George Romero never made a horror film...
By Matthew Gohn
Halloween approaches quicker than the zombies in 28 Days Latter..., and the horror movies and television specials are ramping up. The usual suspects are back. Dracula, vampires, werewolves, serial killers, witches, and all the other monsters and fiends are back to keep us up at night, including a terror which has dominated the horror scene in recent years, zombies.
I'll assume the named monster is one we are all familiar with and skip right to the point I wish to make. Ever since the introduction in horror cinema with the George A. Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead, there has been a never-ending horde of films and shows and comics-even classic literature has been reanimated in the name of adding a little undead flare. It appears the zombies have earned their permanent place in horror canon.
Except zombies are not a horror trope. They're an apocalyptic one.
When people think of the classic horror stories, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later..., Dawn of the Dead, or even modern comedic spins such as Shaun of the Dead or Warm Bodies, one element is there that we may overlook. In all the listed films, the zombies herald the end of the world. Below I'll list a few similarities between apocalyptic fiction and zombie fiction that I think support my observations.
Out of one, Many
Let's start with a simple look at horror scenarios. Dracula is a solo act. Vampires and werewolves are both creatures of night bound by specific rules. Serial killers typically occupy deep south or backwoods. Ghosts are typically bound to one location-the haunted house.
All the listed monsters typically are locational issues. Don't want to deal with the ghosts? Don't move into the haunted house. Do you like not being chopped up into little bits by a psycho who wears skin on his face? Don't go to Texas. The listed monsters are usually few in number and they only terrorize a certain area.
Whereas zombies are never a solo act. Zombies beget more zombies until packs of them become hordes that become armies. They are the Lay's potato chip of monsters. There's never just one. And unlike other monsters, zombies are weakest on their own or in confined spaces. Zombies are at their worst in mass. It's not a few kids in the woods being threatened. It's our cities and nations. Which brings me to my next point.
Fight Locally, Die Globally
The reason for zombie-ism varies across most depictions, but is similar among all in that it spreads like a virus. And it is that specific method of travel and growth that changes the nature of why we are scared of them. There are a few cases of ebola in our country right now and yet the viral outbreak was thousands of miles of land and ocean away. The distance doesn't matter. There is no solace to be found by running away.
World War Z, and I confess I've only seen the film and not read the book, makes my point in the title: world war. It's not just that a zombie can go anywhere, it's that millions of them go anywhere. They are an invading mass without cause who will overwhelm our armies and police forces.
When the heroes escape the monsters at the end of other horror stories, it's that's the end. Dracula is dead. The werewolf falls riddled with silver bullets. However zombie survivors merely prolong the inevitable. The adventure audiences follow may be over, but the nightmare is still present for the heroes. The zombies are our there getting exponentially bigger and stronger. They are a virus and as such spread that way showing up where we hope to be safest before we realize it. Speaking of their viral nature...
Supernatural vs. Natural
Much horror fiction has a supernatural element to it. Mummies are brought back to life from curses, witches practice witchcraft, ghosts are souls banished from death, and the power of christ will forever compel the demonic forces of Satan.
Zombies by contrast are usually the product of science gone wrong. 2013's video game and critical darling, The Last Of Us rooted its zombies in real world science. As I've previously said, the nature of zombies are believable and understandable because we've seen it happen before. Ebola is currently the disease of the month. The Black Death killed an estimated 200 million people. During the H1N1 flu scare in 2009, it's estimated that 18,000 American died. Because of the flu. Turn on the daily news and tell me the real world isn't scary. We've seen and survived our fair share of sickness and disease, but how much of that is luck?
Zombie movies paint a disease at its absolute best. For as bad as the Black Death was, we've survived it. Zombie scenarios instead show a world where the disease beat us, and that's scary because we know just how many people don't wash their hands enough.
Not only is the 'science' behind them relateable, but zombies also are scary because they're not foreign. The zombie that gets you is likely the zombie of someone you knew who died in proximity to a place you frequent. A werewolf is animalistic and strong, and that's why it's scary. Zombies look like those you may love most, and they're trying to kill you.
Now to offer a counterpoint, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes are horror films where the monsters are other people who want nothing more than to kill innocent people. These are not motivated by supernatural or scientific forces. The monsters in slasher films are people. So perhaps we should ask the following question.
What are you afraid of?
I personally don't find zombies scary. I find them threatening. I find them threatening the same way I find bears threatening. I don't lie awake at night scared of bears, but if I crossed paths with one, I'd be terrified.
Zombies movies scare us with cheap tricks such as jump scares and excessive gore. However, imagine if you were faced off 20 yards from a slow moving zombie and you had a gun in your hands. You'd feel no fear. And if you didn't have a gun, you'd run away it, just like you would a bear.
In The Walking Dead, protagonist Rick is quick to learn how to handle zombies. The worst danger is being overwhelmed by them. If you're smart and capable, you will be fine.
The true danger-that which you should truly fear in The Walking Dead-are the other survivors. Hence the season 3 tagline read "Fight the Dead, Fear the Living"
Indeed, when society collapses, as it often does in zombie scenarios, there is little to prevent not just the worst of society, but the best of society from losing control. With supplies scarce and mentalities strained, your ability to safely place trust becomes the greatest survival skill of all.
That being said, take zombies out of the picture, and put in something like an evolved strain of ebola, something that wipes out the majority of the population and cause the general downfall of civilization. Once again, this is a scenario where there is no food, no governing body providing protection, and where the nuts with guns have nobody to tell them otherwise. The scenarios are almost identical. In apocalypses, rebuilding is held back by radiation, lack of supplies and resources, or in this case, an inability to find safety necessary to rebuild.
Zombie situations beget involve global crisis. Society breaks down and humanity in these fictions devolves into a dark and sadistic shade of itself. Zombies are not the terror in zombie movies. Think of The Governor on The Walking Dead. Think of Major Henry West in 28 Days Later... Think of any time in your life when somebody disregarded the needs of others for their own personal gain.
Zombies are no supernatural menace. While science and the laws of physics give many reasons why they will never happen, they also help us visualize the circumstances where it could happen, and that's all we need-to believe that. If ever one zombie should rise, many more follow until their armies roam the globe. And that's just it, they destroy everything. This is not a creature that goes bump in the night or an entity that needs a spell to kill it. This is a plague that will shut down the world without rhyme or reason. Survivors will have more to fear from each other than the dead.
Zombies might end the world, but humans will become the monsters. After considering the differences, maybe it's time that zombies take their rightful place-not alongside monsters in horror fiction, but as catalysts for world destruction in apocalyptic fiction.
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