20th March 2013

Why the sudden love for Zombie films?

For Tom Glasser, a Zombie outbreak is like a motorway service station, and the popularity of shows like The Walking Dead says much about our society

After watching the latest episode of AMC’s hugely popular The Walking Dead, I had to ask myself why I had become obsessed with a show whose cast consists mainly of the staggering, flesh-dripping undead.

With ever more Zombie films on the way (World War Z, Warm Bodies) I would bet that I’m not the only person to have become enthralled by programs about these undead, brain-munchers. But what lies behind the success of these movies? And why have so many Zombie films been produced in recent years?

Perhaps years of channeling our sexual frustration into vampire flicks, has left us feeling empty and cheated; only willing to visit the cinema if we are guaranteed to see a mouldy Zombie head being vaporised by a cricket bat at some point? Or maybe our fascination with the undead says more about the current state of our society?

For Sarah Lauro a professor at Clemson University, the popularity of Zombie movies is a sure sign of the national mood in the United States.

“We are more interested in the Zombie at times when as a culture we feel disempowered,” said Lauro in an interview with the Associated Press. “And the facts are there that, when we are experiencing economic crises, the vast population is feeling disempowered. … Either playing dead themselves … or watching a show like ‘Walking Dead’ provides a great variety of outlets for people.”

Indeed, Zombie flicks aren’t just popular because film-goers are desperate to be scared out of their mind. Before The Walking Dead my favourite Zombie film was the Spanish film Rec. An undoubtedly terrifying movie, but one where the horror on screen left you as soon as you left the cinema. I knew that as long as I didn’t get trapped in a Spanish tower block with a Zombie endemic, I’d be OK.

It wasn’t terror as such that I got from The Walking Dead. It was more a feeling of unease; the very same way I felt after reading John Christopher’s The Death of Grass or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This unease of the books didn’t lie within graphic violence, but within the depiction of an inescapable dystopia and the fragility of civilisation. Whether it was Christopher’s use of a biological disease or McCarthy’s brilliant decision not to explain what had happened, a catastrophic event had levelled society.

And that’s what a Zombie outbreak is: a leveller. Armani watches are now worthless; doctors and  rifle-wielding rednecks become our overlords. For want of a better analogy, a Zombie outbreak is a dystopian motorway service station: no matter what class you are, you just can’t escape their terror. The terror in the case of a service station being an egg mayonnaise sandwich that costs £4.50.

I don’t know if dystopian is an apt description for The Walking Dead. After all, most twentieth-century dystopian literature dealt with civilisation advancing into ruthless authoritarianism. The over-used term ‘Orwellian’ conjures up images of how civilisation can take us down a darker road, namely one of the surveillance state and callous bureaucracy. Zombie outbreaks on the other hand depict the very opposite: in less than a few days civilisation with all its laws and niceties has crumbled leaving only the basest human traits behind.

Anything, which intrigues viewers in their millions has to tell us something about ourselves and more importantly the conditions of their making. Even Robert Kirkman, the author of The Walking Dead comic series, wrote in the first book that “good Zombie movies aren’t the splatter fests of gore and violence with goofy characters and tongue in cheek antics. Good Zombie movies show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in our society”.

Zombies represent both death and our fears. In a world dominated by economic disaster  many are peering pessimistically over the parapet towards the future, not knowing whether it will be a financial collapse, climate change or the Cloverfield monster that will bring humanity crashing back down.

As in nearly every Zombie film, we root for the protagonist to somehow rekindle a semblance of humanity, whilst knowing all along that their efforts will end with a bite to the neck. A growing number of survivalist groups online only help to convince me that we are scared of what the future may bring. And Zombie movies serve not only as the modern tragedy but also as a mirror for these very real fears.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, maybe millions just like watching an axe cleave into a Zombie’s face while I foolishly ponder its deeper meaning. But I’ll stick to my guns and I’ll defend these maggot-infested rogues.

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