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The Disused Fane: I Am Become Death
It has become almost mandatory in any movie involving zombies or zombie-like creatures... the scene in which one of the protagonists confronts a friend or family member who isn't quite the same anymore. Can he perform his duty to civilization by pulling the trigger, or will he end up like them? Is it right to kill a loved one who has become one of the undead (or an alien pod-person, or a plague-infected mutant, or whatever)?
One of the world's most famous religious texts begins with its hero mulling over a similar predicament. The Bhagavad Gita, a selection from the epic Mahabharata, ranks among Hinduism's greatest writings. The Mahabharata tells the story of the conflict between two related families, the virtuous Pandavas and the evil Kauravas. The Gita occurs as the two families and their supporters gather for battle before the field of Kurukshetra. The Pandava prince Arjuna, a great archer, is deeply depressed; arrayed against him on the Kaurava side are many of his cousins, his teachers, and his acquaintances. He has no wish to kill them. Having tried to uphold virtue his whole life, he feels that the coming battle will only bring suffering into the world, and so begins to lose his sense of duty as a warrior. Arjuna's charioteer is none other than the god Krishna. Seeing Arjuna's distress, Krishna rebukes and counsels him, reminding him of the importance of his duties and the justness of his fight, and corrects also some of his misconceptions about death. Arjuna's sorrow - inappropriate, says Krishna, in a heroic warrior - stems chiefly from attachment, which, in the Hindu (and Buddhist) view, obscures perception and weakens one's ability to do the right thing.1
In the original Dawn of the Dead (1978), a de facto war rages between the living and the dead. Early in the film a SWAT team (which includes two of the main characters) storms a tenement with the intent of destroying the zombies within. In a horrible scene, one of the women living there encounters her lover (or perhaps her brother or friend; it's not quite clear), who has gone over to the other side, so to speak. She cannot or will not break her attachment to him. It doesn't turn out well for her. Later in the film, one of the two SWAT guys, Roger, is bitten. This forces him to face the fact that he will soon die, and then become one of the undead. His friend Peter promises to shoot him when that happens. Peter wisely delivers on his promise, breaking his attachment to his comrade and saving the remaining survivors in the promise. Roger is already dead, anyway.
In the Gita, Krishna says also that he is death, that death is part of his domain as God. By his decree all of these men gathered at Kurukshetra will die sooner or later anyway - ultimately, it is Krishna, not Arjuna, who kills them. In shrinking from his duties Arjuna is displaying the Eastern sin or weakness of excessive attachment to worldly, transient things. All people die, but are reborn; thus death is meaningless for the enlightened man. Krishna goes on to say further that this does not mean one should sink into nihilistic despair and inaction. Rather, liberation from attachment to such things frees a person to act as they ought, to uphold duty and virtue, without thought of reward or consequence. 2 We can see an interesting echo of this in Dawn of the Dead's resolution. The zombies (people who are definitely not enlightened, they being interested only in eating and other repetitive habits) have overrun the shopping mall. Two of the four living humans who have holed up there have died. Peter, the SWAT team warrior, has helped Francine to the helicopter on the roof, so that she at least can escape and survive. Peter, though, decides to linger behind and commit suicide. Perhaps he believes that life has become pointless with so many friends dead, and with zombies everywhere, breaking into every refuge? But at the last instant he changes his mind. He fights off the zombies who come for him, joins Francine, and they fly off to continue the struggle.
Many other horror films depict the conflict, under desperate situations, of despair vs. action, and of the virtue of attachment-breaking vs. the less-desirable results of attachment-keeping. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and its remake (1978), the heroes are those who, recognizing that something sinister is happening, sever their ties to their friends and neighbors in the interest of preserving humanity and civilization. (Ironically, however, the emotionless pod-people in these films are arguably closer to the Hindu ideal than the desire-driven humans.) From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) includes two scenes of individuals confronted with a family-member-turned-vampire. As in Dawn of the Dead it is the dispassionate one who comes to a better end; the other ends up begging his sister to kill him. A particularly disturbing variant of this shows up in The Puppet Masters (1994) and in the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). In the former film, soldiers are confronted with a wave of children who have been "possessed" by alien brain-slugs. The men are unable to open fire on the children... and then all communication with them goes silent. In the Dawn remake a living man even turns on his comrades to protect his dying wife and her zombie child, leaving the nasty business of destroying the undead baby to others.
In some important respects the Bhagavad Gita and the modern zombie film are quite different. Zombie and "survival horror" movies tend to portray a very physical, here-and-now worldview, while the detached and spiritual ideal of the ancient Hindu warrior was almost the diametric opposite. Yet in both we see conditions of great strife and the necessities they impose on their participants - specifically, the painful but necessary shedding of sentimental personal attachment. (In Dawn of the Dead an intellectual shows up making this exact argument as he argues for the mass cremation of bodies, that the spread of the disease may be slowed.) This is a concept difficult to understand and often inimical to Western morality. And indeed it is a concept that is open to abuse by fanatics, whose actions have frequently provided the stuff real-life horror is made of. But in a hypothetical world where Hell has run out of room and the dead walk the earth, a world where death is rendered almost meaningless by the constant presence of a fate worse than death - a world that, fortunately, does not exist, but which many modern artists have chosen to imagine - perhaps it's not such a bad idea.
1 The Bhagavad Gita.