By Aaron the Zombie
Avid movie buff and TV death aficionado Aaron, pictured left at a zombie event, was raised on war films. He enjoyed killing zombies and waging battles against many different life-forms. How on earth has he become the peace-loving humanist we know and love today?
As a child of the 1980s, I grew up watching lots of modern films depicting violence. Compared to today's movies and game imagery they may have been tame, but nevertheless it was a case of Us Against Them. We, both viewer and protagonist, were of course the good guys, and They – the ones we were killing – were the bad. It was straightforward. We never questioned this basic scenario. I never questioned it. Should I have?
It all started with Zulu
The 1964 film Zulu is one of my earliest recollections. Typically Sunday afternoon viewing, where white guys killed black guys. How more British could you get? The film holds deeper meaning for me now than for my 10-year old self. It portrayed the valiant red jackets of the British Army fighting gallantly at Rorke's Drift against overwhelming odds. Yes, there were guns against spears. Yes, they were an invading army in another people's kingdom. Yes, they were 'civilised gentleman' against native savages. But they were outnumbered, 4,000 (or 40,000 in some texts) to 120 or so. What's not to like?
I think most young people would have a moral issue with this now, but back then in the late 1970s, no questions of this nature were raised. It was good guys against bad guys. No deeper meaning was needed or sought.
My on-screen war entertainment progressed from white-against-black to white-against-white. Films such as The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and A Bridge Too Far are absolute classics and so very entertaining as German after German was killed, shot, or had his throat slit or 'slotted'. No one questioned this. Cinemas had age classifications, but on TV these films were often on at all hours, a Sunday afternoon's entertainment, and anyone could watch. Some violence was seen, some implied, but you knew what was happening. There was a distinction between World War I and II. WWI was horrendous. But World War II was all about action, entertainment, and a good story. We loved it.
One of my childhood memories is the scene in The Dirty Dozen of a woman being knifed by actor Telly Savalas. She was a German woman, so 'obviously' deserved it. Yet my child's brain made a moral distinction between the deaths of many solders and the death of one woman. Her death was horrific and seemed, in some way, 'more' wrong. Was it because she was a woman, or because she was non-military, or just because she was unarmed? Whichever, it triggered a response I remember to this day.
Decades passed, war films came and went, and we moved from killing humans to killing aliens. The actual Alien series of films did this wonderfully. It was a case of kill or be killed. They were not humans and so it was OK to kill them. It was described as a 'bug hunt' in the second film to emphasise that the humans weren't doing anything wrong . Starship Troopers did the same thing, only this time we, the humans, went to the aliens' home planet with the idea of wiping them out. The humans took a beating in this movie, but the arachnid body count was high and growing as wave after wave of insectoid creatures were machine-gunned down in a blaze of pride and glory. This was OK though, because they weren't humans.
Another decade, and another moral step, led us to think that killing aliens was bad. Even Star Trek never killed for the sake of it. Star Trek and other Sci-Fi genres took huge strides to avoid killing where possible. Maybe the producers felt that we could no longer just obliterate lifeforms and so they moved on to killing things that were already dead! There was a flurry of zombie films, a fantastic TV series called The Walking Dead and its spin offs, plus games and online activities where killing zombies seemed to be the perfect answer. How could anybody get upset or offended by killing already dead people? One of the key feature of zombies is that they only die when their brain is destroyed. Gruesome deaths are commonplace, and audiences loved it.
Well, that sounds pretty straightforward doesn't it? The morality police don't have a foot to stand on. Or do they? The Walking Dead and similar films took a massive leap in gratuitous violence, cracking people's heads open, slicing off limbs, biting, cross-bowing, shooting, skinning... there was an entirely new feast of gore to be explored here. There was nobody to complain. The dead do not have a campaign group, and they don't get strong media support in Parliament of Congress. Yet somehow it matters. Doesn't it?
As an adult, I hold my hands up. I absolutely loved this stuff. I haven't watched it in a few years, but it was a world-breaking series, and the films captivated me. My internal morality barometer didn't register, and so I was content to enjoy mass violence against dead people who didn't matter. My conscience was clear. But with my humanist head on, I can see a clear issue with enjoying this kind of violence, and as an adult I am aware that children who watch this, play the games, and are immersed in entertainment violence as if it is normality, must be affected.
Fake versus reality
In today's news, we watch real people being killed. This started during the Iraq War where live-streamed news feeds would show cruise missiles home in on a target, be it a bunker, a building or a moving vehicle. People died live on TV. Today, we see this with recorded drone footage, which can be graphic. We no longer see a target with people in it being hit; we see bunkers with people standing there being hit. Has the reporting of modern-day killing on the news changed the way death is represented in entertainment? As the news has become more graphic and real, have entertainment media stuck with aliens and zombies? Sadly not. CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) has enabled the portrayal of death in more ways than ever before.
The Ukraine War, for perhaps the first time ever in history, is being reported from both sides. The West sees the War unfolding from Ukraine's perspective, but we also have access to blogs and reports from Russians who are forced to fight. For example, I have been following YouTuber Niki Proshin since before the war, now forced to flee his home country Russia or face being sent to the front line.
The BBC and other news agencies cover the war from Ukraine's perspective, telling the stories of ordinary people who have given up their jobs to defend their country. Personal stories such as the one captured in the image above, in which two brothers go to fight but only one of them returns home, press home the reality of modern day killing. Does this sink in? Do younger members of our society distinguish the difference between entertainment and reality?
I have seen entertainment evolve from killing Germans in World War II movies, to killing Russians in Cold War movies and Bond films, to killing aliens and then zombies. In The A Team, a 1980s TV series, almost nobody was killed in five seasons of action and adventure. If this trend means that we are moving away from killing, and specifically killing humans for entertainment, then perhaps we are slowly learning something.