It’s 2018. That means we’re 16 years into the pop culture zombie explosion that began (more or less) with 2002’s 28 Days Later. When you look at the various creatures that populate horror fiction, the zombie was barely crawling out of its infancy when it finally started clawing its way to the top of the popularity food chain. The zombie as we know it now was just hitting 34 years of age since its birth in Night of the Living Dead. Sure, we had the voodoo zombie for years before that, and, sure, an argument can be made that the ghouls of Night of the Living Dead were largely built on the blueprint of what came before them in both the form of the classic voodoo zombie and the tweaks to the concept found in Plan 9 from Outer Space and Invisible Invaders. You can even argue, as I have pointed out in the past, that the “zombie” of NotLD was largely just the hungry dead of ancient legend. But, hey, let’s face facts. The thing we now think of as the zombie was basically birthed in 1968 by George Romero.
Throughout the first 34 years of the modern zombie’s life, they had several flirtations with pop culture conquest. Night of the Living Dead became something of a modern classic of the genre due in part to its public domain status making it a cheap movie for television stations and theaters to show as a form of Halloween tradition. 1985 gave us Romero’s Day of the Dead and, maybe more important and certainly more influential, Return of the Living Dead. For a time in the mid 1980s the zombie seemed poised to take that next step. For some reason though, it just never could do it. Sure, the zombie had acquired a slightly above cult status following in the horror genre, but it just couldn’t seem to break that glass ceiling.
Certainly the flood of poorly thought out, low budget fare hitting video shelves and late night cable stations didn’t help. It might have been hard to get traction with casual or mainstream movie fans when they would walk into a video store and face grabbing a bad movie vs. a good movie with roughly 20 to 1 odds. Hearing talk around the water cooler about how great the latest wave of zombie films were and picking up Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 at your local Erol’s Video Club could probably get someone to wonder about the good taste (and sanity) of their coworkers. Heaven help them if they picked up something like Night of the Seagulls thanks to the cool cover art.
So our favorite flesh eaters stumbled and faltered at their attempts to reach the brass ring for a few more years before their golden age arrived. It’s hard to say just what it was that set off the zombie craze like never before. Many people cite the triple play of 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, and Romero’s return to better known pop culture icon status due to the buzz around Land of the Dead. A certain little English zombie romcom is also thrown into that mix by some. The numbers don’t quite back that up, but there’s no denying that the ball we see bouncing around today started rolling back then.
In less than a decade’s time since those films hit theaters, the zombie finally went mainstream in a big way. We saw art house zombie films being made, high profile actors were looking into getting their own zombie properties, and even the best seller lists were seeing the hungry dead crawling up their charts. Oh, yeah, and then there was some little show on AMC that started setting cable viewing records.
As the latest season of that little show, The Walking Dead, gets under way, we’re seeing the zombie literally everywhere and playing around with every subgenre that can be wedged into the zombie concept. So, of course, the talk began some time back that the zombie was done. The zombie has peaked and the inevitable oversaturation point has come and gone. Hell, we’re getting buddy cop procedural comedies with zombies. That had to spell the end. Now was the time of the decline, and the zombie, much to the delight of those who never liked the zombie all that much anyhow, was finally going to dry up and go away for good.
Well, not so fast.
While the explosion of anything and everything zombie will inevitably lead to some pop culture burnout and the collapse of many of the third and fourth rate zombie materials out there, the zombie isn’t going anywhere. More than just not going anywhere, the zombie is here to stay and, very likely, here to stay in some noticeable levels of force. Here’s why.
A good friend of mine likes to say that what separates good zombie materials from bad zombie materials is the fundamental understanding of what zombies are. Good zombie stories, following the Romero model to a degree, are about the people. The focus is what happens when you put people into a pressure cooker and watch them interact and clash. Then of course you also throw in the occasional zombie attack just for good gory measure. But, in his estimation of things, the zombie itself is the background of the story. Zombies could actually be simply a force of nature like a deadly storm or a natural cataclysmic event.
I don’t necessarily disagree. You do tend to want to focus on the humanity in a story since that’s where your relatable moments for the audience come from, but I think that description does tend to occasionally devalue the zombie. If the zombie is merely an amped up horror substitute for a force of nature, then it can be replaced by an actual amped up horror based force of nature. If this was all there was to it, and much talk about the subject matter is that it is, then the zombie “virus” could be replaced in a story with a mutated strain of rabies, and the zombie could be replaced with every animal, lizard, bird, and insect around our humans and zero really changes.
Thing is, zombies aren’t quite that interchangeable with forces of nature. For that matter, zombies aren’t even that interchangeable with other popular horror creatures. They have a quality that is somewhat unique, and, certainly when used right, it makes the zombie both a fairly unique horror monster and one that strikes a very specific chord in the fear centers of the audience that other horror constructs miss.
The zombies are us. Yeah, I know. We hear that one thrown around a lot. Thing is, a lot of the times that you see that thrown around it’s in something that’s merely parroting the saying without understanding it or using the principles behind it.
Almost every horror creation kills you. Were-beasts, slashers, lake monsters, killer sea creatures, animals gone mad, the freaks of science, alien monsters, and giant kaiju will all kill you. Zombies will kill you as well, so on that level they’re all the same. But what separates the zombie from the rest of the horror pack is where it comes time for you to try to kill them.
The zombies are us. Or, more precisely, if you’re the living guy in the newly forming world of the dead, they’re everyone that you know. One of the most horrifying concepts of the zombie is not the fact that any old fill-in-the-blank monster is trying to kill you. No, the horrifying bit is you having to kill them, and, certainly initially, all of them being the people you knew and loved a short time earlier. The zombies are not faceless, nameless creatures who just show up out of the blue. The zombies are not the local wildlife gone crazed. They’re your mother, your father, your wife, your husband, your children, your parents, your friends, your neighbors, and the people you know from work. The faces of the things trying to kill you are the faces of the people you know and love.
To really understand the horror in some of that, I point to Night of the Living Dead as both an example of the concept and an explanation as to why even a zombie film as old as NotLD can be to a degree evergreen. The example was in the basement of the house.
You have a mother who is worried about her child. The child is sick, maybe dying, but she’s doing whatever she can for the child she loves. Eventually the child dies, but, with this being a zombie film it comes back to life and kills the mother.
The concept for the scene was pretty horrific. A child returns from the dead, stabs its own mother to death, and is later found feeding on her. The intelligent part of the filmmaking with this scene is that it’s not dumbed down for the audience. You go from the killing scene to the (relative) normalcy upstairs. You don’t fast cut to something else big happening, so the scene has time to breath and linger in your thoughts. You also never get a scene filled with dumbed down exposition where a character spells out why exactly you should think this is as particularly horrific as it is.
This means that the scene can grow in meaning and in levels of horror as some of the viewers grow. I first saw that film when I was (I think) eleven. At that time, that was just a scene that scared the piss out of me, but it was no different than the way any scene in a low grade slasher film might scare me. By the time I’d hit my twenties, I’d grown and (sort of) matured, and the scene took on a new meaning. I understood, if only on an academic level, the additional layer of horror in the scene. I was able to better recognize the greater horror concept in the relation of the child killing its mother.
Fast forward a decade-plus. I was married and I had kids. Something I only understood on an academic level was now something that was a part of my daily life. Every morning after I woke up I was greeted with first one and later two small children that looked up at me with eyes filled with intelligence, recognition, and love like no other beings looked at me with. That just made the scene even more hellishly horrific in my mind the next time I saw it.
Imagine being the mother. You know what that look is, and you want to see it there. While the thing that’s walking up to kill you has the face and eyes that always held that look, they’re dead, blank, and empty. The thing you most want to see, need to see, isn’t there, and the face of your child completely absent of that look is the last thing you see as it kills you.
The true horror of the zombie isn’t them wanting to kill you; it’s you having to “kill” the people you know and love likely over and over and over again in order to survive. The horror is in the concept of finding out if you can even do that and what doing that can do to you in the end.
And then as things move along you can add in the whole pressure cooker concept on top of that.
That’s really not something that any other horror creation can claim. The two closest concepts would be the vampire or the alien invasion scenario as seen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Yeah, you still have the faces of the people you know, but the problem is that they’ve usually got brains and open their mouths a lot. The problem with talkative evil vampires or alien duplicates is that they tend to talk their way into you disliking them while showing you that they’re absolutely not who they look like. The problem with smart vampires or alien duplicates with a sense of self control is that, well, they really are just everyone else. It’s the reason the television show iZombie makes a great comedy, but the horror aspect is so often missing or weak. Smart talking horror critters with a sense of self-control are your safe to hang with roommates, and the evil ones are still pretty much just the jackasses living down the street that they always were.
Smart creators (or lucky ones) will tap into the things that make the zombie both horrific and unique among the creatures of the night when telling their stories. Audiences will consciously or unconsciously pick up on that. It’s something that will keep the better classics of the zombie genre fresh for newer generations, and it’s something that will make the zombie itself stand out from the majority of the pack as newer generations of horror fans come along.
Now, that’s not saying that zombies are going to stay as seemingly dominant in the popular culture horror food chain as they are right now. They won’t be for the simple reason that nothing can remain at the top forever. There are always peaks and valleys for everything. But it does mean the zombie will likely never again have a valley quite as deep as it may have once had, and it means it’s certainly not going away the way some critics of the genre are hoping it does.
Between the things that make the zombie truly and utterly horrific and the accepted versatility in the uses for the zombie concepts, the zombie is proving itself to be one of those select few horror icons that has the potential to be evergreen. So when you see the next article, the next social media post, or the next convention panel asking the question of whether or not the zombie has hit the point where it’s doomed to fade away and disappear- Tell ‘em the answer is no.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He’s a former contributor to Needless Things and Gruesome Magazine and occasionally remembers to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.