Sometimes I wonder what my friends and I are doing with our lives. I mean, most of us have a pretty good idea about what we’d do in the event of a zombie apocalypse but pretty much no idea what we’ll do once we graduate. But how could we not think about zombies? They’re absolutely everywhere. TV, books, movies, video games—they’re persistent little monsters who have found permanent spots in all of our media. And while vampires have become hip, urban creatures of the night and werewolves have become puberty metaphors, the zombie has more or less been the same mindless hunk of flesh he’s always been. All the way back to Night of the Living Dead in 1968. But why the fascination? What keeps zombies so relevant in our minds?
They’re not aliens from another planet, not demons from hell, not crazed serial killers whose specific circumstances have driven them to kill. No, zombies don’t discriminate. They’re our friends. They’re our neighbors. They’re us. And maybe that’s why we keep them around. It’s the same way we turn to reflexively gaze at our reflection, even for a moment, whenever we pass a mirror. We like to look at ourselves. And zombies can do that for us in a way no other monsters can. They show us ourselves, our social anxieties, our daily lives, our humanity—and, of course, how quickly we can lose it.
I think it’s always been this way. Even back in 1968 when George Romero first defined the current mythology. Night of the Living Dead took the traditional zombie, a poor soul enslaved by a sorcerer in some dangerously non-Western place, and turned it into the monster we all know and love today. And it’s obvious to which primal fears these monsters appeal. A vampire can turn you into a bloodsucker, but you at least get to keep your mind. Zombies, on the other hand, don’t think. They lose their minds. So when we join their ranks, we lose the very thing which separates us from the animal kingdom. And when we lose it, we commit what is arguably the most heinous of all sins, the single most awful insult to human ethics. We eat each other.
But, at the end of the day, every movie monster appeals to some primal, universal fear. Or they wouldn’t scare us. So what makes zombies unique? How do they function on a social level? Well, look at this trailer.
Could audiences look at those static, black and white images and see anything but news reports about the war in Vietnam? What a film. It took the terrors of wartime and planted them firmly in the American mainland. A horror film where no one, not even the hero, survives. Throw in the government’s inability to fight the zombie threat and a daughter who murders her mother and eats her father’s corpse, and you’ve got the dismantling not only of the American system but of the classic family unit. You’ve got just about every social fear of 1968, and as the movie ends, we see that the trigger-happy human mob is just as dangerous as the horde of the undead. We stare ourselves in the face and leave with a bitter taste in our mouths. And it happened again only ten years later.
Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead took the monster and planted it in a shopping mall. And audiences saw the threat of commercialism, saw themselves becoming slaves to a culture of advertising and luxury. And that’s where zombies gain their persistence. They can adapt to any decade, to any widespread social fear, no matter how violent or seemingly trivial.
But what do we fear today? Why do we keep tuning in for the latest episode of The Walking Dead? Is it the threat of super viruses, new illnesses spreading like wildfire, leaving us helpless to stop them? Is it modern technology, new weapons and mounting global tensions making the possibility of a man-made apocalypse a horribly distinct reality in our minds? Whatever the appeal, I don’t think zombies are going anywhere anytime soon. And I think we can all expect them to keep on changing along with the times, adapting to whatever our new anxieties turn out to be in the next ten, twenty, thirty years.
They will forever be our personal mirrors in the horror genre, the lens through which we view ourselves. And we can only hope that once the dead finally do rise and take to the streets, they’re not quite as resilient as they are on our screens.