The Never-ending Zombie

Chris Farnell, Writer, apocalypse afficionado

The time has come to draw our zombie season to a close but for apocalypse enthusiast and author Chris Farnell, crouching in his basement with a stash of guns, these narratives aren’t over yet…

You know, I said I was done. I said I was too old for this shit. My blog about apocalyptic fiction has sat gathering dust for a couple of months now while I worked on other things, and there hasn’t been anything vaguely zombie-related posted there since January. In February I wrote about the role of women in zombie movies, because that’s a rant I’d been waiting to have for a while. But that was it, I’ve talked a lot about zombie movies, stories, games and bible passages over the last few years, and I was ready to move onto other things.

But then they had to pull me back for one last job.

Because just as I was ready to put zombies to bed forever someone very dear to me, somebody who is otherwise extremely clever and whose opinion I normally respect, had to say to me “Zombies have transcended the undead to the plain old culturally dead.” And I shook my fist at them shouting “I’ll show you! To the Internet!” and now I’m here.

It’s a common rant, zombies are over with. Zombies are done. Zombies are a set of increasingly laboured puns based on the fact that they’re ambulatory corpses. This is because, for reasons others have gone into in better and greater detail elsewhere, at the very beginning of this century zombie movies tapped into the mood of the time in a way few other kinds of story could, and the genre exploded.

Now things have changed (although not as much as any of us would have liked) and so people are coming to the conclusion that zombies, having had their time in the sun, should politely shamble off. But here’s the thing about zombies: they never do that. Your grandkids are going to be enjoying stories about zombies, and the reason for that is that most of what we’ve said about zombies is wrong.

Zombie stories aren’t about zombies

When I was writing about a different zombie movie every week my reviews always used to conclude with a drinking game, designed to show some of the regularly recurring tropes in zombie apocalypse stories. Among the rules were that you had to take a number of shots if the story revolved around a number of mismatched characters who spent the majority of the story under siege in some kind of building until their own internal power struggles resulted in them letting the zombies in. The building could be a farmhouse, a shopping mall, a pub or a radio station, it didn’t matter.

The point was the zombies were incidental to the story. The meat of the story, in every sense of the word (okay, so I’m not totally immune to zombie puns) was the characters, who they were, what they wanted, and how they interacted. The zombies, who were stupid, straight forward, and often slow enough to allow for lengthy conversations between characters before they caught up, were simply a way of forcing a given set of characters together.

Even Max Brooks’ World War Z, with its world spanning narrative scope, is essentially a global siege story, with conflicting interests being forced to reluctantly work together every bit as much as a pair of disgruntled alpha male types in an isolated farmhouse. I’ve not read A Song of Ice & Fire and will stab anyone who tries to spoil it, but from the opening of the very first episode it seems Game of Thrones is heading in a very similar direction.

If you’re bored of characters with conflicting personalities and differing priorities being forced together, then I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you’re not bored of zombies, you’re bored of fiction.

Zombies don’t mean what you think they mean

Academics and bloggers alike do love to go on about what zombies “represent”. I know I do! We’ve said that zombies represent our fear of our inescapable mortality, slow and easily outwitted, but relentless and unstoppable. We’ve said they represent our fear of the mob, our concerns about an oppressed underclass, our guilt over the war dead or humankind’s innate violent nature.

So here’s the secret: They don’t represent any of those things. They can represent any of those things, but Jeanette Winterson has used oranges to represent heterosexuality and nobody can blame that on the orange. Zombies have also been used to represent our fear of the ubiquity of mobile phones in Stephen King’s Cell, or to explore the nature of language in the movie, Pontypool. Zombies (a term that I’m also using to include “the infected”- deal with it purists) are ordinary people who become dangerous when they come into contacted with other zombies, which means a writer can make them a stand-in for literally any idea they like without too much work.

But primarily we use zombies because everyone knows the rules. They bite you, you become one of them. Remove the head or destroy the brain. Sometimes they’re an implacable enemy, sometimes they’re more sympathetic than the so-called human survivors, but either way if you’re setting your story in the zombie apocalypse it takes five seconds to tell your audience everything they need to know about the history of the fictional world you’ve put them in, and then you can get on with your story, which could be any one of an infinite possible number. And for every one of them there will be yet another article asking if the zombie craze is over yet.

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