There’s a dead man in my office, in handcuffs no less. My wife would prefer to keep him in the closet but that’s a bit too on the nose for my tastes. The deceased is a skeleton, of course, a delightful bag of bones fully articulated and hung from a pole to make him easily accessible to the scientifically inclined (the handcuffs were my addition). I don’t know who he was in life, but the fine folks at Skeletons-R-Us said his name was “Bucky.”
Sadly my man Bucky is technically no man at all. He’s a replica—a plastic prop. Part of his rib cage is translucent and his teeth are far too pearly to be anything but artificial. Thanks to various international treaties authentic specimens are hard to come by unless one happens to work at a morgue, museum, or cemetery—all jobs where taking one’s work home remains frowned upon.
My job is writing, which is why I keep the dead man close to my keyboard. He’s my inspiration. Full disclosure: I write about dead things, occasionally undead things. Zombies. Strictly speaking, not the criminal element most of us worry about walking down the street, but as a source of entertainment they’re a satisfying bunch. Delightfully scary, disgustingly dead, faceless and yet uncomfortably familiar when you least expect it. A zombie outbreak is a virus that attacks not at the cellular level but with arms outstretched and mouths open wide, an unrelenting anthropomorphic plague.
Plus they’re, like, super popular.
There are zombie movies, TV shows, comic books, videogames, apps, blogs, conventions, lurches, flash mobs, and fun runs. Did I mention books? There are lots of books. And outside of a few classic flicks and games, it’s in the literature where the undead truly come to life. And why not? On the page zombies have more range. For the slow build we’ve got walkers, shamblers, stumblers, crawlers, and slack-jaws. If you’re in a hurry there are rage addicts, cellular sickos, and haters. All would like to sample your brains, but some are mindless eating machines while others are thoughtful grey matter enthusiasts. Whatever your taste there’s a zombie for every appetite (if you still have one).
Personalities aside, one classification that is rarely addressed is the relative criminal standing of the undead. Is the individual zombie an uncaring murderer or merely a misunderstood victim? Is it even possible to make a fair judgment? Sure, the cute little zombie girl, her Sunday best torn and bloodied, gets a pass, but what about her less-than-sympathetic redneck pop? He didn’t mean to bite her, but he did. Does that make him a killer? If we can have sympathy for the Devil why not the Dead?
Consider the vampire. Your average bloodsucker is a serial killer, plain and simple. I know he’s only doing what comes naturally, but he does so conscious of the pain and suffering his actions cause others. Why not get a job at the local blood bank where the vino is not only tested for quality it’s bottled and labeled by varietal? No, he’d rather bite and suck and murder people. Serial killer.
But the typical zombie isn’t in control of his actions. Most slack-jaws are already dead, which puts their actions squarely in the force majeure category. But what about those lucky few for whom a cure might one day curtail their cannibalistic tendencies—should they be held accountable in a court of law? Is “under the influence of zombie bite” a reasonable defense? If so why didn’t Jeffrey Dahmer tell his lawyer to give it a shot?
Perhaps we need to trace the plague (virus, curse, whatever) back to the source. An outbreak of the zombies does seem like a convenient way to cover up some serious criminal activity, or at the very least least poor job performance. (That cure for monkey pox not panning out? Look out! Zombies!) It’s possible that vial of undead cooties was left out in the sun by accident, but not likely. Assuming humanity survives long enough to find a good lawyer somebody is going to get sued.
In the end it comes down to intent, which is hard to prove when dealing with a mindless horde of flesh-chomping monsters. Would the average zombie, offered a life-sustaining menu of people-free meats and Soylent Greens, give up the good stuff? Or like the vampire do they lack the will to give up their bite first lifestyle?
I posed this question to the artificial dead man in my office. He doesn’t say much but there are rare occasions, usually late at night, when his eyes turn accusatory and he speaks with a clarity not afforded a much less tired man.
“You!” I hear him say, “with your words and overly descriptive disembowelments. Have you no shame?”
I argue that zombie lit requires at least a wee bit of violence. He’s not impressed.
“But what of the zombie? What of his perspective? Perhaps you should take a shamble in his shoes.”
The zombie point of view? This never occurred to me. Perhaps a little time spent inside the mind of the undead will afford us a better understanding of their motivations, machinations, and desires. I’m game. Ready?
Rob DeBorde is the author of Portlandtown: A Tale of the Oregon Wyldes, a story of supernatural suspense, adventure, and zombies in the rain due in October from St. Martin’s Griffin. He also wrote a fish cookbook that is available now. Seriously. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be found online at www.robdeborde.com, on Facebook, and Twitter.