In recent decades, zombies have risen again to invade our screens. As early as 1996 and the release of the first Resident Evil game, the undead were beginning to take a hold of our imaginations once more. In the new millennium, we had modern classics such as 28 Days Later in 2002, and Zac Snyder’s 2004 reworking of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, through to the box office smash World War Z a few of years ago.
All of this has culminated in AMC’s surprise hit The Walking Dead, which reached 14.6 million viewers in the US for the Season 6 premiere, and pushed 20 million when taking online streaming into account. These numbers rival the American heavyweights of Sunday night football and NCIS. The success of The Walking Dead, in particular, has transformed the horror sub-genre from the preserve of undead enthusiasts, who hoard non-perishable foodstuffs in their makeshift bunkers and are never a few metres from an axe, into the weekly watching of the living room masses.
And it is a ‘surprise’ hit. Its unrelenting story-lines, bleak moral outlook, and the destruction of the characters’ humanity make you wonder how it can be so popular. The Walking Dead will enter the seventh season on 23rd October, and producer Greg Nicotero says that it only gets worse: “It’s almost too much… It goes lower and lower and lower”. Yet it has drawn ambivalent zombie viewers, such as myself, and produced die-hard fans of the walkers.
It is nothing new that we enjoy watching depravity and despair for entertainment. Time magazine noted how extreme has become the new norm, citing the rising prominence of other unremittingly brutal series like Game of Thrones. Nobody wants to watch perfect people leading perfect lives, but we have reached a point where TV shows will kill children and endorse suicide, and still continue to drag us through every harrowing 40 minute episode and binge-inducing cliff hanger.
Despite the gruesome nature of the zombie film, these apocalyptic stories seem to speak to us on a deeper level. The prevalence of social commentary in the world of zombies has been around since the inception of the genre. George A Romero himself, the godfather of the zombie film, commented that he made Night of the Living Dead from a place of anger that “the Sixties didn’t work”. In both the 1978 Dawn of the Dead and the recent remake, it has been often noted that the setting of the shopping mall strikes a note of irony, juxtaposing our consumerism with the mindless consumption of the undead.
As the post-apocalyptic surfaces in pop culture, we can see the underlying fears of our time. Our parents had the Bomb and the Cold War which manifested in, among other things, the espionage of mutants in the X-men comics and the secret war raging unbeknownst to humanity at large. Perhaps in a world of iOS updates and automatic device synchronisation, where technology moves at an overwhelming pace and seems to organise more and more of our lives, the apocalypse represents a place free from the technological regime.
The extended narrative of The Walking Dead shows us a world unhindered by modernity, simpler than our own and stripped back to the bare bones of humanity. Perhaps our fascination with the world of the walking dead is to do with our concern about super-viruses and the outbreak of incurable disease. Perhaps we are concerned more broadly with a possible world-wide disaster and catastrophic consequences of global warming.
One can speculate about the subconscious reasons why the mainstream has taken to zombies. In essence, the apocalyptic allows us to explore our fears in a kind of safe space away from the all too real threats of the age of terror and environmental disaster. Max Brooks, the author of the mockumentary novel World War Z, notes that “zombie stories give people the opportunity to witness the end of the world they’ve been secretly wondering about while… allowing themselves to sleep at night because the catalyst of that end is fictional.” It seems as though the troubles of our time will not be going away any time soon, and that means the undead will probably stick around as well.