Are zombies still relevant in today’s horror genre?
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It’s a legitimate question. AMC's The Walking Dead succeeded in doing what no other television show, movie, or novel has ever accomplished--that is, making zombies mainstream. The series is one of the most watched programs on television, and the convention circuit and merchandising for The Walking Dead is an industry onto itself. Although not everyone may be a fan of the show, I doubt there's anyone between the ages of six and sixty who have not heard of the series.
Fans have been treated to some truly outstanding books (The Rising, Patient Zero, and World War Z), films (The Horde, Zombieland, and The Dead), and video games (Resident Evil, Dead Island, Dead Rising, and Left 4 Dead). Unfortunately, we have also seen zombies placed in every scenario imaginable. The living dead have faced off against strippers, cheerleaders, ninjas, and cockneys. A zombie apocalypse has been the focus of a commercial for Toshiba computers in which an electrical glitch in a laptop plunges the world into a living dead nightmare. Enough zombie romances have entered the market to spawn the creation of its own genre name, “zomroms” (when they start to sparkle, I'm shifting genres and writing erotica). Traditionally, once a horror icon becomes the subject of farce, it marks its inevitable demise. (A good case in point is Universal Studio’s cache of monsters from the 1930s and 1940s, all of whom lumbered through countless resurrections until permanently put to death by Abbott and Costello).
Zombies, on the other hand, strike a chord with us for two reasons that tap into our deepest most emotional and psychological fears.
First, there is an undertone of realism to the zombie genre that is terrifying. Despite exaggerated reports of Ebola victims rising from the dead or the ingestion of bath salts turning drug addicts into the living dead, no one honestly expects a zombie apocalypse. What is frightening about the scenario, however, is that it represents a total collapse of society as we know it and the breakdown of everything we hold dear. We didn't create our own Hell by messing around with a Ouija board or a black and gold puzzle box. Factors beyond our control initiated the outbreak, and now we are left helpless to defend ourselves and our families as the living dead hunt us down in our own neighborhoods
This has been brought home to us repeatedly over the past decade thanks to twenty-four hour cable news, which have piped microcosms of catastrophe into our homes. We’ve all watched the flood waters of Katrina inundate New Orleans and tsunamis devastate the coast of Japan. It took days, and in some cases weeks, before local and federal governments were able to enter the devastated areas and regain control. In the case of New Orleans, the devastation was accompanied by the collapse of the social order. Looters took advantage of the chaos. People had to fend for themselves in order to survive, often against the local authorities. Our hearts went out to the victims of these natural disasters while a part of us breathed a sigh of relief that there but for the Grace of God goes us. Thanks to the zombie genre, we would suddenly become those nameless victims, and would be forced to confront bitter realities about how we would react in such a situation.
Second, as strange as it sounds, a zombie apocalypse provides a grim hope for the future in the form of a "reset" button. All the seemingly insurmountable troubles we face disappear, and the playing field is leveled overnight. We're no longer a part of the 1% or the 99%, a liberal or a conservative, a payer of taxes or a recipient of a government subsidy, a member of the elite or the working class. All of our debts, our past mistakes, and our concerns would be wiped out with the spread of the outbreak. Our possessions and social status would become irrelevant. All that matters now would be our strengths and abilities, and the direction our morale compass points.
One of my favorite zombie movies is Zack Snyder's 2004 reimaging of Dawn of the Dead because it is a superb portrayal of how ordinary people would react during a total collapse of the social order. Would we become Anna or Michael, who try to maintain their humanity even after losing everything dear to them? Would we become Kenneth, who opts to look out only for himself? Would we become CJ, the mall security guard who turns away the survivors because “no one here is infected and I intend to keep it that way?” Or would we be Tucker or Frank, the nameless faces that blend into the background and merely go on existing, only to become the red shirts of the survivors? Confronting how we would actually behave in such a situation can be scarier than dealing the zombie apocalypse itself.
The struggle between surviving and maintaining some semblance of humanity is what the genre is all about. (That, of course, combined with some intense gut-munching, head shooting action and buckets of blood and gore.) This is why zombies will always be relevant to the genre.
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