Why should we care about zombies?
They eat brains. They travel in mobs. They aren’t very socially aware. They don’t contribute much to a conversation— if you talk to one, you have to do all the work. So why are they worth talking about?
In the land of pop culture, most films or TV shows with monsters in them are not held up as high art. No zombie movie has ever won any Oscars. If you suggest seeing one as a first date, your date might think you’re a bit questionable (not that I’ve ever done this).
But horror movie creatures are far more than what they seem to be at face value. For example, when you think of vampires, typically what comes to mind is the fangs, the coffins, the blood drinking, the wooden stakes. Dry ice swirling in graveyards at night. But beneath the staples of vampire-ness, there are implicit sexual undertones. How could there not be— with the phallic fangs; the intimacy of the blood-drinking? This is why academics through the ages have loved vampires; if Freud hadn’t been too busy with Oedipus, he would have had a field day with them. All vampire narratives are narratives of human sexuality. Each one chooses to handle it differently—the sexual free-for all- that is True Blood; the cautionary tale that is Dracula; the attempt at abstinence advertising that is Twilight. They all address a different angle, but vampire tales all have that root in common.
Zombies have always been trickier. Hollywood likes monsters to be sexy and exciting and scary. Because of the aforementioned brain-eating and decaying body parts, it’s hard to make them sexy and exciting. And so, they often take a backseat to the other monsters.
But recently, zombies have been more present in pop culture than ever before. The Walking Dead. Zombieland. World War Z. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Shaun of the Dead. Cabin in the Woods. The Evil Dead. 28 Days Later. Warm Bodies.
You get the point. Lots of zombies.
Historically, moving forward from Night of the Living Dead, most zombies have the same mannerisms: the blank, glazed eyes, the slow, shuffling walks, traveling in hoards. The general cannibalism. But beneath their surface assets, they have implications that are far more chilling than any other monster: the loss of control. The loss of the self. Relentless consumerism.
Each zombie narrative, in some form, deals with the loss of the self. The scariest part is that it’s always outside of your control. Your identity is swallowed into the swarm of those around you. Or, you’re transformed, against your will, into the very thing you were trying to escape.
Either way, it’s a situation that would be pants-pissingly terrifying to anyone. Vampires can mean different things to different people, depending on what your attitude is about sex; so there’s no general consensus about whether it would be desirable to be one. But zombies are universal. Nobody wants to become part of the mindless, brain-eating swarm.
The universality of that fear is what makes zombies worth talking about. Zombies, in their strange, twisted way, unite us. Jocks unite with stoners (Cabin in the Woods). Unemployed gamers unite with upper-class housewives (Shaun of the Dead). Woody Harrelson unites with people who aren’t Woody Harrelson (Zombieland). In zombie narratives, all pretentions and pre-existing social stratifications fall away as everyone wields their chainsaws side by side.
Zombies are of the moment because our moment is one of consumerism and conformity. In today’s world, where franchises and chain stores make cities seem like one giant mall, and suburban sprawl makes everything look the same; where consumerism is the norm and repetitive routines can make people feel like cogs in a machine—it’s easy to see why zombies are making a resurgence in pop culture.
But zombies aren’t all doom and gloom, either. There’s something inherently fun and campy about them. They eat fucking brains, after all—at a base level, they are more ridiculous than their fellow monsters. If you were a Hollywood monster throwing a dinner party (just go with it), zombies would be the mildly embarrassing friend you don’t really want to invite, but you’ve known them for years so you can’t not invite them, but you just know they’re going to do something awkward, like eat someone’s brain. Goddamnit. Not again.
Some of the greatest zombie films result when filmmakers don’t try to take them too seriously. For example, in Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, there is a zombie redneck family (because why not?). In the Norwegian film Dead Snow, there are zombie Nazis. These give the viewer the voyeuristic thrill of an antagonist you truly have no qualms about bashing with a chainsaw; there is no moral conflict. Zombie films are our era’s westerns. The lone protagonists fight against the odds—often in a setting very similar to Old West films. If movies function as escapism from your complicated life, then the absence of any moral conflict is the best escape there can be.
On the other hand, the greatest zombie films can also cover the heavier aspects. Shaun of the Dead satirizes the genre but simultaneously acknowledges the pathos. When Shaun’s mother gets turned into a zombie and he has to kill her, it’s a genuinely tragic moment. (Sorry if that was a spoiler. But then again, that’s been out for years).
Behind the guise of spurting fake blood and severed limbs, zombies hold the mirror up to our own humanity. Even the most seemingly mindless zombie film, such as Peter Jackson’s Braindead (which, fun fact, is the goriest film of all time. 300 liters of fake blood were used in the final scene alone. In Sweden, the DVD copies came with complimentary barf bags. This is what Peter Jackson was doing before he was filming hobbits frolicking across New Zealand and Mordor). Even that movie is, on some level, a cultural commentary.
You can use that as your excuse the next time somebody walks in on you watching a zombie movie and asks why you’re watching that garbage. It’s not garbage, it’s art. Yes, 300 liters of fake blood were absolutely necessary to convey the deep philosophical message…you’re clearly not cultured enough to get it…
The scariest part of a well-rendered horror movie monster isn’t their fantastical aspects, but the aspects that we can find within ourselves. And that is why zombies are worth talking about.