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Are Zombies the Monster of the 21st Century?

They say that horror movies and (before that) ghost stories reflect the unconscious fears of the time. So, for example, vampires allayed the fear of burying members of the community alive – if there were scratch marks on the inside of their coffins, it was because they were monsters, not because your doctor made a mistake. Or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a cautionary tale for a society just on the cusp of the age of reason – a warning not to dive too far into that pool labelled ‘scientific progress’. Monster stories and ghost stories allow us to put aside our fears even for a moment by expressing them in their most ridiculous forms – I don’t think that facet of human nature has disappeared over the past century or so. If we accept this line of reasoning, are zombies the current expression of our deeply buried fears? And, if so, of what?

At least they are taking good care of their teeth...

At least they are taking good care of their teeth...

Let’s face it, zombies are the monsters at the moment. Okay, well the supernatural monsters at the moment. The ongoing Saw franchise and the continued fascination withy rebooting slasher movies demonstrates that we are also fascinated with the more human of monsters, but I shall return to that later in the week. For the moment, zombies have my full and undivided attention. They really are the freak of the week at the moment – it seems every second movie is about them. There’s the relaunched Romero franchise – with Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead in the past decade – along with remakes – Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead – spoofs – Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead – and even original zombie movie franchises – 28 Days Later, [rec].

It’s a testament to the revived (pardon the pun) genre that some of you may even quibble with me about the classification of such films. Do the creatures need to be dead to be zombies, because – if they are alive – they’re surely cannibals, right? Surely they must shuffle rather than walk, because… it’s basic biology, right? There are a whole host of discussions that on-line film buffs and amatuer biologists will have over the classification of certain creatures as zombies (even if characters hesitate to use the word themselves), but that simply illustrates their hold on the zeitgeist. I cast as wide a net as possible in classifying the above films, because they fit the two most important characteristics of zombies: craving flesh and lacking free will.

Yes, you’ll notice I didn’t include the word undead in there. Because I think that’s the most fantastical element of a zombie. It’s the bit we chuck in there – like body hair on a werewolf or fangs and wings on a vampire – to define them as distinctly not us. The fact that they are the dead returned to life is, at its most basic, the fact which confines these creatures to the realm of horror and fantasy, which means we don’t have to be scared, because they will never appear. As such, I think it’s the aspect of the creature which is least relevent to understanding why we are so fascinated by it – there are a dozen other undead menaces, for example (ghosts and vampires, for example), but we still focus on zombies, why?

Zombies (in their current form) are a relatively young monster. I’ve been over the history (and the reason why I like them unexplained) before, but it’s worth reiterating that they are perhaps the most enduring monster to be almost completely defined in film. Sure, there are Carribean myths, but George Romero pretty much codified what we expected from them. Vampires and werewolves existed pretty much in the same form we see today throughout centuries of folklore. It was Night of the Living Dead which drove the zombie into popular consciousness. But I don’t think their relatively recent creation determines why they hold our attention at the moment. They were created forty years ago, but have only really been engaged with mainstream movie-making for the past ten.

The fact that they prey on humans and consume them isn’t really an essential factor either, I would suggest. Monsters have preyed on humans forever. Vampires consume our blood, werewolves stalk and eat us raw, and so on. Maybe there’s some fasciantion in that zombies are (traditionally) fixated on our brains, but despite the way that notion has permeated popular culture, it is rarely a key factor in the presentation of zombies (most would be happy the eat any human meat – I can’t think of a movie in recent memory where they chant “brains…” like they do in pop culture’s stereotypical depiction of them). Because it is something we are conscious of, yet it is not very common, perhaps the fixation on brains is worth more attention than the fixation on consuming human flesh? Yes, I think it is.

What are our brains? They are what we understand as giving us thought. Independent thought at that. They make us individuals. Zombies are not individuals. They lack free will. A lone zombie is rarely a threat in-and-of-itself. It’s when the zombie horde arrives that our protagonists need to worry. The dozens (and hundreds) of shambling creatures moving together with one mind and purpose. A zombie horde is group think at its most basic. It is the spiritual descendent not of Frankenstein’s monster, but the mob with the pitchforks chasing it. It is the group in which we lose ourselves completely: our identity, our views, our destiny. It’s all gone. The zombies labotomise us in the most crude fashion, to make us blend in and fit in. And then we join them in their parasitic hunt for fresh individuality to consume.

The consuming it is not a positive act. The group does not benefit from it. The fact that there are rake of movies existing in a universe where zombies are the dominent form of live suggests that they don’t need to eat to live (if they did, surely when they’ve massively depopulated the planet most of them would “die” too, but moving to a new area always reveals local zmbies that have possibly gone years without feeding). Unlike vampires, who feed to live, the group simply feeds to feed, or to remove another’s sense of individualism or self-determination.

You could make the case that vampires and werewolves also rob an individual of their freewill or of their choice – that they too consume the identity of the individual. Not really. They may shape that identity, but werewolves and zombies typically retain awareness and memories. They are capable of far more advanced thoughts than the shuffling group, capable of planning and manipulating events. They may be changed by their experiences (as the werewolf becomes an animal in moonlight) and may even lose their humanity, but they do not lose their individuality. They still get to make decisions (albeit driven by a thirst for blood, or only in daylight).

I think that is the aspect of the zombie that we fear most and why it is a relatively recent construct. Individual rights are a very new construct – one that is less than a century old in most countries. Democracy can be seen as a political representation of that right to self-determination, and one that we treasure. The end of the Second World War truly hammered home the capacity of the state as a political entity that could harness individuals as weapons should they ever give up that important self-determination. The revolution of the sixties was based upon free love and free expression.

Wars these days are marked by rallies and protests, forms of expression really new to this century (sure, papers and the upper classes would have rallied against war in the past, but never in so vocal a form). For us individuality and self-determination are core rights, which define the way we view or relationship with the stae, for example. We see rights as a bubble protecting us from state interference – you can’t read my e-mail and tap my phone, I have a right to privacy! Contrast this with the more Eastern philosophy of community, where the individual is consumed into (and, therefore, protected by) the state, which is unfathomable to most of us.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m out of touch, but those are the reasons that it seems to me that these shuffling beasts have our undivided attention at the moment, and probably will for quiet some time.


This article is part of our “screen scare week”, a look at monster movie trends in the run up to Halloween. Check back every night at the witching hour (3am) for a new look at some aspect of horror movie subculture…

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