An acquaintance of mine recently wrote a book review for The Daily Beast about a zombie novel. It got me thinking, as it got him thinking, about what could be the reason for the recent spate of zombie books, TV shows, and films.
Part of that answer is simple: If the red car sells, make more red cars. To mix a metaphor, trends are like waves; they gather momentum and then they break and roll back. Right now the zombie wave is cresting.
While I’m not as well-read my friend who wrote the review, I’m going to take a bite at the other reason zombie pop culture is so strong right now: Human population.
Our popular culture reflects our inner fears and desires. To what degree this is conscious for the creators I can’t say; books and movies are different mediums, each employing a full spectrum of personalities. But during the zeitgeist of flying saucer movies in the 50s, while these may have been sparked by controversy, they were fueled by our fear of the foreign invader. Little green men, with almond-shaped eyes who all look and act the same, stir up rightist ideas of the communist threat. Then there were books and movies in the 70s and 80s which had machines hunting us down. Then, giant robots that seek to enslave mankind.
Alien movies are ostensibly about our fear of the “other.” Robot movies are about our fear of technology beyond our control. Zombie movies are about our fear of ourselves, and where we are headed.
My wife got into watching The Walking Dead after I coaxed her to pay attention during season two. During that season, the ragtag group of survivors hole up at a barn in the country, trying to make do, figuring out how to live. The wife and I like this kind of survivalist story. Part of the draw is the suspension of the social contract. The social contract, in a nutshell, is a tacit agreement among humans (centuries in the making) that tells us we are safe from one another. Suspending that contract makes for great drama (like the “governor” character who runs the village but basically operates a paramilitary group and tries to get whatever he wants).
But what’s especially alluring about the zombie apocalypse trope is that, dramatically, you get to a world where leadership matters again. Where having children matters again. Where telling the truth matters again. These concepts are fascinating to us because of the conditions of the world we live in today.
So that’s one aspect of the reasoning for the zombie bonanza – we are living in a time teeming with people, lacking in leadership, filled with lies and deceit. Like the controversies which stoked the flying saucer movies, the perils of our dwindling fossil fuels, the fear culture of terrorism, the acts of violence set the stage for the zombie extravaganza. But then there is the impetus that motivates us to tell these stories to ourselves.
This part is perhaps a little more personal as it entails the visceral way we may react to such circumstances as described above.
To kill zombies is to kill with impunity. In the zombie apocalypse, the social contract is already broken. Fire, hack, smash away at those gruesome things, because survival matters now, because the human race matters now.
In reality, we are each of us up against an onslaught of an eerily similar type – we have to navigate a world of strangers, people who don’t mean too much to us, but who cut us off in traffic, or squish into the subway taking our spot before the doors close, or give us a dirty look in the grocery line, steal our parking space, take forever to fill out those damned lotto tickets; people who breathe too close to us, stink, are loud on their phones, and so on, and so on.
In this world we live in, people pick up guns and do horrific things to one another. Armed to the teeth, people walk into malls and schools and campuses and open fire. People in road rage get pushed that degree too far and run the other driver off the road. Bombs go off in crowds. Parents shake their babies. People end their lives, and the lives of their families.
It’s terrifying out there, and the consequences of “snapping” are not only severe for the individual, but the invisible punitive damage done to the rest of humanity is just as devastating. Somehow we deal with the tragedy we have witnessed either directly or indirectly and we press onward. But that terrible act becomes a part of us, a part of our heritage.
So, we need to vent. We need to sit in a darkened room with a group of the very strangers which may agitate us by day, and have a vicarious shared experience, a thrill together watching zombies get shredded by night.
Zombies are not aliens, with different skin and different eyes who pilot spacecraft. They are not robots that, while perhaps humanoid in shape, are composed of metal and gears. They are flesh and bone. They are us, only “dead.”
Dead – but undead. They are as close to us as possible without being us exactly.
And they come in hordes, and we slaughter them, because they are how we feel about ourselves.