The headline comes from one of the most amusing sections from the book Zombie Apocalypse! that I read while on holiday recently. It was an interview where government contingencies for national disasters are discussed. Each (including assassination of the monarch, death of the PM in office, invasion of “Evilerons from the planet X”) are many hundreds of pages long. All except the contingency for a zombie apocalypse. It consisted of two pages. The first had a stick figure with a speech bubble exclaiming “aaarrrghhh brains!”; and the second page had the quote above.
Finishing that novel and reflecting on The Walking Dead as I eagerly await the second series, I have come to ponder whether and how the return of zombies is a reflection of the times.
The most notable way in which zombies are a reflection of society is in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I discussed this film before from the perspective of the humans in the film. The zombies wander aimlessly around the shopping centre seemingly going about their normal business attracted by the bright lights and advertising saturation. The message: we’re all zombies. A similar premise appears at the beginning of Sean of the Dead. We see a succession of commuters, teenagers, checkout assistants all mimicking each other’s movements. The next ‘Dead’ sequel Day of the Dead showed humanity’s capacity for self-destructive behaviour and to be the agents of our own downfall.
Zombies disappeared from our screens for a while during the 1980s and 1990s. The only notable film I can think of is a Night of the Living Dead remake starring Patricia Tallman (Babylon 5’s rogue telepath Lyta Alexander) and horror icon Tony Todd. It was ok but not great.
During the 00s, it was down to a film version of a video game to bring the undead back to life. Resident Evil has its critics but I must confess to being a fan of the first film (and the third but not the second or fourth). That was until another remake (Dawn of the Dead) revitalised the concept. Less social critique despite also being set in a shopping centre besieged by the undead, it is one of the scariest zombie films to date in a genre that often bordered on silly a little too much to scare.
But what about this decade? In the last four years, everything seems to have gone wrong and we have seen the biggest test of the capitalist system in eight decades. Personal debt has spiralled, governments and individuals have spent way beyond their means leading to failures in both left and right wing policies. In a nutshell, government and business have let us down in the pursuit of petty and destructive self-interest. Individuals have also acted with self-interest and in some cases to the detriment of wider society. Increasing carbon emissions is doing serious damage to our planet and big businesses are funding a campaign of misinformation that exacerbates the damage. Religion is showing its nasty side again: religious institutions harbour paedophiles, justify the persecution of homosexuals and other ‘unsavoury’ groups, excuse violence against their neighbours and live in luxury while their followers in some cases starve. Every institution we thought we could rely on is in some way culpable for the problems of the world today yet quick to shift blame elsewhere.
Though none of these things led to the end of the world, it is easy to see the wholesale changes being made across the globe as a kind of apocalypse as the world seeks to find a new direction on halting corporate corruption, big government and elitist privileges for religious groups who abuse them. Zombies are a terrible future that could arguably represent a bleak state of affairs that we are heading for if we cannot change things for the better.
From a religious perspective, zombies represent a horrific future. That is, the inability to find release in death and peace after the harsh reality of life. From a specifically Christian ideology, they represent the perversion of the resurrection at the end of time and the most terrible of judgements.
When I consider Zombie Apocalypse! and The Walking Dead, I am struck by the poignancy of their lost humanity. The Walking Dead uses this to great effect (again I discussed this before) where the slightest hint of their former humanity adds depth and creates tension and arguably makes them all the more terrifying. The human element of the story makes each loss more tragic too.
Another thought occurred to me here; is the increasing danger of the zombie a reaction against the softening up of the vampire in fiction? Vampires have gone from dangerous and evil creatures with a strong sexual subtext to simpering superheroes who develop obsessions for equally simpering teenage girls. They don’t suck blood any more because that’s “so, like, gross-out!”.
Zombies will always be dangerous flesh eaters who will turn you into a rotting walking carcass with every bite or scratch. Unlike werewolves and vampires it would be difficult to sexualise them… But don’t count on somebody trying.