That Good Night
In 1968 a small-time movie producer named George Romero filmed a horror flick in rural Pennsylvania. He spent about $114,000, low budget even back then.Besides using unknown actors, Romero shot the film in 35-millimeter black-and-white. And, for special effects, the crew poured Bosco Chocolate Syrup over the actor’s bodies.That was supposed to be blood.
The plot of the movie goes as follows: A space probe, returning from Venus, explodes in the atmosphere, which, for some unexplained reason, causes the dead to be resurrected out of the ground or out of morgues. And if that isn’t startling enough, they start killing and eating live people.Most of the movie is about the small group trying to escape these flesh-eating zombies.
This flick, which turned into the cult classic The Night of the Living Dead, was the first of what was to become a cinematic and literary genre, the Zombie Apocalypse.Since then, film and literary critics have weighed in on the subtext, the inherent message in what are, essentially, horror science fiction films. Chief among the themes is the fragility of human civilization, or even of human life in general, and how science, which was supposed to be for humanity’s benefit, could become its ultimate nemesis instead.
Though apocalyptic science fiction had preceded the nuclear age, once humans learned the secret of splitting the atom, the destruction of all human life was no longer the stuff of science fiction or of speculative apocalypses only. For the first time in known history, humans possessed the means of their own destruction. Hence the spate of apocalyptic movies and books, including zombie apocalypses, which carry the message that we are our own worst enemies and the potential source of our own demise.
There was, however, one scene in The Night of the Living Dead, perhaps the most telling one, that pointed to something else. When the authorities realized what was happening, they took action to stop the zombies.Modeled after notorious segregationist Bull Connor, the police chief in the movie told his officers, “If you have a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ’em or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy.”
Shoot ’em in the head. In other words, we will do whatever we need to in order to stop them, to preserve law and order, to preserve not just our civilization but, perhaps, our very life as well.
This leads to a question, one not specially addressed in most zombie apocalypses per se, but that remains a subtext: freedom, or, more specifically, the loss of freedom, the loss of many civilized norms, in times of trouble. Though books and movies (think 1984, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, V for Vendetta) have dealt with this theme (i.e., the loss of freedom in difficult times), what could be a more difficult time than the prospective end of the world? It’s one thing to restrict freedom when you have a Confederate rebellion or an attack on Pearl Harbor. But what about freedom, or even religious freedom, in the face of a zombie apocalypse, or any kind of apocalypse at all?
History, real history (not science fiction), is replete with sordid examples of the loss of freedom because of threats, real or imagined, so this concern isn’t just science fiction or zombie apocalypse stuff.If Abraham Lincoln could suspend habeas corpusout of fear of a Confederate invasion of Washington, D.C., what would world leaders do out of fear from a global pandemic or an alien invasion, or anything perceived as an existential threat?And, considering all the potential world-ending scenarios that we are told we face, the relevance of this question become palpably obvious.
With history replete with examples of just what past threats, or perceived threats, have done to freedom, what exactly will happen in the case of an apocalypse, zombie or otherwise?
In his depressing commentary on humanity, “Hollow Men,” T. S. Eliot wrote the following lines: “This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Whether with a bang, a whimper, or both, the end of the world, or the threat of the end of the world, does hover in human consciousness. After all, what in this life, in this world, remains permanent, eternal?Things come and go with consistent regularity. Nothing, we know, lasts forever; so why should the earth—and the human race on it—be any different?
Meanwhile, science tells us that one of these days the sun is going to blow up, taking the solar system with it.Meanwhile (still doing the calculations), scientists warn that, eventually, the universe is either going to expand so far out that the stars will burn up and the era of light will be over, or the universe is going to collapse and become the size of a fist.Expanding or contracting, neither direction the universe takes is going to be good for us long-term. True, none of this is expected to happen in our lifetimes, but still, behind the hustle and bustle of daily existence is the gnawing realization of just how temporal and fleeting that existence is, which, for beings who can contemplate the idea of eternity and transcendence, is a full-fledged nightmare.
However, we have more immediate challenges and existential threats than the eventual overexpansion or overcontraction of the cosmos. Since 1947, just after the dawn of the atomic age, members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have put out the Doomsday Clock, which shows what they believe is just how close humanity is to destroying itself.The clock sets the hypothetical time of global destruction as midnight, and since 1947 it has been changed 23 times, with the clock’s recent resetting at two minutes to midnight, which represents a high threat level.
Says the organization: “In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II.
“The greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program made remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks to North Korea itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.”
Besides nuclear annihilation, there are other threats, either real or perceived, to the human race.
Climate change is, of course, considered a major one, at least by some.It is the biggest of all apocalyptic doomsday fears, for now. Though politically charged (what these days isn’t?), climate change does raise the bigger question of just how dependent we are on the natural world for our survival, and how a major shift in temperature, or the ecosystem in general (whatever the cause), could threaten not just our way of life but our life itself.There is talk of rising sea levels, we already see famines caused by heat waves, and massive storms and flooding have become a new norm. Some say that drastic steps need to be taken—or else!
“It is, I promise, worse than you think,” wrote David Wallace Wells in New York Magazine. “If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas—and the cities they will drown—have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad—in fact, very bad—but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.”
If that weren’t frightening enough, what about asteroids? Though Hollywood makes asteroid movies on occasion (The Day the Sky Exploded, Meteor, Armageddon) over the years, some astronomers have warned that the earth can face potentially devastating consequences from an asteroid hit.
And one doesn’t need such flicks as Contagion, Outbreak, and The Andromeda Strain to know that humanity is always to some degree threatened by a pandemic of one sort or another.From the Black Death in the fourteenth century to the 1918 Spanish flu, humans have known the potential devastation that pathogens can cause.
Even worse, in a world today where travel across continents is so common, the ability to spread disease is easier than ever.Whether H7N9, or Ebola in West Africa, Zika in South America, MERS in the Middle East, dangerous disease outbreaks are a part of our daily existence and, given the right circumstances, could threaten our existence.Time magazine ran a cover article (May 2017) titled: “WARNING: We Are Not Ready for the Next Pandemic.”
And if natural pathogens are not terrifying enough, humans can do a pretty nasty job themselves. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) warns that “gram for gram, biological weapons are the deadliest weapons ever produced. Germs don’t respect borders, so biological threats—man-made and naturally occurring—can quickly have global impacts. Although only a few countries are suspected of having biological weapons, rapidly producing and weaponizing biological agents is surprisingly easy.” And when regimes like the ones in Iran, Cuba, Syria and North Korea, among others, are believed either to have biological weapons or to be in the process of making them, it’s no wonder some fear for the future of life on earth.
Meanwhile, other things such as rogue black holes, giant solar flares, a particle accelerator mishap, a robot revolution, or even an alien invasion (a common movie theme) could, many fear, lead to the demise of human life on earth.
Safety Over Liberty
The real issue isn’t whether or not any of these are credible threats. What matters only is the perception that any one might be. Let people fear these potentialities, or others, and if history is a guide, which it is, the masses will acquiesce to whatever power promises to save them from impending doom.
In the early Roman Republic, initially developed in response to the abuses of kingship, a special office was created that, in times of national emergency or existential threats, gave one person massive powers: powers that one person would normally never have.Yet, in the case of grave danger, this was deemed necessary.The title of the office?
Since, then, whether Carthaginians, Communists, Japanese militarists, inflation, terrorism—all through human history, and even now, dangers, or perceived dangers, have paved the way for governments to trample upon human rights.Ben Franklin’s famous quote, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” sounds fine in principle, but how does one define “essential liberty” or even “temporary safety,” especially in the face of a perceived existential threat?Who, faced with the prospect of nuclear annihilation, or a zombie apocalypse, wouldn’t opt for safety over liberty?After all, what good is liberty if you and your family are nuked, eaten by zombies, or washed away in a flood?
A Time of Trouble
The Bible warns about a similar issue.The word “apocalypse” itself comes from the first word of the New Testament book of Revelation, which focuses (especially in the latter half) on events leading up to the end of the world. It does depict a time of widespread political, social, and religious strife that ushers in great religious persecution, with people facing both economic and capital punishment for not complying with the regnant political/religious system (see Revelation 13-16).
The apocalyptic book of Daniel, closely tied to Revelation in theme, warns about “a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that same time” (Daniel 12:1).In other words, if we thought World War I or World War II, or the Spanish influenza, were bad—in the words of the Bachmann-Turner Overdrive song: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”And it’s in this context, the final time of trouble, that the book of Revelation warns about religious persecution.
Nothing should be surprising about such a warning, either.Even with relatively little “times of trouble,” human rights have been trampled upon.What should we expect, then, during a time of trouble “such as never was since there was a nation, even to that same time”?
A Zombie Apocalypse?
What exactly the world faces in the immediate future, we don’t know.Even those who believe in the Bible are not told there the exact details of what immediately will come. We know only that in the event of an emergency, freedom takes a back seat, and the greater the emergency the farther back it gets seated.And there’s no reason to think it will be any different again. On the contrary, according to the book of Revelation, freedom, even religious freedom, will be lost during these desperate times.
And, in anticipation of whatever awaits us, the United States government has, believe it or not, a plan for what to do in case of, among other things, a zombie apocalypse. That’s right. “From responses to natural disasters to a catastrophic attack on the homeland, the U.S. military has a plan of action ready to go if either incident occurs,” says a CNN report.“It has also devised an elaborate plan should a zombie apocalypse befall the country.”
The unclassified document, titled “CONOP 8888-11 COUNTER-ZOMBIE DOMINANCE,” was put together in 2011 as part of a larger program for general training in regard to any kind of national emergency.The report said it found that “the hyperbole involved in writing ‘a zombie survival plan’ actually provided a very useful and effective training tool.” In other words, it was deemed an entertaining way to deal with what would need to be done in case of any kind of emergency.However, said the report in one place: “Domestic law enforcement agencies will address any CONUS [contiguous United States]-based attacks involving zombies until martial law is declared.”
Until martial law is declared?
That’s the point.Under a dire enough emergency, a Russian attack, a terrorist attack, a massive natural disaster, asteroids, a pandemic, or a zombie apocalypse, a new set of law comes into play, and freedom will be among the first casualties. It’s history, and, according to the book of Revelation, it is prophecy as well.
Article Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.