As a child, like many other Jewish kids, I used to perennially wonder whether I would have survived the Holocaust.
In my family, it was not quite yet history. My father told stories of his boyhood under the Nazis in Romania, although they tended to be quite gentle tales of black market triumphs and small acts of sabotage. As for my mother, all her family in eastern Europe perished.
So I used to idly mull this over in quiet moments. Would I have suffered the same fate as the relatives memorialized in black-and-white photos? Would I have hidden, or fought back?
Now I realize it’s not just Jewish kids who are fascinated with the possibility of our own mass extinction. There’s a deep-seated terror there which goes much further, sublimated into a theme that’s become a persistent part of pop culture.
Brace yourself for fears of the zombie apocalypse.
First shuffling through our consciousness in George Romero’s 1968 classic 'Dawn of the Dead' and perennially resurrected (sorry) ever since, these creatures represent something important: The seeds of destruction we incubate within ourselves.
What’s so horrifying about zombies, like the Nazis that fuelled my childhood imagination, is that they are not anonymous monsters or aliens from outer space. They are human, or used to be. They are us.
And they’ve never been more popular. Battered by environmental disasters, the threat of global terror and waves of financial crises, we seem to have become painfully conscious of our tenuous grasp on civilization.
From record-breaking TV series 'The Walking Dead' to Romeo and Juliet remake 'Warm Bodies', modern culture teems with resurrected corpses. (For the true connoisseur, there’s also a Nazi zombie sub-genre, the ultimate monster mash-up.)
Max Brooks, the author of modern classics such as 'The Zombie Survival Guide' and 'World War Z' – made into the film starring Brad Pitt - draws a direct line from the vertiginous insecurity of modern life to this fascination with the living dead.
“Since 2001, people have been scared,” Max Brooks told the New York Times earlier this year. “There’s been some really scary stuff that’s been happening — 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, anthrax letters, DC sniper, global warming, global financial meltdown, bird flu, swine flu, SARS. I think people really feel like the system’s breaking down.”
And what happens when that system falters? Battling zombies is bad enough, but just think of the dystopian reality which would follow.
It doesn’t take more than an exceptionally heavy snowfall now to have European airports closed, food supply routes falter and panic-buying flood the supermarkets.
With actual disasters, as we saw with Typhoon Haiyan, the results can be beyond devastating. So what would happen when there was no-one to ensure that the lights came back on?
Some countries are likely to come off better than others.
Maybe it’s a reflection of the dry British sense of humor, but there seems nary a local authority here that hasn’t received a freedom of information request - which under British law forces local government to reveal certain data - about their battle preparedness for a zombie pandemic.
The British government itself, it appears, has things quite well thought out.
“In the event of an apocalyptic incident (e.g. zombies), any plans to rebuild and return England to its pre-attack glory would be led by the Cabinet Office, and thus any pre-planning activity would also taken place there,” said the Ministry of Defence in response to a FoI request last year, adding that their role would merely be to provide military support to the civil authorities.
In the original book version of World War Z, Israel handles the invasion of the undead pretty efficiently. We learn that the Mossad has done serious strategic planning for a zombie plague, with the rational that the Holocaust, too, was unexpected.
So Israel launches a nationwide quarantine and displays laudable pragmatism, pulling back nearly to the 1967 borders to secure itself (and inviting the Palestinians, including all the refugees, to seek sanctuary too).
Things don’t work out quite so well in the film adaptation. Jerusalem becomes, appropriately enough, the venue for the apocalypse.
Israelis and Arabs chanting peace songs in the Old City, protected from the zombie hordes by a colossal barrier, enrage the undead to such an extent (the noise that is, not the message of co-existence) that they overwhelm the defenses and overrun the entire region.
Pitt escapes, of course, with the obligatory hot female IDF soldier. But then his character is a UN investigator who knows all about disaster response.
As for the rest of us, we have never been more vulnerable; it’s debatable what transferable skills our modern world’s plethora of marketing managers and sales executives would bring to the zombie showdown, let alone to a future, remade society.
If you want to gauge how well-equipped you are, a good test is the highly complex scoring of the Ultimate Zombie Apocalypse Survival Quiz, which evaluates your health, ability to improvise weapons, make fire and abandon fellow survivors when deemed judicious. After all, you may have to put aside the usual niceties of polite co-existence to survive.
Its creator, a 37-year-old Californian Elizabeth Butler, said it started as “just a bit of fun” but still gets swathes of emails daily from people who take the issue very, very seriously indeed.
I got 60.1 per cent on the quiz, which as Butler points out kindly, gives me a more than 50-50 chance of living to tell the tale. But it’s interesting to note that my 84-year-old father, who honed his survival skills in the particularly hostile environment of the Holocaust, sailed through with an admirable 77.6 per cent - the highest score of anyone I know.
Daniella Peled is Editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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