It seems that we may finally, finally be coming to the end of the years-long zombies craze. I’m hoping the ‘World War Z’ movie was the last major gasp of it, but the fact that a tongue-in-cheek semi-satire like ‘Warm Bodies’ came out recently is a pretty good sign that people are becoming self-aware about how overused this monster has become.
I mean, I don’t know if you guys noticed, but there was a LOT of zombie-based media there for a while. And I don’t just mean movies; games suffered a HUGE zombie trend for a substantial period of time; pretty much since ‘Left 4 Dead’ came out. For a while it seemed like every shooter and its mother had to have a zombie mod version full of headshot upon undead headshot. Even TV got into it with ‘The Walking Dead.’ (‘Community’ had a zombie halloween episode too, which was actually rather excellent.)
I really hate zombies. I don’t have a particularly good reason for this, mind you; mostly I just think they’re gross, and they just don’t interest me. I like a little meaty emotional conflict in my villains, and zombies are nothing if not inherently simple. So I sat down with some friends of mine, and we tried to work out what it was, exactly that made zombies so dang popular. I mean, surely it couldn’t just be a case of everyone copying each other to be successful, right? If so, this trend would have died out (so to speak) MUCH earlier. So there has to be some kind of hook to the zombie, something to make it worth exploring. So, I present to you, the four reasons we came up with why content creators just looove them some zombie mayhem.
Zombies as Representation of Other Fears
Zombies make a great representation of some other powerful subliminal human fears, namely: plague and overpopulation. The latter is the fear of the unstoppable press of bodies, of being one of a horde so numerous that no one can any longer be an individual. The fear that, even if you are an individual, you will be swarmed over and stepped on and wiped out by the sheer teeming mass of humanity that you have to compete against. I feel like maybe this zombie theme could have been explored more than it was. Rarely do you see zombies competing with humans for the same resources, other than sheer space. But still, it does make an apt metaphor!
The other metaphorical resonance of zombies is plague, and plenty of zombie media deals with this, whether directly or indirectly. Usually it’s some kind of sickness or disease that triggers the zombie apocalypse in the first place, but the spread of zombification itself is usually the more compelling trigger. Fear of being infected, fear of not knowing who’s been exposed, fear of losing yourself or control of your body to disease, fear of uncontainable spread, fear of military intervention for crowd control of the sick, all of these are elements of the plague and the zombie apocalypse both.
In the commentary for the ‘Left 4 Dead’ games, the designers talk about how they did a great deal of research about historical plagues to inform the tone and world-building of their game. They dug into the psychological and social effects of living in a plague-ridden society, and extracted the more interesting and gruesome details to give realism to their zombie experience. Which is part of the reason why I think ‘Left 4 Dead’ stands out as a really well-built example of zombies in media. They really grabbed the metaphor by the horns and ran with it.
Zombies are the New Nazis
Zombies are great villains if you need a humanoid, hateable individual that you don’t have to feel sympathy for. In the past, many games (and other stories, but forgive me that games are my area of most expertise) turned to nazis to fill this need. After all - everyone hates nazis! They’re practically designed to be hateable! They exist to be vessels of hatred and evil that support discrimination and violence and a complete lack of empathy and occasionally the Dark Arts. But as we get further and further away from the harsh realities of the second world war, modern audiences find it more and more difficult to viscerally connect with what is so hateable about the nazi.
Enter: the zombie. Humanoid - in fact, once a living breathing human - but completely devoid of any remaining personality. They’ve become a mindless shell, incapable of redemption and existing solely for the destruction of living humans. What’s not to hate? Finally, another guilt-free humanoid that you can headshot with no feeling of remorse. And, like nazis, there’s always more where that came from! Sure, they lack the complexity of evil that comes from having a motivation (not having the ability to think, zombies are really more like animals than people in some respects) but then, nazi motivation is rarely that well-fleshed-out either in these kinds of things. Other than, you know, “They’re evil because... uh... they’re evil!”
(Bonus: plenty of games also have nazi zombies in them. Because why have one hate-able trait when you can have two? I wonder how long before the latest Call of Duty games start having terrorist zombies.)
Anyone Can Be Turned
One of the cool things about zombies is that they can be anybody. They don’t have the cool, romantic backstories of vampires or the pedigrees of werewolves. Yes, those monsters can technically be anybody, but zombies can be EVERYBODY. Literally. And usually are. Like, generally speaking, although Average Farmer could be turned into a vampire, he’s probably not going to be. He maybe has a bit of a better chance to be wolfed, but even that’s a little far-fetched. But zombie? You betcha.
What about Average Office Lady? Zombie. Construction Worker? Zombie. Grocery Clerk? Zombie. Nerdy Twenty-Something Blogger? Zombie. We’re all zombies, if the situation calls for it. And that means, if you’re writing a character in a story, any of her loved ones could be zombies. Anyone she knows, anyone she meets, could get turned. She could get turned! No one is safe, because anyone can become a part of the horde. Vampires will just kill you if you’re beneath turning, but no one’s beneath zombification.
Zombies As A Force of Nature vs. The Everyperson
When you meet your garden-variety vampires or werewolves, they’re generally characters. They’re individuals with personalities and alliances and foibles that can maybe be used against them. You get the impression that if you met the Vampire Lestat, you might be able to talk him out of killing you if you were witty or amusing enough. Or managed to pique his interest in some other way. Or managed to pit him against a different enemy. Or distracted him with something shiny, since, you know, Lestat.
Zombies are not individuals. Zombies are a mass. Zombies are a tidal wave of danger and gross. In fact, zombies have more in common in many ways with natural disasters than they do with other monsters. They are a slow-moving (usually) but unstoppable force of nature that consumes everything and anything in its path.
Which is why anyone and everyone can fight zombies. To encounter a vampire makes you a special sort of person. Not everyone gets to run with werewolves. As with the previous section, encounters with the characters that are other monsters tend to be unique and personal, and usually indicate that the still-human person in the encounter is special in some way.
Not so zombies. Just as pretty much anyone and everyone can become a zombie, anyone and everyone fights zombies. It’s a great way to illustrate a common, otherwise uninteresting person put into an extraordinary position. This is the basic premise of ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Left 4 Dead’ and, indeed, most serious character-driven zombie narratives. The zombie horde comes for everyone sooner or later. You might’ve just been an average joe before but now - as in natural disaster apocalypses - you have to tangle with a new, more dangerous world, and make your way as best you can.
So I guess, in conclusion, I get why zombies are overused. I see the draw, I understand why they make such effective narrative tools. And now, so do we all. So, is it okay if we lay off them for a while? I mean, just until they come around back into fashion again. Meanwhile, I’ve been hoping to see mer-people make a comeback...