The Zombie Invasion of Pop Culture: They Want Your Brains
From a pop culture standpoint, the zombies have taken over. They’re everywhere. Everything from rom-coms to comics has been bitten. They swarm campuses in Humans vs. Zombies games. They invade the past to fight Abraham Lincoln and Lizzie Bennett. Knockoff versions scare us in Harry Potter and Steven Universe. Even the CDC is on the bandwagon, using zombie tactics to spread disaster preparedness tips. Even when the trend seems to be rotting away, something in video games, films, TV, and literature keeps it animated. They may be a joke, but they’re a dead horse you can’t help but beat—because it’s slowly stalking you, and it wants your brains.
So why do we love these moaning, groaning bags of flesh? What is it that gives rise to interpretations ranging from Resident Evil to ParaNorman? Zombies appeal to creators and audiences in three simple ways: by being the perfect monster, by necessitating extreme violence, and by bringing on the apocalypse.
But before starting the autopsy, let us first take a look at the life history of the zombie.
From Voodoo Victim to Violent Villain: A History of the Zombie
The word “zombie” comes from colonial Haiti during its days of massacre-by-slavery. Slaves’ work and treatment was so awful that some slaves took comfort in dying, calling it “going home to Africa.” A zombie was denied that final freedom, cursed by an evil master who manipulated voodoo. A zombie was enslaved even after death, working a plantation without food or sleep, unable to have power over even their mind and death. This zombie was not a monster, but a wretched puppet to colonial masters (Boon).
The cultural appropriation of the zombie for white America’s tastes began in film with the appropriately named The White Zombie in 1932, which used voodoo as an exotic danger to vacationing Americans. But the first zombie movie, as audiences today would consider it, was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. How did these grave-rising, man-eating undead things evolve from the original zombie?
It’s not entirely clear. There were a lot of influences that made this beast. There was the old colonial fear-fetish of cannibalism in the Caribbean that became tied to the origin of the zombie. There was the idea of Arabian ghouls, inhuman spirits who ate the dead. There were Cold War fears of both invasion and domestic treason. All of these seemed to influence Romero’s work, or at least work immediately following. (A pre-Romero influence on later zombie works was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend novel in 1954, though his plague-monsters were called vampires.)
And then there they were, the new darling of the film industry. There was a surge of classic zombie movies bridging the black-and-white to color shift, then a decline in the face of ridicule. From approximately Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1983 to 28 Days Later in 2002, there was a hibernation in all forms except video games, which brought in zombies as gun fodder in the ‘90s (Bishop). Now they’re back, though for how long is up in the air. I do have a feeling, though, that even if they fade again, they won’t ever truly go away.
Have You Tried Using Your Swords?
So why are zombies so strong right now? The first reason is that they are the perfect monster. They aren’t evil—they don’t have the brainpower. They don’t give us a chill like Hannibal Lecter or loathing like Goldfinger. They just bring fear.
For one thing, zombies are a fill-in-the-blank metaphor for any social trouble. Depending on the film, show, game, or book, the zombie war can be about inter-generational conflict, technology, dull office jobs, over-eating, capitalism, communism, world hunger, AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11 anxiety (Rafferty; Dendle; Brodesser-Akner; Bishop).
But zombies are ultimately symbolic of one thing: death. They are literally corpses come to take you with them. This is the most basic and primal fear, and it is heightened with an absolute perversion of the hoped-for afterlife: needful body arisen, guiding soul gone.
This potent fear is not complicated by moral grayness. Zombies cannot be redeemed, and over and over again protagonists must show their loved ones the shotgun mercy. Monster and victim have become one. In this way, grief and pity get rewired into anger and fear. Though some works use this as an exploration of guilt (e.g. The Walking Dead), mostly it’s an easy way to action-pack the movie. Which brings us to…
The Good Guys Get Chainsaws
Another reason zombies are so popular is a very simple one: they are built to be destroyed.
It’s an established fact that violence sells, whether out of morbid fascination or Bacchanalian catharsis (Bishop). But to imagine it free of consequence, there needs to be a black-and-white world of morality. Extend the last section’s idea of zombies as that perfect monster, then add to that disgustingness, relentlessness, numbness, and the idea of “putting them out of their misery,” and there you have it, a guilt-free gore machine. As Peter Dendle writes in The Zombie as a Barometer of Cultural Anxiety:
“Much of the fun in zombie movies by this point is, after all, to come up with creative new ways of offing them in the messiest way possible… Since the audience knows that the zombies are usually not sentient and in most cases do not feel pain, it is free to enjoy the spectacle of wanton destruction of human bodies rather than human beings.”
There is no better way to dehumanize someone than to make them silent, violent, and better off dead. One example is the 2011 game Tea Party Zombies Must Die, in which Fox News right-wingers became rampaging zombies and you have to put them down (Freeman). The more complicated evil of politics is simplified with the disgusting horror of zombies. The good guys are elevated by survival skill, and if that means serial killer habits, then all the better for the splatter.
A Human-Eat-Human World
Zombies, like ants, do not work as a threat on their own—it is their very excess which characterizes their method of attack. Max Brooks, writer of zombie gospels World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, said, “You can’t have one zombie. You’ve got to have millions of them. Society has to be breaking down” (Brodesser-Akner). What Romero brought in as anarchy has bloomed into apocalypse—the final reason behind zombies’ success.
There’s something about the apocalyptic clean slate, even washed by blood, that captures the imagination. The genre of zombie fiction cleverly combines the science fiction of a wrecked future with the nostalgia of a simpler time. Churches, hospitals, and police are helpless, and humanity is whatever the survivors make of it.
In The Walking Dead (2003- as comic, 2010- as TV show) and Zombieland (2009) there are scenes which demonstrate the social upset. In The Walking Dead a prison becomes a coveted place of shelter, and Zombieland sees the main characters actually roll around in now-worthless money. The old rules have no bearing.
The Walking Dead also epitomizes what scholars call the “frontier feeling” of this new world. Even without the obvious rural feel, as cities are death-traps, characters become sheriffs, lone wolves, or posses. The law is what they make it, and they prove their mettle day after day with no social luxuries. Again, Peter Dendle extensively addresses this in The Zombie as a Barometer of Social Anxiety:
“In twenty-first century America…amidst a suburban landscape now quilted with strip malls and Walmarts—there is ample room to romanticize a fresh world purged of ornament and vanity, in which the strong survive, and in which society must be rebuilt anew. Post-apocalyptic zombie worlds are fantasies of liberation: the intrepid pioneers of a new world trek through the shattered remains of the old.”
Whoever survives are the blessed heroes, the chosen few. They are Adams and Eves of Armageddon, our last representatives, and the thought experiment of every philosopher wanting to know the essence of human nature. The ravaged backdrop makes any character standing against it a diamond of humanity. Even if they were once nothing—clerks, criminals, nerds, housewives—they rise to the new standards, as in Shaun of the Dead (2004), Juan of the Dead (2011), and Max Brooks’s World War Z.
Of course there are the subversions, the romances, comedies, and both (“zom rom-coms,” my friend dubs them). Romance is, as it often is, a tool of redemption. This is visible in In the Flesh (2013-14), the Generation Dead series by John Lindqvist, and Warm Bodies (2013). After all, we use love and compassion as code for “humanity” every day. Romance can also highlight the individuality of a being. The display of love, personality, and feelings in creatures founded on rage, mindlessness, and lack of feeling destroys the psychological conception of a zombie. Where once the physical and mental destruction matched and morality was black and white, things are restored to a complexity.
There are also comedic interpretations that mock the genre. Sometimes it’s nothing but a gimmick, like zombie-themed episodes in Community (2009-2015) and Castle (2009-) where the characters engage in meta-aware antics. Sometimes they are full pieces, like Shaun of the Dead (2004), which did not so much mock the genre as use it as a comedic background.
However, the triumph of a good subversion is ever to the credit of the wider canon. If the archetype were not so monolithic, inversions would hold no freshness when we peer under the rug of assumptions. After all, “zombies are monsters” is the most established fictional fact since “unicorns are nice.” (For fun inversions on both, check out Holly Black’s Unicorns vs. Zombies anthology!) Inversions are always a dark flattery to the power of the original.
Subvvesions also allow us a little relief from cliché while still giving us crowd-pleasing zombies. Without the flood of zombie horror movies, there would be no point in parody or inversion, but without the parody and inversion, the flood would be too much, too cheap. Therefore, these two sides of the monster sustain its media presence, and perhaps this will resist the death-by-mockery that sent zombies underground in the ’80s.
“The Post-Millenial Ghoul of the Moment”
What sort of escapism takes an audience or player or reader to a gruesome, doomed world? Jane Tompkins theorizes a zombie world is “a place that will put you to some kind of ultimate test,” a world that is apocalyptic but pure (Rees). With zombies, you get perfect monsters, guilt-free gore, and widespread doom. It’s really too much to resist. It’s certainly too much to avoid.
The New York Times said, as quoted above, that zombies were “the post-millenial ghoul of the moment,” a hot trend. But even when their moment fades, it will shuffle forward as it has since 1968, snapping at the air, and deaf to the cries of critics. As the history and secret strengths of the zombie, one way or another we’ll have zombies on our brains for a long time to come.
Bishop, Kyle. “Dead Man Still Walking: Explaining the Zombie Renaissance.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 37.1 (2009): 16-25. Taylor & Francis Online. Web.
Boon, Kevin A. “Ontological Anxiety Made Flesh: The Zombie in Literature, Film, and Culture.” Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. Ed. Niall Scott. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 33-43. Print.
Brodesser-Akner, Taffy. “Max Brooks Is Not Kidding About the Zombie Apocalypse.” The New York Times. N.p., 21 June 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2013.
Dendle, Peter. “The Zombie as a Barometer of Cultural Anxiety.” Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. Ed. Niall Scott. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 45-57. Print.
Freeman, Peter. “Zombies, Zelda, and the Natural Law.” Crisis Magazine. N.p., 30 Mar. 2012. Web. 11 Sept. 2013.
Rafferty, Terrence. “The State of Zombie Literature: An Autopsy.” The New York Times 7 Aug. 2011: BR17. The New York Times, 5 Aug. 2011. Web. 11 Sept. 2013.
Rees, Shelley S. “Frontier Values Meet Big-City Zombies: The Old West in AMC’s The Walking Dead.” Undead in the West: Vampires, Zombies, Mummies, and Ghosts on the Cinematic Frontier. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2012. 80-88. Google Books. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
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