Our society’s preoccupation with Zombies in books and movies


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For some time now, one of the quickly rising trends has been a fascination with zombies–the walking dead. They’re everywhere, from books to film to television, and they’re coming (slowly, you know, because of the rotting limbs) to get us all.

I think that many people certainly get into the zombie craze because of the gore. Looking at zombie films through viscera-covered glasses is blinding and inadequate. These are the same people who watch the Saw films and pretend they’re good. There is, of course, this factor which is inherent to the zombie genre that cannot be ignored, yet it shouldn’t be the main, overemphasized point. There’s much more that can be done with this genre.

It all started with George A. Romero‘s Night of the Living Dead in 1968, when zombies were rocketed (despite their sluggish shambling) into popular culture. That film seems primarily to ask the question: what would happen if the undead came back and tried to eat us? It’s not a huge question, but then when you throw some racial and gender politics into the mix, we see that, when it’s the end of the world, there are bigger things to worry about than petty bigotry. With future additions to the genre come more complex messages. Essentially, all good post-apocalyptic films, as well as most zombie films force us to ask a few key questions:

  1. What holds our society together?
  2. What happens when the bonds (whatever they are) that bind society are taken away?
  3. What, at its very essence, is human nature made of?

I see them as social commentaries, though I in no way advocate young people watching these films or shows. What if some major disaster occurred? Many people would absolutely revert back to their base human urges: survival at all costs. It also deals with losing all social structures. How would we react if everything was gone? Who are the walking dead? Is it the zombies or the people left behind? These stories generally deal with people who took their lives for granted before the disaster, and now they’re forced to reconstruct and deal with the ramifications of that event. They offer poignant and often blunt opportunities for self-reflection, which I appreciate.

If you simply want a gore-fest, you can go to the Saw or Texas Chainsaw Massacre films–or countless others, including many zombie films, which I call torture porn, for its near-fetishization of violence, pain, and suffering . For many, this is the reason behind the zombie movie or graphic novel. If you’re only looking as far as that, bully for you. However, as I tell my students all the time: don’t go through life with your brain turned off. Especially when there is such a plethora of good material out there, with compelling messages.

I’ll just name a few that do the job of dealing with these questions quite well:

title_shaun_of_the_dead_blu-ray1. Shaun of the Dead: Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright do a nice job of utilizing zombies with the aim of using the hyperbolic horror to comment on the drudgery and commonplace ignorance of life. They hole up in a pub, because it’s the most logical place to go (a nice stab at some of the staples of British society, while Romero, as we’ll see, chose a mall). The imagery at the beginning of the film, with people staggering about on the subway and in convenience stores or at work–seeming like zombies–parallels brilliantly with what will come later when the undead begin walking.

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2. Dawn of the Dead: This is the original by Romero, which uses zombies as a vehicle for commenting on consumer culture in America by trapping the protagonists in a mall, forcing then to survive on the things taken so for granted before. Priorities are reconsidered and the mindless shambling of the undead through a mall seems all too familiar, as our malls today seem to be filled with people who purchase without thought in order fill a void in their lives.

28_days_later_0013. 28 Days Later: Ah, the terror of the running “infected.” While director Danny Boyle is quite reticent to label them “zombies,” the effect works just the same. Both movies in this duology (though the first works better) demonstrate the levels to which people will sink without laws to reign them in. Furthermore, the gritty cinematography evokes in the audience a deep sense of unease, as all the rules have fallen away, and it’s every man for himself.

Walking Dead4. The Walking Dead: Both the graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman and the AMC television series take this genre further than it has ever been taken. Kirkman expressed in an interview (which I can’t find the text for, so I’m paraphrasing here) that he always asked the question at the end of disaster films: what happens after they “escape”? The world doesn’t just go back to normal. These series extend the disaster and explore the issues not just of survival, but of reconstruction–not only of civilization, but of humanity in a perpetual state of terror.

Other shows and films can do it without zombies: LostCastaway, and the new show Revolution all do it fairly well without the inherent mature content that accompanies the zombie movement.

Again, I don’t recommend these to teens, or to most adults, but if you do decide to watch them, at least do so with your mind turned to something with more depth than simply watching gore–that’s just as bad as pornography.

See my previous posts on Vampires and Magic in pop culture.

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2 thoughts on “Our society’s preoccupation with Zombies in books and movies

  1. It’s everywhere and at our home with tongue-in-cheek reverence. Will carries Zombie Insurance in his wallet and has the insurance documentation on his wall.

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