Nothing like a good decapitation to start the day out right in a zombie infested post-apocalyptic world. And judging by how zombies have utterly taken over everything in culture, I’d say we’re already in the zombie apocalypse. It seems like every book, videogame, movie, and television set are overrun with the undead. Not to mention sex shops. (Slightly NSFW: Why God? Why?)
Who remembers the Night of the Living Dead and the absurdly fun Return of the Living Dead? Even if you haven’t seen it, you know about it. It’s part of our collective cultural consciousness. You probably also know about Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and all the other dead films George A. Romero has been making. Then there is 28 Days Later, its sequel 28 Weeks Later, and so on. We’ve got the Resident Evil series of games and movies. These are just the most obvious examples of zombie films. Now we have books about how to defend yourself from zombies (Max Brooks’s Zombie Survival Guide) and Marvel has decided that it would be fun to see what our favorite superheroes would do if they were zombies. We’ve seen a gradual ramping up of the amount of zombie content in just about everything. You can’t throw a stick without hitting something zombie related. Even our roads are fair game.
So what is going on? Why are there just so many bloody zombies? And rotten zombies? And fast and slow zombies? And every other zombie you could conceive of? We can go the boring route and just say that everyone is just hopping on the bandwagon and booking it to profit town (which probably is partially to blame) but is there more to this? I think there is because people are buying this stuff. If they weren’t, there would be no incentive to create this kind of content. So it may be that the real question is why do we love zombies so much all of a sudden?
There have been many who theorized about why we love the undead and love media in which the undead come back to gnaw on us. Death is the final frontier. After that line has been crossed, there is no undoing what has been done. All wrongs done in life transfer into death. This is probably why there are many cultures that put a stone over the dead. Imagine a wraith returning to get a little payback on someone who’s done them wrong. There are many such myths across the world of the dead coming back such as the draugr of Viking mythology. As bad as that is, imagine a giant skeleton coming for you. This myth comes to us from Japan and is called the odokuro. Everyone is afraid that the dead will make a return world tour at some point and so we devise practices to appease them and dissuade them from coming back to visit. So, the dead come to represent all of our misdeeds and wrongs. They are our bad behavior incarnate. More generally, they are our limitations and weaknesses. Who do you think put those skeletons in the closet? You did. And with zombies, they come out to get you. The zombie can therefore be our deep-seated fear of all that we’ve done or failed to do. They are the mythical wraith come back to exact revenge on the sinful living. This shared fear helps to make zombies so popular. We don’t want the dead to come back, we are afraid of this antagonism between what is alive and what is dead. This also explains why in so much zombie fiction and film, one of the main characters gets infected and turned into a zombie and out other protagonists have to kill him or her. This is also why it is so affecting. Our other protagonists have failed to protect this person and now have to take responsibility for their failure.
But there is a literal fear of death itself. A lot of it goes back to our fear, not specifically of the body, but of all the things that can go wrong with it. This is a fear that has traveled across centuries with us. The dead remind us of our mortality and they also show what happens when the wonderful machinery of the body gets shut down. We are instinctively repulsed by decay, sickness, and death. Sit around a hospital waiting room for a while with broken bones, coughing, sneezing, and all manner of bodily fluids leaking and I don’t think you’ll be having a big dinner later. When we see what can happen to others, I think we tend to wonder if that can that happen to us. Not only that, we wonder, can I catch that from this other person? The zombie is the absolute embodiment of this fear of both contagion and death. When a zombie comes along, oozing bleeding, moaning, zombie lore dictates that the shambling mess is going to try to bite you. If your horoscope that day says that Jupiter and Neptune are at odds and have conspired to send a hoard of undead cannibals after you, you know that once the inevitable happens, you’ll join their ranks. You will be infected. Even the act of infection though is redolent of ancient fears that go back to when we weren’t on the top of the food chain. We can deal with getting shot, stabbed, blown up. Our media is filled with representations of this kind of cruelty. But being eaten is somehow even worse. It isn’t a fast process. You get shot in the right place, you’re gone in a flash. But imagine being eaten alive. Imagine the feeling of jaws clamping onto your flesh and ripping it from you bones. The thought is perversely horrible. And it goes back to when there was a threat that you could get mauled by something much more powerful and deadly than you. Now why would you want to experience this? Probably for the same reason you experience any adrenaline pumping experience: the distinct, visceral feeling of being alive. It’s almost like exercising a muscle. We still want to experience that rush because it gives us access to other parts of ourselves that we don’t normally encounter. I discuss reasons for loving horror in an earlier post though so I won’t dwell on it here. The preceding reasons go into very broad, almost universal fears that predispose us to enjoy this particular sub-genre of film and they do partially explain why we can’t get enough of them but I think there is a more specific reason for our love of this gory genre.
Zombies seem to resurrect when we go through some kind of turmoil. Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, the year before the infamous summer of ’69. The hippy movement was strong and we were embroiled in a very unpopular war. Spring forward to 1985 when the classic Return of the Living Dead came out. At the same time, Reagan was president and we were in the middle of a repressive moral cultural movement. Now, flash forward to September 11, 2001. I don’t think I need to go into what happened. The year after, in 2002, we got the smash hit 28 Days Later. It was a hit. And since then, we’ve been inundated with zombies. We’ve had a remake of Dawn of the Dead by Zack Snyder. We had George A. Romero come out with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. We’ve had the hugely popular Shaun of the Dead. We’ve seen the world get in on the zombie love with Rec from Spain and The Hoard from France. I could keep writing and writing. The point is that zombies have made quite a nice living in the post-9/11 landscape and I have some theories as to why they’ve done so well.
After 9/11, an avalanche of changes hit the world. We were all terrified of the threat of terrorism that could strike everywhere and anywhere. There was no place you could feel secure. We suffered invasive increases in security and domestic spying turned the world into a sick mirroring of Orwell’s 1984. War was killing thousands and driving the country into bankruptcy. Then the housing bubble burst and people were finding themselves homeless and without a job as the economy tanked. Meanwhile, the rich continued to live in peace, secured by their massive stocks of money. For the rest of us, the world was no longer certain. And it wasn’t just us. It was everywhere. Riots shook Greece, Italy, and Britain as they floundered. There was nothing to be trusted. Establishments we thought were secured began to crack and no one came to save us. Sound familiar? It should. This is the plot of every zombie apocalypse story I’ve ever heard. It’s often the case that life imitates art imitates life, creating a feedback loop. Entertainment is also the place where we can exorcise our demons and after this decade, it was time to break out the crowbars and shotguns. Zombie fiction, film, and games allow us to deal with the traumas we’ve suffered. We can see characters trapped in a world that no longer offers any safe place. Danger comes from everywhere and when your time is up, you get to join a legion of the walking wounded. We put the pain and suffering on the screen or on the page and it helps to draw it out of us. And it also allows for the possibility of vicarious revenge on forces that are far beyond us.
The senseless war that dragged on and on, the dead economy, foreclosures and banks still standing colossal. It felt like living in the valley of the giants. Or in this case, watching the dead stalk towards you. It’s something you can’t reason with. It is driven by something you can’t understand and the only thing you can be sure of is that it means to hurt you and those dear to you. This is sort of how many of us felt as our world collapsed around us. The zombie embodies this strange, threatening Other. The zombie, like whatever forces were busy this decade, is unassailable with our present conception of how things ought to be. But with a zombie, unlike burst bubbles and wars waged on dubious premises, you can blow its damn head off. And don’t we all love that moment? You know the one. At some point, things have to get gooey for the zombie. Arms and legs get blown or chopped off. Heads get vaporized. The thrill is even more extreme in games where you get to pull the trigger. Through these representations of zombie violence, we get to take back a little feeling of control. Every crowbar to the skull makes us feel like we’ve gotten back at the things that have stolen our faith in a reasonable world.
In the end, the zombie stands tall and ugly as one of our archetypes of fear. It is iconic to the point of becoming a cliche at this point and, as some are saying, it may be time to retire their rotten hulks to the crypts. But this isn’t the last we’ve heard of them and I can expect that, even if they go away for a while, they’ll be back when we’re at our most frustrated and wounded. Remember, they always come back.
And now for some cookies.