later Romero released Dawn of the Dead.
Anyone who has seen this knows that this time the zombies don't represent contagion. This time they represent consumerism run amuck.
In Dawn of the Dead our hapless characters aren't trapped in a farm house; they are trapped inside a mall. The juxtaposition is striking. Zombies walk around like mindless shoppers (if you grew up in the 80's and 90's as I did, you know what that's like) and the survivors face a painful irony - they have access to all the goods in the mall . . . but it does them no good with the zombie hordes outside.
In the middle of the '80's Romero complete the trilogy with Day of the Dead.
This films shows us the fear of utter and total helplessness in the face of a crisis. It explores how humans react when all of our fail-safes have failed us. This is the story of what happens when the majority becomes the minority.
The characters in this film are in a military base with the hordes of undead outside. The hope for one scientist in the bunker is to try and "civilize" the zombies. He argues that they are now the majority and have to be humanized in order for us to survive. Sounds familiar? Reminds me a bit of the concept of colonialism. This is very similar to what the British did with the colonies they established (America, Canada, India . . .) all over the world.
To the delight of his fans, Romero returned to his favorite concept in 2005's Land of the Dead.
This time the survivors have retreated to a city, Pittsburgh, where one high rise in particular is the home to the most wealthy people left. They live their in total ignorance of the world around them. In terms of metaphor, they are the 1%. They live with their heads in the sand to the global crisis (insert global warming, poverty, health care . . . as the issues ignored) of zombies surrounding them.
Yet, the dead adapt. When you hear a character say, "If these things ever learn to think . . ." can't you just apply that to terrorists? If they ever got organized (such as what happened with 9/11)? What if they got sophisticated and began recruiting our own citizens to turn against us (as with ISIS)?
And these films are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the zombie genre.
Yesterday we read David J. Schow's zombie classic: "Wake up Call." It's the story of Orson Maxwell who lives an empty life. Depressed, he purchases a semi-automatic weapon, hollow point bullets, and blows the back of his head off.
Then he wakes up to a case worker welcoming him to "level 2."
She informs him that as a revised suicide, he has forfeited all his rights and property. Worse yet, since he died with $178,000 in debt, he will be put to work in a steel mill for approximately 20 years until the debt (which will include his second funeral and burial) is paid off.
Of course, he isn't supposed to remember his past life or feel pain, but he does.
So off he goes to the steel mill where he sees many other revised suicides. Worse yet, he sees children forced to work. Those children obviously aren't suicides but murder victims. It appears this type of work is so lucrative big firms are no revising murder victims as well.
After an unspecified amount of time, Maxwell decides to end his misery by hurling himself into the liquid steel.
Then he hears a sound . . . "welcome to Level 3."
This story is so rich with irony and metaphor.
It's a metaphor for our modern society built on a culture of debt. It explores our biggest fears about being unable (even in death) to escape our debt (or our mistakes). It explores - in the wake of the 2008 stock market crash thanks to the antics of big business (like the auto industry and home markets) - our fear about big business run amok (such as revising murder victims because they prove to be so economical). Sounds like Toyota who rushes out automobiles despite all of the safety issues and recalls that must occur. Sounds like the banks selling mortgages to people who they clearly know cannot afford to pay the mortgage off.
Now we are watching a modern zombie classic, 28 Days Later, which uses zombies (or rage victims) as a metaphor for our fears about biological weapons (such as the use of anthrax) from governments in wars. This is also one of the first films to introduce the "fast" zombie. This symbolizes, in our connected world, how quickly things can spiral out of control.
This is one of the most haunting and horrifying scenes I've come across.
When I see the fear from these fast moving zombies I think about the fear that erupted from the ebola outbreak last year. Before we knew it, we had cases occurring in America! I recall the fear that erupted after 9/11 when a rumor spread about gas being rationed and one of my colleagues talked about seeing lines to Pennington Main a couple blocks long.
When this is done, we will watch World War Z. I wish we could read the book, which is excellent, but we will have to settle for the film, which really bears no resemblance to the book, but it takes the "fast" zombie to another level completely.
Again, here the zombies represent a disease or war or movement that results in world wide collapse in only a matter of days.
When you think of how connected our world has become, it begins to make us fear the dark side of that connectivity, such as how quickly things can spread.
Just when you think you're safe behind your walls . . . yet you realize (too late) that you underestimated your enemy or the issue or the disease.
And sometimes - maybe worst of all - it isn't the zombies themselves and their infectious bite (or terrorists and their religious zeal or communists and their political ideology) that do you in . . . it's your fear and panic that causes your beloved way of life to crumble. That might just be the worst thing of all, zombies or not.