Many people smarter than me have written detailed papers on zombies and why we as a culture like them. There has been a great deal of research recently focusing on why zombies have become so popular. The Brain-Eating Bro’s from Deadsville are far more mainstream than in previous years, with major studio motion pictures (World War Z, Warm Bodies) and even a television show, The Walking Dead. It’s a good time be love zombies, and I’m not going to add much to that conversation.
What I want to do is to give my personal views on why they are popular, and tell you how I feel about them. I’ll start there.
Some of you may be surprised to know I don’t really like zombie stories and movies. 28 Days Later was so bad for me that I turned it off before the end. Shaun of the Dead was funny and I enjoyed it, but it was parody and comedy, so it wasn’t taking itself too seriously. Oh, and I recently saw Warm Bodies with my daughter. It was amusing, except for the brain eating parts. And yes, I am planning to see WWZ. I read the book, and I want to see what they do with it. Also, it’s PG-13, and that brings me to one of my problems with the genre, whether movies or stories.
I’ve talked about this before, and if you’ve been reading my older blogs, you already know what I’m going to say.
Gore. I’m just not going for it.
Sure, they’re walking corpses, so there’s a rot/stink element that must be addressed. And yes, they tend to bite people, which leads to horrible injuries. I freely admit these things, but I argue again and again that just because we can show realistic gore in a movie doesn’t mean we must show realistic gore in a movie. Same goes for the written medium. You can describe anything in as much detail as you like, but that doesn’t mean you should. I’m not going to take the time to go over that topic again, at least not here. Too much gore is a bad thing. Moving on.
There’s another element of many zombie stories that turns me off for different reasons. Nihilism, or nothingness, is at the core of many zombie tales. For those of you who don’t understand what I’m referring to, I’ll explain using 28 Days Later as an example, and one scene in particular. If you’ve seen the movie, great. If you haven’t, then be warned. I’ll be revealing part of the plot. Spoiler Alert!
In the story Hannah, and her father Frank, are traveling with the main characters Jim and Selena across Rage-torn England. They have faced hordes of the Rage zombies and very nearly made it to the apparent safety of a military camp in the north of the country when Frank becomes infected in the stupidest possible way (my opinion!). It isn’t when fighting the zombies. It isn’t while trying to save someone else. There is nothing meaningful about his infection when a single drop of blood falls from a corpse above him and lands in his eye.
The odds of this happening are so vanishingly small as to be laughable, so it must have been a specific choice on the part of the writers to advance the plot. But that doesn’t hold up either. Hannah is traumatized by her fathers turning and immediate death (he is killed by soldiers), but the writers could have chosen to have her father die any other way to achieve the same effect. In fact, he didn’t need to die at all. England is devastated at this point in the story, and everyone knows it. Tens of millions of people are either dead or Rage zombies. That alone is enough to drive someone over the edge, so the writers could have used that, or nearly limitless other options to cause her to become so traumatized. But they chose to kill off her father in such a meaningless, pointless way. The only reason I can see is to reinforce the Nihilistic view-point: Everything is nothing, and no actions you take have any meaning. Frank dies so you can feel worse about the world. I can’t think of another reason.
This comes up again in zombie fiction. Interestingly, the short stories written about zombies often have a much deeper, richer meaning to them, and it’s often more positive (or at least less negative). Some are even hopeful or straight-up positive. Why movies can’t seem to pull this off is beyond me, but I’m going to guess at a reason, and I think it’s one of the primary reasons – if not the single biggest reason – the zombie apocalypse has become so popular.
Hope. Or, more clearly, the lack of hope.
I’m not going to suggest that life is hopeless. On the contrary, I believe life is full of hope. But if you are over thirty or so, I want you to put yourself in the shoes of someone under that age, someone born after grunge rock was big, after Bill Clinton was elected. Here are a few points to ponder. Not all of them are true of everyone under thirty, but if they aren’t true for an individual, they can probably name people they know for whom it is.
1) You don’t know a world without the internet.
2) You don’t know a world without 9/11.
3) It probably doesn’t bother you that you can be watched and tracked 24/7.
4) You are isolated from the person sitting next to you because of the electronics you are both slaves to.
5) You are confused why #4 is on this list.
6) More – nay the vast majority – of your friends are people you’ve never actually met, and never actually will.
7) You probably have to think hard about proper social interaction because you spent your formative years playing video games or watching TV in your bedroom.
8) You think LOL and IDK are actual words.
So, life these days can easily be dominated by solitude, lack of communication or difficulty communicating, endless piles of information, and isolation. The only thing that separates you from others is that you are a Special and Unique person, just like everybody else. People under thirty have been brought up in an age when graduating from kindergarten is worthy of a celebration, and not breaking the rules earns you a reward. Many people over thirty might find it difficult to live in such an environment, but what if that’s all you’ve ever known? They only thing that makes you special is, well, you. Your mind, your internal dialogue with yourself, your hopes and dreams.
And when you become a zombie, what’s the thing that you lose first, before anything else? What defines a zombie? What trait makes them so unique from other fictional creatures? What, in short, makes them frightening?
Loss of self.
And that’s why I think zombies are frightening, and more frightening now than ever before. We are forced to live in a world where we are basically zombies already. Only our minds make us special, keep us free. And becoming a zombie would take that one special spark away. Becoming a zombie would make us just like everyone else. We would cease to be us.
So the zombie hordes rise to devour ticket sales and book publication profits. And why shouldn’t they? They have exactly what it takes to make money today. They are plugged into a fear shared by many, but especially by today’s youth and young adults. They are the horror of the 21st century.
You remember how I said I’m conflicted about zombies?
I’m writing a zombie novel.