Zombies have always dominated the bottom of my list as credible monsters. They’re slow, stupid, and only threatening in large groups. But the past few years have helped me to reconsider their horrific effectiveness, especially with the zombie boom of a few years back, that still continues today (the highly watched finale of The Walking Dead‘s fourth season was just the other weekend). While zombies still have their problems, they have been an ever-looming presence in the horror drama for decades now. So that’s the thing, zombies themselves are terrible, but why are they so popular?
In the recent years, zombies have made great targets for action movies and games. Resident Evil (the movies and the games) have had mixed reviews, opinions, and are very different from each other — but they share two sure things: they are highly focused on zombie-slaying, and they’ve been popular enough to warrant many sequels.
Zombieland made the guilt-free killing of zombies into a carnival game — featuring takeouts via piano, banjo and actual carnival rides.
The Call of Duty series has made multiple iterations of its zombie mode side game, all featuring many different zombies to fight, and many different ways to destroy them (my personal favorite being the Thundergun).
If the guilt-free kill theory is the one that sticks, then it probably plays into Freud’s idea of the sex and aggression core. Zombies have become hugely popular because they are a means to loose that primal urge lash out with violence, particularly at other humanoids. And even if you, like me, believe there’s more to a person than sex and aggression, it is still hard to deny that we love blood sport. It has changed greatly since the time of gladiators and jousting knights, but we have our own contemporary blood sport: violent games and movies. Zombies really play into that because they are humans, that are human no longer — they’re out for blood themselves. Not only are you not harming another human, but you are also acting in self-defense.
Of course, that seems to easy of an answer, especially since zombies existed in film long before video games, and even before the other titles I’ve mentioned. While zombies can be traced back to voodoo myth, the ones we are more familiar with can be traced back to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. And while it does occur, Night of the Living Dead is not about killing zombies. In fact, George Romero seems largely opposed to the idea of wholesale violence against zombies. There are many instances in his “Living Dead” series that criticize the violence — the most overt occurring in Diary of the Dead where a destroyed zombie head cries blood tears at the audience.
Romero seems much more interested in using zombies metaphorically. Many shots of Night of the Living Dead bear a striking resemblance to photos of the civil rights movement, and also the Vietnam War. Both events would also be fresh in the mind of an aspiring 1960’s director, and undoubtedly had at least some influence on him. Plus the sequel, Dawn of the Dead was so heavy-laden with commentary on materialism that it set a precedent for many zombie movies to come.
But maybe the true power of zombies is their versatility. You can have them attack a farmhouse, a mall, a theme-park, a sheriff and his kid, Will Smith, Japanese high schoolers, the Titanic, whatever, and it can work. There is a way to fit a zombie outbreak into almost any setting, and a way to make them play into almost any theme. Sucker Punch, a movie involving various game-like dreams has a section involving steam-powered zombies; they fit into a steampunk setting. Heroes of Might and Magic was planning to make a faction of cybernetic monsters, one of which was a zombie augmented with chainsaw-arms and other mechanics; they fit into a cyberpunk setting. Jane Austen too boring for you? Spice it up with zombies!
That’s why I think zombies have taken over many facets of our culture: they can fit into any setting. A zombie is a simple enough concept to work anywhere, unlike other high-concept monsters. Vampires come in at a close second to zombies for working across many platforms, but look at the criticism people have given Twilight. Ghosts might be third, but they bring in complicated questions because they are intangible and require some form of afterlife to exist. And then it is very easy to take things the other way and say, “Who would make a good zombie survival team?” So not only can zombies fit into any setting, but anyone can fight zombies.
Zombies fit into any setting so well, they’ve even come up in today’s political commentary.
I used to regard zombies as annoying and pointless, but after years of seeing all the places they’ve been taken, I’ve changed my mind quite a bit. I’ve come to realize they do hold a place in the world of entertainment. In fact, they hold many places, since they are so easy to drag and drop into any situation. Granted, stories are something we as humans make, thus it is never guaranteed to be good, but zombies can be fit into anything. One of my favorite story arcs in the manga Black Butler involves the main characters fighting zombies on the Titanic.
Oh God… we are facing a zombie apocalypse! Every genre has been infected — they have taken over the world!
Photos via: Google