Friday, February 10, 2012

The Last Zombie

Do the living dead deserve the bad rap given to them by movies and popular culture?


Copyright © 2012 Postino

Feelings were strong after the story came out on the local news in February, 1976, and Tom Arthur's neighbors were incensed that for ten years he had been keeping his late brother, Roy, in a room in his basement. Someone who knew Roy had died years before called the police after he spotted him pushing a lawnmower in Tom’s front yard. Tom was arrested and Roy, being dead and yet not dead, was taken into custody. A SWAT team was dispatched to the Arthur home, where Tom was handcuffed and Roy was taken down in a show of force completely out of proportion to the situation. At least Tom thought so. Roy, who gave no resistance, was thrown to the floor and cuffed, and a spit mask put over his head lest he bite someone. The police hadn't had a zombie call in ten years. All of the living dead had been taken care of, or so it was thought. But old prejudices die hard. The SWAT team responded to Roy as they would with a raging, flesh-eating, dead-alive ghoul, a creature of the movies but not reality.

Tom called the lawyer who had handled his parents' estate. He and Tom, now free on his own recognizance, sat at a table in the prosecutor's office. Assistant DA Timpkins was reading aloud a law about the handling of a dead body.

Tom's lawyer, Sweeney, said, "Mr. Arthur—Roy—is not strictly a corpse. He can walk. The law is specific about the condition a person is in when he is dead. In that legal framework corpses don't walk."

The truth was, since the zombie episode of 1966 no one in the Pennsylvania legislature had thought to draft any special laws about zombies, because there was no problem. The incident of reanimated dead bodies was over very quickly, never to be repeated. All of the walking dead (less than half a dozen in all of Butler County, where the satellite fell to Earth, and where the radiation bringing back the recently deceased was localized) were rounded up, and the incident put away as an anomaly. Then that movie came out in ‘68, heavily fictionalizing the incident, making the undead look like a surging horde of cannibal ghouls. In 1976 when Tom Arthur was arrested the other so-called zombies were assumed to be back in their graves, but the impressions from the movie were left.

Sweeney said, "No corpse means Tom can’t be held for desecration of a corpse."

Sweeney and Timpkins argued—actually more of a debate, really—about the strict definition of what Roy was. Sweeney, giving in to the drama inherent in the situation, made a statement, as impassioned as if he were speaking to a jury. "Roy Arthur is not a person, as such. He is a human being, deceased, prepared for burial, who, despite being embalmed, walked home from the undertaking parlor under his own power the night before his funeral. The reason for him being alive in such a form is beyond our understanding. We can’t assume his animation is not the will of God! Roy has some free will to move around, but Roy’s caretaker, his brother, Tom, must tell him everything he wants him to do. Despite Roy’s reappearance going against everything we understand about death, Tom was happy to have seen him again. He loves his brother and was grief stricken when Roy died. Their parents are deceased. Tom has never married. He wants the companionship his brother provides. He takes care of him, loves him, even though Roy cannot speak or interact except at the most basic level. They live in the rundown farmhouse where they grew up. Sometimes Roy does simple tasks. He mows the lawn, for instance, and with Tom getting up there in age he appreciates his brother’s help."

The discussion went back and forth, but in the end charges against Tom Arthur were dropped, and the undead Roy Arthur, walking under his own power, got into in the cab of Tom's pickup truck to be driven home. Roy had fallen into one of those cracks in the legal system: He was legally dead but still walking like a living person. As close as the law could come, Roy was like someone in a persistent vegetative state, being kept alive by machines. Except in this case he wasn't being kept alive by machines, because he didn't need to breathe. All such human functions had ceased at the time of his death in 1966. It was enough to give the DA and all of local law enforcement a massive joint headache, and to be honest, they were glad when Roy Arthur was released. They breathed a collective sigh of relief when Tom's taillights disappeared down the road, away from the Butler County Courthouse.


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