It is traditional – and zombies are all about traditions and tropes, as much as they are about moaning and gnawing on bones – to start any rumination on zombies with a comment on the longevity of the zombie genre. It’s almost too easy.
The zombie genre will not die.
The zombie genre shambles on.
The zombie genre refuses to die.
The zombie genre shuffles onwards, ignoring all attempts to stop it.
The point being made here, in case anyone is left in doubt – in which case they may wish to check their own zombification levels – is that the zombie genre displays many of the traits of the works within it: tenacity, an insensitivity to entropy, a single-minded forward motion.
And, in common with its subject matter, the proliferation of zombie movies is often represented as somewhat supernatural – a force keeping a genre that should be in its grave above ground (if they aren’t dead, as plenty of terrible people will tell you, they are not zombies but infected). The romantic comedy has been going strong for around 80 years, but nobody talks about its uncanny vitality. The persistence of zombie, however, is a matter of bewildered inquiry. What does it mean?
Regardless, the zombie virus shows no signs of finding a cure (that’s another one, by the way), with Brad Pitt’s World War Z, a loose adaptation of Max Brooks’ 2006 book, following the Nicholas Hoult zomcom Warm Bodiesinto cinemas. Meanwhile, AMC’s The Walking Dead, the TV adaptation of Jonathan Kirkman’s comic book, is scheduled to return for a fourth season after breaking viewing records for cable drama.
(Kirkman’s Walking Dead was also the source for a very well-received video game by Telltale games. The TV series based on Hickman’s Walking Dead was the source for a very badly-received video game by Activision. However, if we start listing video games featuring zombies, we may be here a while.)
However, the infection (just one more) does pulse and fade. The current wave of zombie movies began with 2002’s 28 Days Later in the UK and the remade Dawn of the Dead in the US 2004. Remaking Dawn of the Dead, it is worth mentioning, is a little like looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and thinking “you know, that would work a lot better if Ving Rhames were in it”.
Since then, the flow has been constant. Fast zombies, slow zombies, funny zombies, cute zombies, gay zombies, zombies fought by cockneys, zombies fought by strippers, zombie strippers fought by strippers. Even George Romero, who started the whole necrotic ball rolling, came back for a series of infectious bites of the cherry, with Land, Diary and Survival of the Dead.
Open Source, Open Jaws
Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has a solid claim as the first modern zombie movie – preceded though it was by a slew of voodoo-panic movies like White Zombie and the first film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. This latter, The Last Man on Earth, featured shambling, blue-skinned zompires – technically infected, though rather than undead, and also able to speak and oddly averse to crosses and garlic. However, Night has one quality that establishes it yet more firmly as the wellspring of the genre – its public domain status.
Originally titled Night of the Flesh Eaters, the change of name came so late that the new print omitted a copyright notice. At the time, this meant that the property slid immediately into the public domain (or rather almost immediately – it would have been possible to pull the print and reissue it with a new title card, but nobody did). When it went on to make a huge amount of money in cinemas, two channels to profit opened up. Rerelease Night of the Living Dead (hence its many, many versions, online editions and colourised monstrosities), or duplicate the high concept, lifting the aesthetics, rules and grammar of the Romero zombie.
The easier it gets to make and distribute a film, the more tempting the zombie is as a piece of available intellectual property, and thus the greater the corpus of influential zombie movies becomes to sway the next generation of directors. Anyone looking for an example of the creative boost provided by open source content outside the software industry could do worse than look zomwards.
(An example: there are three films of note based on the copyright I am Legend – The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man and I am Legend. Compare this with Night of the Living Dead, which has at least three separate lines of succession – Romero’s own Noun of the Dead series (with various remakes and branches), his co-writer John Russo’s schlocky Return of the Living Dead (in which Night of the Living Dead exists in-world as a propaganda film intended to obfuscate the truth about zombies) and Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, a movie largely unconnected to Zombi, the Italian title of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. In software development these would be forks. In zombie movies, forks go in eyes.)
On the production side, zombie movies can also be crazy cheap. World War Z clearly had to fight hard to push its budget into the low nine figures, with a star cast, a globetrotting storyline, an elongated production process and a cold mess of CGI zombies. Night of the Living Dead had a handful of locations and extras gnawing at chicken.
Colin, the according-to-the-marketing cheapest film ever made is, inevitably, about a zombie. And the cost of making films keeps dropping. Decay was made by a group of Ph.D students in their spare time – that is, the spare time of nuclear physicists.
With its mix of low startup cost, familiar tropes and lack of conceptual ownership, the zombie fits neatly into a culture of remixes and user generated content. The meaning of post-life, and the persistence of this particular form of it, is not written in the heart, but the balance sheet.
Zomfire of the vanities
That said… there is something that keeps us coming back, to experience the same narratives over and over again. Some metaphors persist, others fade – the atomic anxiety of giant ants and the Red Scare wave of snatched bodies and overnight alien invasions have sputtered out. What explains the popularity of the zombie apocalypse?
The traditional zombie narrative begins at the beginning (of the apocalypse’s impact on the characters) and ends at the end (of the immediate threat and/or the characters). When it comes, the apocalypse disrupts everyday life immediately and irrevocably, and does so without regard for prior loves and loyalties.
The immediate source of the crisis can change – a passing asteroid, an amoral military, unwise science, the Large Hadron Collider. What matters is the result – the faster or slower listing of the world beneath the weight of reanimated bodies.
In the classic narrative – the narrative that fuels revisionism, comic treatments, metafiction and the rest – the story ends with the protagonists either dead or largely dead, with a few temporarily safe from an immediate danger, but still very much at the end of the world. Where some sort of order is restored, it is venal or impermanent. Redoubts will fall, shelters will turn out to be traps under the implacable weight of posthumanity. To quote Colson Whitehead in Zone One, one of relatively few zombie stories written by a MacArthur Fellow:
They had been young and old, natives and newcomers. No matter the hue of their skins, dark or light, no matter the names of their gods or the absences they countenanced, they had all strived, struggled and loved in their small, human fashion. Now they were mostly mouths and fingers, fingers for extracting entrails from soft cavities, and mouths to rend and devour in pieces the distinct human faces they captured, that these faces might become less distinct, de-individuated flaps of masticated flesh, rendered anonymous like them, like the dead.
Fans of the genre often identify the zombie horde as the Other, whatever the Other might be at that time. Russian collectivists, Southern immigrants or Eastern factory workers – whatever those engaged in the luxurious pursuit of telling horror stories fear will outperform and replace them.
That seems incomplete, however. The message of the zombie narrative is that the idea of separateness from that faceless other is itself a vanity. One day you will tire, or panic, or one of the people you rely on will tire or panic, and then there will be few more of them, and a few less of you, until eventually there is nothing but a mass of hungry ghouls with nothing to eat.
Scary stories work by plugging into fears cultural or primal. Vampires started out as expressions of the fear of the corrupting effects of uncontrolled sexuality, and ended up as neutered, sparkling expressions of the awesomeness of abstinent-until-marriage teen lust. Summer camp slashers, murderous hitch-hikers and masked home invaders all press their own acculturated buttons.
Zombies, behind the violence and viscera, target the fear that the world does not care about us, and that our movement through it is a set of shrinking possibilities – locked in the house, locked in the cellar, backed against the wall – culminating in the extinction of us and everything that made us meaningful. The worst, most poisonous part of a zombie’s bite is the indifference with which it is conferred. Even those who run and scream and hate are not inspired by any particular quality in their prey. It’s nothing personal. They’re just dead that way.
In a world driven by ego, the fear of loss of identity – whether played straight or subverted – is the rotten core of the zombie’s appeal.