Zombies have gone from being the third wheel of the horror genre to being the proverbial darling. Take a look at basic cable, Netflix, and the literary world and it doesn’t take long to encounter a staggering flesh eating representative of this archtype. For decades the zombie has been the staple of the gorehound subgenre such as the deliciously disgusting movie ZOMBIE by Lucio Fulci. It has also been the target of campy horror such as the Revenge of the Living Dead films.
But what is it that’s made zombies America’s sweetheart? It’s true that other networks and Hollywood have jumped on the coattails of Kirkman/AMC’s success of The Walking Dead but what keeps viewers/readers coming back to the proverbial trough for more zombie entertainment?
Its clear that zombies and horror in general targets our fear of death. For most of us that’s our biggest fear. An ambiguous fear. Death is omnipresent yet we know very little about what happens to us after we die. Religion and science address it but there’s not concrete evidence. No one in the current era has risen up from the grave to give us all the answers. Yet we’ve formed our own notions about what death is and what happens to us once we’re dead. Whether it be Heaven and Hell or literally nothing. But zombies are a shambling contradiction and perhaps insult to our preconceived notion of what death is, and what happens after death. Zombies also represent a loss of our humanity. Although they resemble decayed humans, their behavior is more on par with a beast. Unlike other horror archtypes such as the vampire or werewolf where a person in transformed into something supernatural and they still retain the personality and morality that makes them who they are. Sure, it may change on a certain level but in the end they are still human. A werewolf or vampire is still self-aware, and on a certain level has free will. They even have memories. But you cannot say that about a zombie in general. Your average zombie is a shambling corpse driven by a primal urge to hunt and eat. It has no real personality, and no real resemblance to its former self. It has lost what made it human when it was alive.
To me it’s that lost of humanity that is most disturbing about zombies. Missing limbs, rotting faces, and etc are all icing on the cake. The fetid cake. We pride ourselves on our intellect and logic and problem solving skills. But zombies have that stripped away and a zombie movie/book/comic confronts us with a primordial reflection of what we may have been or what we are at our very core. Something we’ve fooled ourselves into denying. We aren’t flesh eatters per se but we do on a certain level embody a primaordial appetite for oil, technology, and etc. I’ve seen people in real life shambling along with their face buried in the screen of their iPhone or tablet. People that are too dependent on technology and can’t retain information anymore or at least not as well. In a lot of ways its like we have reverted to a zombie-like state in that way. Yet we deny that to ourselves.
In most media the zombie infection is also a subject of fear which plays on our dread of disease, especially infectious diseases. In the real world we’re taught at early age to cover our mouths when we cough, or don’t touch our eyes/noses/mouths when flu season is abound. The media fills our living rooms with reports of swine flu and bird flu and etc. The hype about disease/infections is all around. Hell, walk down the aisles of any grocery store/drug store and you’ll find countless products to kill germs and ward off the common cold or ease the common flu. In the zombie genre a person tends to become one via a bite or contact with zombie blood or etc. It usually results in some sort of flu-like symptoms and then the person becomes undead. Perhaps that makes zombies more relatable to us then a werewolf or vampire. We all have experience with contagious disease in our lives. We all know what its like to be sick to our stomachs and have a fever. We all know what its like to stumble around while aching and coughing and etc. But we don’t know what it’s like to transform into a wolf when the moon is full…
Regardless if a zombie is a metaphor for our consumerism or a cheap thrill I think it is a powerful icon in the horror genre. It has been my personal favorite since I was a kid and probably will be forever. I think its appeal is that it is the most relatable monster. It targets those core fears I mentioned. There is no romantic appeal to a rotten corpse trying to chew your face off, zombies are brutal and ceaseless in their attempts to devour the living, and that fills us with dread because we cannot reason with them even if they do appear ‘human’. If zombies were merely cheap scares and gore I don’t think their appeal would be as lasting or as popular as it is today. I think anyone dismissing them as simply ‘gory’ is failing to really understand what the zombie is all about.