Why Write Zombies?

Mfitz in the comments says:

I don’t get the appeal of zombies.

It’s a weird twist for me, I didn’t use to like them, but I started researching and watching them all for a story I was doing and ended up getting hooked on them.

Why zombies work:

1) guilt free action/adventure mass killing and gore (cuz they’re not really human beings, right?) [the audience’s fave moment in a zombie movie is when that asshole get’s bitten, and then he turns into a zombie, and the hero gets to say ‘it’s okay, I got this one’]

2) zombies are often a stand in for societal parallels/fears:

a) early zombies are foreign and made by foreign magic (work as a metaphor for an ‘invasion’ of foreigners and racial fears of 30s and 40s America)

b) later zombie movies tweak social worries about consumerism (shopping mall locales, work locations etc)

c) even later zombie movies ding large corporations or scientists for creating drugs or viruses that infect us, playing on fears that multinational corps or gov’ts make us zombies with their mistakes, showing how we’re merciless at their hands

The deeper I dig the more interesting zombie fiction is as a mirror held up to what people are tussling with in regards to the outer world as a whole.

One of the reasons I love SF isn’t for its predictive abilities, but it’s abilities to explore current social issues with some of the automatic baggage hidden or removed in order to play with the ideas. Zombie fiction often seems to, even unintentionally, play to that. So every time I watch a zombie movie, I’m always looking for the unintentional (or may intentional) social criticism in it.

But above and beyond that, zombie movies bring in post-apocalyptic and survivalist settings as well. And what I like about them is that they reject the survivalist wet dreams about grabbing a gun and shaking off the annoying liberal restraints on society that Real Men ™ are shackled by. In a zombie movie your best bet for survival is to connect with survivors and form a band of humanity that each has skills necessary to the group’s survival. Yes there will be killing and gore and a hero, but there is usually a need to create a small civilization in order to move on.

Zombie movies always come down to thinking about what makes civilization and what drags it down, and while they have different answers, it always interesting.

That and there’s the titillation of a high body count, gore, and freakishness, no matter how you look at it. No denying that.

Still, there is this element of transcending the gore with those large mirror questions/thoughts/comments on civilization that get me drawn into a good zombie flick.

16 thoughts on “Why Write Zombies?”

  1. I agree, although for me, the social commentary aspect of a good zombie movie comes at the top of the list. Last year, inspired by Shaun of the Dead, I went back and watched the original Romero trilogy again and was really impressed at how much of the original Vietnam and consumer culture themes still stand out.
    One other point is that, in most cases, the zombies aren’t a problem. Sure, get too close and they’ll eat you, but it seems possible to live in relatively close proximity to them, long as you have a good place to hide and don’t get too cocky. It’s always the humans getting careless or being attacked by fellow humans that *really* brings everything down.

  2. The original Romero does stand up extremely well.
    And good point about zombies not being the big problem, yeah, you’re right 🙂

  3. Well, Romero really transformed the Zombie flick. I mean, the older stuff (like Hammer’s Zombie films) didn’t have quite the madness, the chaos. And didn’t have that post-apocalytpic feeling. In fact, I think Romero was more inspired by Matheson’s I am Legend than anything else (esp since at the start of the book the vampires hadn’t evolved yet, and they were just shambling screaming hungry creatures).
    The first Romero flick is still my favorite. A brutal display of racial tensions that exist(ed) (and still exists, but more covertly) in America. The ending is truly poignant.
    And yeah, the humans are the real enemies. Esp in Dawn of the Dead (or was it Day of the Dead? The one where they were in a mall), when they were perfectly happy and safe until the Biker’s came in. Which was probably one of the best scenes in Zombie films of all time. Bikers splattering zombies in the faces with pies? Brilliant.

  4. I agree with the pro-Romero sentiment, although I wasn’t terribly impressed with “Day” or “Land.” “Night” was practically flawless. “Dawn” began with a tremendous feeling of dread and decay, looped into something a little too whacky (pie fights?) and pulled it back again at the end. For me, “Dawn” was the peak of using the rise of zombies as a metaphor for society. “Day” and “Land” were too hamfisted for my taste.
    A director shouldn’t have to shout “see, look, we’re worse than them” to get my attention, especially at the expense of realism. “Day,” for example, portrayed scientists and the military in a way only a CMU film student could, which took me right out of the film. “Land” was just silly, even aside from the zombie unionists. The first thing I’d do when the apocolypse comes is toss Dennis Hopper down a well.
    Max Brooks “WWZ” nailed it for me, though. It felt more realistic and that much more horrible. I just re-read it and I still get shudders picturing a shambling corpse wearing a torn Baby Bjorn. However, you could have taken the zombies out of the book and it would still read like a plausible story of society’s response to an emerging crisis: Denial, Panic, Breakdown, Rebirth of a changed world.
    I re-read that book this past week and I’ll be damned if I don’t check for Zombies when I head out to the gym in the early a.m. I hear Brad Pitt’s company bough the film rights to the book. Damn shame, actually, it would have made a great limited series on HBO or Showtime. Brooks, if you’re out there somewhere, I need some more vignettes of of the Great Panic…it sends me shivering.
    Whoa, didn’t mean to go on for so long. Sorry.

  5. Greg, welcome to tb.com, and good points.
    I really need to read WWZ, it’s on my ‘treat myself’ list!

  6. Thanks for the personal greeting, Tobias. And good marketing move, now I’m obliged to pick up that copy of Crystal Rain I’ve been eying at the bookstore.

  7. OK, guys I’ll give you all those points, but I still personally don’t get why people LIKE zombies.
    I have a really low creep out point and just thinking about zomies trips it. I’m never going to be able to watch enough of any of those movies to get to the social commentary. I couldn’t even watch the Time Warner Movie on Demand trailer of the recent zombie movie re-make without having nightmares. The Borg on Star Trek had the same effect on me.
    I’m sure that’s some sort of horrible psychological tell.

  8. Greg: there’s a bookstore with Crystal Rain? Whoever it is, thank them for keeping it on their shelves for so long! 🙂

  9. Very cool. I had never heard of that theory before. Oddly, that idea is a plot point on something I’m writing just now. Talk about synchronicity. I have often though things that are just a little bit alien are harder to deal with than things that are outright strange. I hate when find out someone else has already worked out what I thought was an original idea.
    About the zombies, they are just icky. All that rot and ooze, and the smell!
    If the Borg were so evolved they whould know that when you are that pale a little black pleather goes a long way. Didn’t they assimilate anyone with as fashion sense?

  10. Well, they’re scarier if they dress funny. My working argument is that the Borg concept is actually a techno-democracy, and that we’re becoming the Borg, and it’s actually a *good* thing, it just looks scary from the outside because realtime neurally enabled voting is eerie 🙂
    Cool about the uncanny thing. It’s why cute robots like the Roomba are easier for us to accept, whereas humanoid robots just wig us out 🙂

  11. Zombies, FTW!
    Mfitz, I have the opposite reaction. I loooove the gore. I suppose it’s the titillation that Tobias mentions. I respond very strongly to the social commentary aspects of zombie movies, and I might not be able to watch them if it weren’t for that (I really don’t enjoy other types of regular gory flicks as much as zombie flicks), but the gore is like icing on the cake. A very red and meaty icing:) I like the realistic stuff, the unintentionally non-realistic and cheesy stuff, and the intentional non-realistic and cheesy stuff, for the most part.
    Wow, I just realized that I haven’t watched Romero’s films in like seven or eight years. Time for a zombie weekend marathon.
    Tobias, just finished Crystal Rain about two weeks ago, btw. Loved it. Thanks for a great read.

  12. Hey, to follow up, I finally picked up the copy of Crystal Rain. It sat in a bookstore display window for months, taunting me as I made my way to the train each afternoon.

  13. Well, you’re officially a Welcomed Member ™ of the blog 😉
    Thanks for snagging a copy. Was it a chain bookstore or indy? I’m curious who has a copy this late in the game, I’m still impressed!

  14. I think it was one of those mall chain type things in Philly’s Gallery Mall.
    The place is somewhat neglected (in Philly, we call that “charm”), but I’m frequently shocked, in a pleasant way, by their selection. I plan to read it on my flight to LA next week.

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