The Japanese culture and history often refer to their cultural significance of ‘Gojira’, translated as Godzilla in English. Essentially, it’s proposed that Godzilla was Japan’s way of dealing with the combined and lasting emotional impact of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Godzilla first appeared in full form in the 1954 movie, Gojira. I think there is truth to the belief that the giant monster that towered over and destroyed Japanese cities was a metaphor for nuclear weapons that could be psychologically compartmentalized. In the world Godzilla inhabits, a giant, destructive lizard would be the scariest thing possible. By dealing with Godzilla in art, the Japanese dealt with the reality of nuclear destruction. In fact, the plot of the original movie had it that Gojira was created by American nuclear weapons testing so the connection is direct.
When the Cold War brought the fear of nuclear weapons to the West, Godzilla crossed the Pacific and entered American theaters and televisions. The horror of nuclear weaponry resonated with humanity as a whole more poignantly than any other weapon has in the past. Prior to the advent of the bomb, the only weapon to have such a revolutionary impact on warfare was the gun.
The widespread adoption of gunpowder firearm technology was enormous. Quantification of the impact is probably impossible due to the ubiquity of the technology in the 14th and 15th centuries. It’s certain, however, that millions of bullets have been fired. In contrast, there have been precisely two uses of the atomic bomb in warfare. Despite widespread fears of complete nuclear destruction, that threat never arrived, except in Japan where Godzilla continues to play a major role in art and culture.
If Godzilla and other “kiaju” are, in fact, cultural coping mechanisms, it would stand to reason that there are other shared cultural tropes that symbolize and compartmentalize actual threats. There are, of course, vampires and werewolves, but they aren’t typically portrayed as civilization threats. Often, in fact, they are portrayed sympathetically, almost as ‘super people’ rather than evil creatures. There is only one modern monster of art and culture capable of destroying the world, possessing no redeeming qualities at all – that is the zombie.
Zombies have been around since the 1932 movie, White Zombie. Those early zombies, however, were a different sort of creature. Basically, they were normal people who had been enslaved to serve some villain. The original concept apparently came out of Haitian myths.
The modern zombie, a person who transformed into a murderous cannibal through contact with other infected people, seems to have evolved from the 1954 novel, I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson. This was, as far as I know, the first time that we contemplated through art some sort of personality-destroying disease capable of ending civilization. Filmmaker George Romero brought the concept to movie theaters in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Though the word zombie doesn’t appear in the film, fans applied the term and it was used in the sequels.
Sociologists and psychologists have speculated about the cultural significance of modern zombies, but their theories usually reflect political biases. (Tea Party people are infected? Lefties?) I think they miss the obvious. Today we Americans must live with evil things that are not so slowly destroying our culture and sense of hope.
Like a zombie movie, if a person has a sense of loss, the inability to change or improve their life, or to change or stop something perceived as destroying their way of life, it would seem realistic to believe that zombies could be a coping mechanism for Americans.
Like in a recent movie with Brad Pitt – ‘World War Z‘ – people see their world going crazy with no possible ‘cure’. The symbolism screams of desperation. Seeing our country go down the tubes is a very disturbing thought. But when you believe there ‘is no solution’ to this situation, it makes sense to me that people work this out with zombie moves.
What really scares me is, typically when a society reaches such a point, in their desperation, they will chose to accept ‘any solution’ to their problem(s). i.e., The German and Austrian people looking to Hitler as their savior.?? I’m just hoping we haven’t already done the same thing…?
Just food for thought and for those who may have been asking the same question about why so many zombie movies..?