Last week I made passing reference to my disinterest in the ongoing zombie craze. I received a number of complaints from friends. More complaints than the time I said I would not be voting in this upcoming election. I find this very interesting. So, in the spirit of the holiday I thought I might return to this thought.
The modern zombie, or “Romero Zombie,” with its shambling gait and hunger for flesh first appeared in George Romero’s 1968 film, “Night of the Living Dead.” The first Living Dead film never gives a name to its creeping terror. Fans began calling them zombies, Romero liked it and the rest is history.
I grew up on the Living Dead trilogy where, like George Lucas, only the first three count. I enjoyed “28 Days Later” and the first 60 issues of “The Walking Dead,” then the world became all Zombies all the time. At the bookstore, at the movies, there was a storm of zombies and finally came the parodies. The first to arrive was the modern classic “Shaun of the Dead” followed by its American cousin “Zombieland.” Both serve to prop up this fascination the media devouring culture has with the walking dead, while completely deconstructing and then rebuilding the familiar tropes inherent in the genre. In other words they attempted to make you laugh at the things we’ve seen overdone time and again. Why do we keep returning this well? My friends cited the social issues inherent to the genre, “consumerism and you know…”
So now they’re morality tales. Sure, with the subtlety of an anti-drug PSA from the 90’s. Rampant consumerism makes you a zombie, yes; the cycle of violence will never end, yes; and my favorite, people are worse than the dead. Dracula was written to show like-minded Victorian Englishmen swarthy invaders were coming for their women, it also says sometimes an English woman is capable of helping. Werewolf stories warn that under the composed veneer of the civilized man is a savage. But these stories change over time. If zombies hope to keep up, they’ll have to change. Because things change, our fears change.
Remember “Scream?” Scream did what eight sequels couldn’t. It killed Jason, Michael and Freddy. It was impossible to take them seriously anymore. But this is not a bad thing; it should mean a shift is coming, it should mean new things. “Saw” and “Cabin Fever” broke the mold after the self-aware Scream rip-offs died out and brought us into the future of torture porn and the revamped B-movie that had all but disappeared since the early 80’s. Then the “Hostels” and “The Devil’s Rejects” quit selling, PG-13 remakes of Asian horror movies flooded the market until those too subsided. That’s how cultural phenomena work. But zombies just keep being zombies.
Consider how vampires and werewolves fade in and out of popularity. Old legends remade for each new generation. Vampires had been a staple of folklore for hundreds of years before Stoker wrote Dracula. Compare the ageing Count to any other vampire. There is so much variation on the theme, because the world changes and our collective fears change with them. But, what have zombies got?
If Dracula justifies Victorian xenophobia, remember (spoiler) they do kill him at the end. If werewolf stories justify the divide between civilized and savage, because if one of the lower class bites you you’ll turn into them and (spoiler) have to be killed. What do zombies say about us? Because the only change I’ve noticed in the past twenty years is that some of them run now.