American Movie Classics’ excellent, if harrowing, zombie apocalypse drama “the Walking Dead” finally raised the ethical issue looming like a zombie Woolly Mammoth over all zombie films: Is it ethical to kill zombies? Are they still human beings?
Nobody seriously disputes that killing a zombie who is about to eat you or your compatriots is self-defense, justifying deadly force. But what about the common practice in every George Romero-inspired zombie epic: shooting the shambling things (or the sprinting variety, as featured in the re-make of “Dawn of the Dead”) on sight—in the head, naturally? Is it murder? Euthanasia?
The issue was raised in this Sunday’s episode of “The Walking Dead,” as it was revealed that the prickly doctor who presides over the remote farm where our zombie-fleeing heroes are currently taking refuge keeps a batch of captive “walkers,” including his rotting wife, locked in a barn. He feeds them chickens, which are presumably finger-lickin’ good. The doctor regards zombie killing as an atrocity, the equivalent of killing a sick person. “They are humans,” he says.
I think he’s wrong.
We should look at the zombie-killing issue as abortion in reverse. The infection of the human by a zombie is the equivalent of conception, with the anticipated progression moving toward death and non-human status rather than toward life and human status. Without intervention, the infected human will sicken and die over time, then awaken zombified, craving fresh human flesh (and the occasional chicken, apparently.) The newly infected human is still human, and a pre-emptive killing would be murder. As he gets sicker, however, there is a point at which his imminent transformation via death into a mindless cannibal presents sufficient ethical justification to kill him before that happens. As when an embryo enters the third trimester and gains additional rights that may preclude legal abortion, a pre-zombie’s late stages may allow execution.
The “birth” of a zombie is the death of the human, just as the birth of a human being ends all doubt about an infants rights as a human. The zombie’s “birth ends those rights. The individual is gone and the human being is gone: an animated corpse is no more human than an animated La-Z-Boy recliner. Does that mean that it is neither murder nor unethical to shoot zombies when they just wander the landscape, perhaps looking for an “Occupy” encampment to annoy?
Yes. I think that’s what it means.
The doctor should keep his chickens.