Nothing seems to be more predominate right now then our fascination with the undead, and it’s a phenomenon that continues to come back from the dead over and over again.
Zombies for lack of a better word, reincarnate themselves and infect (sorry, we had to) popular culture at certain times. Like other trends, they evolve to reflect whatever needs to be relinquished from society at that time.
Similar to their sibling, the vampire (trend), zombies re-emerged to convey societal feelings. IFC’s “Love, Lust and the Undead” points out that vampires emerged after the end of the Victorian era during a time when women may have felt more sexual and liberated. Through the years, they’ve been re-imagined to represent: yearnings for freedom and rebellion like teenagers (“The Lost Boys”), strong women (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), sensuality (“Interview with the Vampire”) and maybe even pent up violence (“30 Days of Night”) or as an allegory for gay rights (“True Blood”).
Despite appearances long beforehand, especially in literature like “I Am Legend,” George A. Romero has long been regarded as the father of zombies. His creation “Night of the Living Dead” (the holy grail of the genre) laid out the groundwork for zombies that are known and loved today. He did not invent zombies, more importantly, he re-invented them.
Reportedly created on a budget of $114,000 and released in 1968, “Night of the Living Dead” was the movie that made the rules for the genre. Bites, slow walking, a hunger for flesh and brains: chalk that all up to him. Romero has long said that his zombies are not just vehicles for shock value. His brand of horror is social commentary.
The ‘60s have long represented a divide in this nation’s history. It was an era when time meant change. Movements for women’s and minorities’ rights and Vietnam were the American focus and social customs were being redefined. Protests and anxiety were rampant.
Romero tapped into the fear of this country.
The main character Ben was African American. The casting choice was revolutionary for the time. Ben survived the night while everyone around him perished, only to be killed the next day by sheriff’s deputies as he emerged from the house, mistaken for a zombie. The grainy black and white still shots featured in the end of the film speak eerily of race relations of that time.
“Night of the Living Dead” was released just six months after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Jr.
The apocalypse portrayed in Romero’s film represented the chaos that was alive and thriving in America. Zombies were the physical representation of all that American society feared and loathed: communists, minorities, women’s roles expanding outside the home, focus on Vietnam and all that was unknown.
The horror genre has long been able to tap into the anxieties of culture. After all, the slasher film was born out of a fear of serial killers like Son of Sam, Ted Bundy and the Zodiac Killer in the ‘70s, Godzilla emerged after bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Movies have always been a safe escape. A scary film or television show is therapeutic because it allows viewers to release a societal anxiety. Imagine walking out of a theater or turning off the television knowing American streets are empty of the monsters on the big and small screens.
Legendary horror director Wes Craven once said, “I’ve a lot of people ask me, especially those who don’t like horror, ‘Why would anyone pay to go into a film, into a theater, to be scared?’ and I say ‘They don’t go into a theater to have fear put into them. They go to a theater to have the fear taken out.’”
Romero’s zombie series has spawned many sequels and have gone on to reflect whatever injustices society is experiencing at different points of time.
“Night of the Living Dead” reflected the anxiety of a nation in turmoil, “Dawn of the Dead” centered around characters who took shelter in a mall. The zombies mindlessly walking about were made to reflect consumerism of the late ‘70s. His most recent take, “Land of the Dead”, showed wealthy individuals enjoying their time in an expensive high rise building while the poor mulled about below, trying in earnest to survive. The plot an obvious commentary on social class.
What is society afraid of now?
With the popularity of such a show as “The Walking Dead” which continues to draw more than 10 million viewers an episode, which is more than some movies make over an opening weekend, zombies go to the theater (“World War Z”) and play the game “The Last of Us.” Zombies have become a norm. What could be so scary now?
PBS’ Youtube Channel “Ideas” says it could be technology. With so much time dedicated to laptops, computers, cell phones, social media and the need for immediate fulfillment, technology could be a best friend and the worst nightmare.
Zombies represent everything that can go wrong, but as “Ideas” host Mike Rugnetta points out, zombies are also victims of circumstance. They no longer encompass the types of traits that are associated with being human, they are just mindless and hungry.
Zombies re-emerge at times when society questions itself. This recent re-incarnation has come at a time when the country is turning in on itself: fighting seemingly endless wars, an uncertain economy, constant debates over healthcare, political untrustworthiness … the list is long.
In films and stories that feature zombies, civilization must resort back to the basics. Humans don’t rely on technology but must instead take refuge with long forgotten survival skills like scavenging for food and making weapons out of whatever is around. They explore human fear of an uncertain future such as losing everything to an apocalypse while viewers can walk away and sleep right because zombies are the vehicle for the fears that are being shown and they can’t possibly exist in the real world.
But like the monster it embodies, zombies can’t live forever (a good bullet to the head stops ’em, but good) and neither will this trend. In fact, it’s on the way out.
Trends in horror seem to die immediately after they are given feelings. Remember when Nosferatu and Dracula were terrifying? How about when female protagonists in vampire stories were strong (hell-o Buffy Summers!) All bets were off due to the most recent taste of vampire lore: not only do they have feelings as in “The Vampire Diaries”, they have hot sex in “True Blood” and they can even be vegetarian like the sparkling vampires in “Twilight”. That knocks the scariness right out of vampires.
Thus is the same fate falling on the zombie trend.
“Warm Bodies,” a film based on the young adult novel of the same name features a teenage zombie boy literally consuming his victims’ memories. After offing the boyfriend of a particularly pretty girl, he finds himself falling in love and determined to protect her against those of his kind. The message of this novel and subsequent movie: love makes a dead person human again.
It’s never good to attach romantic feelings to something that’s supposed to eat your brains. Bye, bye zombie trend.
So while “The Walking Dead” currently works its way through its fourth season and others try again to re-imagine what else the zombie can be, it won’t be long until culture finds something else to be fascinated with. Witches, perhaps? How about werewolves or the supernatural? “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” could be up for a remake.
Alas, for the time being, raise one for an old, flesh eating, brain craving zombie friend. May they rest in peace until they are re-imagined again and here’s to whatever represents what society is scared of next.