It's All About the Zombies

Remote Control ZombieYou write one zombie story (or two or a half dozen), express a fondness for zombie movies like Day of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead and read zombie-themed books like Christopher Moore’s The Stupidest Angel, and suddenly you have a reputation as a zombie head.

I had a zombie themed Christmas and birthday this year. From the remote control zombie (pictured to the left and available at Think Geek if you’re interested) I received from Jennifer’s parents to the pile of zombie books that I received from Jennifer (wrapped in zombie wrapping paper that Jennifer found, also available at Think Geek) to the two zombie board games (one from Jennifer and one from my sister Caitlyn), I’d say the holidays for me were all about the zombies.

Of course, I am into the zombies. I’m not as into them as some folks I know who dedicate a weekly podcast to reviewing zombie films (and it’s a good podcast, I recommend it) but I’d say I’m more interested in zombies than the average person.

The question, though, is why? I’ve been trying to figure out the allure that zombies have not just for myself but for popular culture at large. One of the biggest feature films of 2009 was Zombieland, after all, and before that Shaun of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead both did respectably well at the box office. And, of course, there are hundreds of direct-to-DVD and made-for-TV zombie movies, with at least half a dozen more coming out each month. And there are plenty of books out there as well; the afore-mentioned Stupidest Angel as well as the more recent Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament (not to mention Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) are just among a growing number of zombie enhanced novels. And, of course, zombies are a mainstay of just about every video game out there.

Zombies are the new vampires, it was recently said (though even more recently it’s been said that “vampires are the new zombies”, which sort of implies that vampires had ever gone out of vogue).

So what is it about zombies, anyway? Why our society’s interest in them? Why our interest in a zombie apocalypse? Why is it okay to kill zombies and not other groups of people? And why my own interest in them?

Well, with regards to the zombie apocalypse, I suspect that a large part of that has to do with the fact that a zombie apocalypse, while horrifying to contemplate — all those flesh-eating ghouls running around (or shambling around, depending on which version of zombies you’re contemplating), eating the living and causing general havoc, as well as the knowledge that being bitten by one will turn you into a zombie like them — just isn’t going to happen. It’s a “safe” apocalypse, as it were. I remember when I was growing up in the 80s, when everyone was terrified of a nuclear apocalypse; these days, worrying about the nuclear apocalypse is passe, while contemplating a zombie apocalypse is cool. And yet, the nuclear apocalypse had such a sense of possibility; at any moment, we all thought, some Soviet madman or some American idiot was going to start to Final War, and everyone would die. We don’t feel similarly about the zombie apocalypse. In our imagination, the zombie apocalypse is an out of control situation, but really it’s a situation that completely under our control, simply because we do imagine it and because it just isn’t going to happen. This may simply be a reflection of the more ironic and sarcastic age that we live in these days; we’ve gotten bored of contemplating apocalypses that are too plausible (nuclear war, global famine, pandemic, etc.) and that are out of our control, so we’ve started contemplating apocalypses that are fundamentally absurd (more on this point in a bit). It’s flipping the bird to the real terrors of the world.

And why is it okay to kill zombies, but not other groups of people? When I asked this question on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, someone suggested that it was okay to kill zombies because they’re already dead. I think, though, it goes a bit deeper than that; zombies, by their very nature, are the ultimate in dehumanized humans. It’s not just that they’re dead, therefore, it’s that they’re inhuman. More than that: they’re antihuman, the antithesis of everything that a human being is. They are unintelligent, inarticulate, and they consume living human flesh, the ultimate taboo. Because they’re so offensive in that regard, they’re okay to kill. We’ve moved past a point where it’s okay to dehumanize and therefore mass slaughter our human enemies (perhaps we’ve grown to appreciate that even terrorists can be human beings as well?), so we focus on our inhuman enemies. That’s the germ of my theory at least. I’d like to see what a sociologist or social psychologist has to say about this subject.

But there’s an element of zombies which is fundamentally absurd. Zombies are menacing, to be sure, but plenty of comedy has been built up around zombies as well. The original Return of the Living Dead is as much a comedy as it is a horror film; Shaun of the Dead is, at heart, a romantic comedy; and Zombieland, of course, is equal parts comedy and adventure. Even the venerable George Romero incorporated some comedic elements in the original Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder’s remake did not have much comedy in this regard). Many of the zombie representations that we see these days, including remote control zombies and zombie wrapping paper, are just goofy. What’s up with that? I suspect that by making the zombie an object of ridicule, by laughing at the shambling creature that wants to eat our flesh (or our brains, again depending on which subset of the zombie genre you’re looking at), we’re sort of whistling past the graveyard. It goes back to the notion of the zombie apocalypse as the controllable, imaginary apocalypse; here, it becomes a symbol of every apocalypse that can happen, and so we laugh it off in order to show that we’re not afraid.

Either that, or zombies, with their shambling and their moaning, are just plain funny.

Actually, it occurs to me, reading this over, that I really have no idea what I’m talking about. I find zombies interesting and I enjoy zombie movies and stories about the zombie apocalypse, but I know that if I ever saw a zombie in real life, I’d scream like a little girl and run as fast as I could in the other direction.

I invite your comments.