Zombies have really taken over our culture as of late, haven’t they? We have a cultural zombie apocalypse on our hands, and we’re all ‘getting turned.’
Right now it seems zombies are everywhere, from television series like “The Walking Dead” or “iZombie,” to films like “Pale Bodies” or “World War Z.” Why are zombies so prevalent in our culture, and how does it continue to stay popular?
It’s not like the idea of zombies is new. The idea of the dead rising and outnumbering the living dates all the way back to Sumerian times. The epic poem “Gilgamesh” describes the dead rising up to eat the living, creating a curse onto the land.
The modern interpretation of zombies, most people argue, came from George A. Romero’s 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead.” This film is basically the Bible of the zombie genre, and this is where we first see the shambling, drooling zombies biting people to turn them into zombies.
While there have been numerous changes over the years, these basic principles still remain as the cultural idea of a “zombie.”
So where did this recent insurgence of zombie media come from? It’s almost replaced vampires as the popular monsters of the day. Goodbye “Twilight,” hello “Shaun of the Dead”!
I think a big part of it is the creativity there is to be had with zombies. They’re generally more fun and malleable than, say, vampires. When Stephanie Meyer took creative liberties with vampires, most people thought she was cheating the genre and defying classic tropes. Many will remember the complaints about how Edward and his sparkling friends could stand in the sun just fine and were decidedly not nocturnal.
However, the zombie brand thrives on creativity and changes are generally welcome. My personal favorites are the zombies from the “Left 4 Dead” video game franchise. Since these zombies stemmed from disease, each zombie reflects different aspects of the disease and thus expresses different abilities. My favorite zombie is called “The Spitter” obviously has some trouble with acidic upchucking, and this is reflected in her design. She features no bottom jaw like it’s been corroded away, and freshly corroded spots on her stomach where it’s dripped. We’ve seen moves where zombies are slow, fast, green, white, vomiting, bleeding, missing limbs, gaining limbs… as long as they eat people, anything goes. This allows people to have fun with the genre in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s destroying established tropes.
How many pictures have you seen of people turning famous celebrities and figures into zombies? The possibilities are endless. How much of the figure is still human? What’s missing? What’s gained? The zombie genre allows and encourages creativity and participation in the fandom as it allows a creepy and fun medium to imagine and create.
The most important aspect of zombies, however, should be the scare factor. After all, they’re meant to be a part of the horror genre.
So why do so many people find zombies scary? Usually they’re depicted as slow and shambling, something you’d easily be able to walk away from or outwit. Something like a werewolf is smart, fast and powerful, it’s easy to understand why it’d be scary. Zombies seem almost harmless in comparison.
However, zombies are just scary in a different way. They’re scary because they speak more about the horrors of our psyche rather than just being a generally scary presence.
Take “The Walking Dead” for example. Of course the scenes of zombies chasing our heroes can get intense, with the fear they could be bitten at any time or they’re in a situation where they could become cornered or trapped. While scenes like this do a great job of encouraging a frightening mood and creating action, the scariest parts of the show for me tend to be ones where the characters are just talking.
We can see scenes where the main characters are standing around talking about anything, be it strategy, personal matters or business, and when watching the background, random zombies can almost always be seen. They usually aren’t even acknowledged by the characters. The zombies just a part of their lives now. And that’s where it’s scary. The realization that we as people could become so accustomed to such violence and tragedy that we’d go completely numb to it. We could learn to ignore how someone’s life has been destroyed.
Often times when watching zombie movies or TV shows, we like to imagine what we would be like in those situations. We all hope we’d be capable enough to fight off hordes of zombies and survive between bouts of action. This genre is more relatable than a standard movie because the focus of living dead media isn’t usually the zombies, it’s the people.
The focus is the struggles and psychology of every day people like us. This is much more empathetic than a group of people going off to kill Dracula. In a movie like that, the focus would have to be divided between Dracula and the people, so we’d get less characterization on the humans other than they’re the heroes. Generally, zombies can’t have character, so zombie movies and TV shows are basically psychological action flicks. We get to go into these character’s shoes and ask, “What would I do in this situation?”
In addition, in something like a Dracula movie, once Dracula’s dead the problem is gone. The protagonists have one thing to kill and once they take care of it, everyone lives happily ever after. The threat of zombies is generally thought of as permanent, at least unless there’s some miracle and you were able to shoot every single zombie in the world while surviving yourself.
Just like the zombies in the background of “The Walking Dead,” the threat is always there. It’s not a one and done problem, it’s something you would have to physically and most importantly mentally deal with for the rest of your life. This not only gets the viewer thinking, but offers a fantastic character study for the protagonists of any living dead media you simply don’t get in general monster movies.
The zombie genre remains so popular because it asks more of the viewer than any other horror or monster category. It asks participation, and makes the viewer think and relate more because zombie movies aren’t really about zombies. They’re about people.