Oh, aren’t they wonderful? They’re flesh-hungry, bloodthirsty, shambling balls of apocalyptic fun that we can all enjoy. There’s a zombie film for everyone, from fans of gore and horror to those in want of a romantic comedy to an opportunity for a fun family outing to the cinema.
In less lyrical prose, zombies are freaking everywhere. They are in our video games and our comics and our movies and our TV shows and our children’s programming and our books. They are a staple of popular culture and everyone knows what they are. How exactly did this happen? And, my big question for this week, why are we so obsessed with dead people that walk around?
Zombies would have to be one of the most recognised fictional monsters out there, alongside Frankenstein’s monster and all that seek to reanimate it (no pun intended… actually that’s a blatant lie) and vampires, which funnily enough both have their roots in Gothic literature. Zombies didn’t shamble towards the Western media until the 1930s, and then they were a very different type of thing. The original zombies, of course, were not the reanimated dead but ordinary people put under a spell using voodoo, leaving their association much more with the horrors of exotic witchcraft than radioactivity-induced brain-eating. They were a favourite movie monster in the early days of cinema and were the star of many a moving picture such as White Zombie (1931), Revolt of the Zombies (1936) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). As you can see, they marketed their niche very well.
Zombies didn’t develop their taste for human flesh until the 1960s, with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which is held high as the first of the zombie genre as we know it today. It was also around this era that zombies grew their association with chemical warfare and drifted finitely from their roots in mystical voodoo, with Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) where the dead rising from their graves were caused by a pest-control machine that sends radio waves into the ground. And so it was that zombies became not only a horror device but a metaphor for the dangers of messing with Forces Beyond Man’s Control.
Romero gave the world another iconic zombie movie in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead, wherein there’s lots of good undead fun as zombies take over a shopping centre. A symbol for how we are all mindless slaves to consumerism? Entirely likely. Since their humble beginnings zombies have spread to every corner of our pop culture, even where they shouldn’t quite belong given their horror roots.
So here’s that question: what is the craze about?
Well, let me point out the undead shambling elephant in the room: zombies make a good movie monster because they are bloody terrifying. It’s a general acceptance in most cultures that once dead, the deceased in question shall remain that way, despite whatever beliefs dictate will happen to the soul within. The body, by general agreement, should stay lifeless, and when it subverts that it’s a juxtaposition to the normal and the accepted, and that’s freaky.
Now, what’s scarier as an impending evil: a super villain cackling away in his tower with all the wits of the world behind his red eyes, or a mindless chaotic force that unthinkably destroys everything in its path? Zombies care not for power struggles or love stories or whether you’re Russian or British or Chinese, man or woman, adult or child, rich or poor, they do not care because they are brain-dead. And that in many ways is scarier than an evil mastermind. Zombies cannot be reasoned with, they have one singular goal and that is to eat you, and there’s diddly squat you can do about it except maybe shoot or bludgeon them in the head.
And if you don’t have the means to defend yourself, you’re screwed. And then you too will be a zombie, shuffling through the streets dragging your decaying and broken body around with no mind or purpose besides spreading your infection or just eating brains because damn they’re tasty. I don’t know. No one understands the motivations of a zombie because they have none. That makes them unnerving on its own, and when you have a whole horde of them it’s really feather-ruffling. Another thing people generally find terrifying is a loss of power over themselves, through whatever situation, and it’s hard to get more lost than being turned into a thoughtless killing machine against your will.
But as humans are wont to do, they have mined for the resources to laugh in the face of terror. Did you know that zombie comedy is now a genre? Shorten it to zom-com if you’re feeling extra trendy. It really started with Shaun of the Dead, a 2004 British movie about a man trying to sort his life out… to the backdrop of a sudden zombie outbreak. An homage as well as a parody, it nodded to a lot of Romero’s signature elements that have made the zombie genre what it is today.
Then followed Dance of the Dead in 2008, Zombieland in 2009, Community’s season two Halloween special (which may or may not be the best thing that has graced my eyeballs recently—who knew zombies and ABBA went so well together?) and many, many more both beautiful and terrible. Not to mention the host of movies that have graced our cinemas lately that make zombies steadily less and less horrific and more family friendly, chiefly ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania, not to mention Corpse Bride and other quirky little titles that hand the flesh-eating undead to your children to enjoy.
This trend is rather weird, I think, but hey, we’re all desensitised to everything these days anyway, aren’t we? In any case, maybe it isn’t the zombies we like. As my father says of The Walking Dead, the zombies are really only the backdrop and the pull of the series is in the living, the characters of all creeds and classes that have to band together and fight to survive.
Maybe that’s it, and what we really adore is watching people strive to get through the worst of situations, with the tensions between them, banding together in true human spirit to be one of the ones that survives, which let’s face it is something a lot of us can relate to. Hordes of the hungry unquiet dead just make a good backdrop and a good way to set the plot in motion. They also create a good drama device because, as aforementioned, they are unpredictable and mindless, and care not for the affairs of the living.
I don’t know if the zombie craze is ever going to peter out, or if it’s going to continue to evolve and shift sweeping us along to deal with it… rather like a virus. A virus that has bloomed to full power over the last century and mutated countless times along the way, until it affects everyone with even the tip of their nose in pop culture. Watch out, or we’ll all be shuffling mindlessly soon, moaning unconsciously for more…