Whenever a studio wants to make a horror movie where they have a pretty good chance of making their money back they look to zombies. Why? Because they’re pretty much a staple of horror cinema in the same way that blowing up national monuments is a staple of Roland Emmerich’s career. So just why are zombies such a mainstream of horror?
The traditional view of a zombie is someone who has been infected, dies and their body re-animated in a slouching, unintelligent lump of meat who craves human flesh. This is a portrayal that has been somewhat accidentally raped by films like 28 Days Later and Resident Evil who, whilst not claiming the monsters they show are actually zombies, are often mistakenly interpreted in that way despite the fact they can run. In my opinion the only man who can use running zombies is the master himself George A Romero, why? Well the answer is simple and actually relates back to the point at hand. Romero uses zombies for symbolic purposes and what they symbolise is based on the society at the time of filming, Night Of The Living Dead was about racism, Dawn Of The Dead was about rampant consumerism, Day Of The Dead was about class, etc. When Romero remade Dawn Of The Dead the zombies ran and this was to represent the aggression in society caused by terrorism and the war in Iraq (trust me it works) So I can forgive Romero for that and I have nothing but respect for him as a film maker, but what does this have to do with the actual question? Well the argument is often made that we fear zombies because we fear the loss of our identity and individuality, when we’re infected we become just another part of the zombie horde and lose any trace of the person we once were. It’s a recurring theme in most zombie movies, the idea of someone saying something like “They aren’t who they once were” or “He’s not the man you loved” The point is that part of the reason we fear zombies, probably the main reason we fear them, is because they take away what it means to be us, we just become another cog in a machine completely devoid of any charm or personality.
We’d be like Piers Morgan only far more pleasant
I suppose another key reason why zombies have become so popular is because we don’t know whether to fear them or to pity them. It’s the same reason why we pity werewolves only a little less so. With werewolves there was that element of humanity to them, they transform back into human form and you can sympathize with their struggle (if the story is geared in that way) It’s a similar thing with zombies. they deserve our pity but the human element is long gone, they’re just a shell and that makes them so much more pitiable. We might find some aspect of the werewolf to sympathize with but all our pity goes to the zombie. Another point that the werewolf and the zombie have in common is this idea of body horror. Because the zombie is undead it means it can take more punishment and that gives directors a lot of good opportunity to really rip into them. Not only do you have the body horror the zombies inflict upon the humans but vice versa. This body horror concept raises two other important points. Firstly zombies are a pretty big wagon of taboo aren’t they? I mean they take both cannibalism and death and turn them on their heads. Zombies are an abomination, they go against everything we believe about death, when you die your body dies with you regardless of religion (some say the soul goes on but it’s a different thing to the body), and yet zombies are a midway between life and death and not in the semi positive way that vampires are. Zombies continue to rot, all the symptoms of death affect them and yet still they live. It’s like seeing a mangled old dog shakily walking around. It’s not right, that dog should be dead in the ground. Cannibalism is a massive part of the zombie mythos, people turn into zombies and start eating their neighbours, simple as. This idea of devouring one of your own kind is something that’s generally frowned upon in polite society, we like to think of ourselves as civilised, moral people and cannibalism goes against all of that. Zombies represent two of the great taboos in all of ‘polite society’. Blurring the line between life and death, and cannibalism.
The second point the body horror idea raises is the fact the zombies are really difficult to kill. Most people tend to say that you have to destroy the brain or remove the head from the body. In a way zombies are the cockroaches of horror, they tend to be a pain in the ass when in large numbers and they are difficult to kill. We fear their large numbers and the idea that whatever we do to them it just might not be enough. I think that’s a key issue. The idea that we are so outnumbered by this almost indestructible force of nameless creatures that used to be humanity. Furthermore the concept of how this infection is spread and just hat it is. If a zombie bites you then you become a zombie, that fits into body horror, but where did it originate? Most of Romero’s films tend to ignore this and dive straight into the film but most other books and movies attribute it to a major chemical or nuclear accident. This appeals to a deeply rooted fear of modern society and that’s the idea the science could kill us and that we don’t have all the control over it that we think we do. I mean just look at some of the major headlines in the last century, Sine flu, bird flu, Chernobyl, Spanish flu, the list goes on and on and it’s that idea of the virus that we have no known defence against that scares the crap out of us.
Zombies represent our phobia of losing our humanity coupled with the repulsion of two major social taboos and the fear of being completely surrounded and outnumbered as well as a hefty dose of gratuitous violence, bloodshed and just a hint of pity. Frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way.