Why We Watch Zombie Movies
A quick look at the psychology of the grossest genre
Zombie movies take off from time to time and then they fall by the wayside. They never quite vanish though and there always seems to be a “zombie resurgence”. I’m going to look at why that is and what it means. This is, of course, all bullshit that I came up with on the spot, because I write zombies books.
Where Zombie Movies Came From
Before 1968 the zombie movie as we know of it didn’t even exist. Night of the Living Dead was a low budget movie that came out of nowhere. It was panned by critics and derided by anyone who was serious about cinema. It also changed movies forever.
After Night of the Living Dead became the cultural force it became a lot of people started copying it. The idea was compelling, the recently dead coming back to life to consume the living. There was so much you could do with it, so many stories you could make work. Also, it meant you could make really, really gross things happen!
The Allure for Filmmakers
The budget could be low. You were doing a creature feature, but a creature feature that was cheap as hell. Your monsters just needed makeup and you didn’t have to pay actual actors. No animatronics, no stop-motion. Zombie movies gave you something new, a monster movie with the budget of a drama or less.
Then there was the whole thing around social issues. Zombie movies quickly became metaphors. A lot of early zombie movies (and some more recent ones) come from a very political place. There was a casting decision in Night of the Living Dead that resulted in it being seen as a rallying cry for the civil rights movement. Progressive politics started showing up right away.
In some ways that’s a natural thing. The possibility of making government malfeasance responsible for the rise of the undead is obviously an easy sell. There are so many other metaphors that can be worked in as well, from consumerism (the zombies are literally consuming humanity to death) to isolation. It’s one of the most flexible genres after science fiction.
In my own stories (novels) I am starting to play with noir themes, adventure themes, military themes, etc.
The Allure for the Audience
We are drawn to gross things. It’s a natural part of humanity. Not all of us of course, but enough of us that the zombie genre isn’t going to die anytime soon. That’s obviously a big one. We are drawn to destruction, to fright, so that’s in there too… but here’s a huge one. The zombies are a threat you can kill with impunity. It’s violence that is always justified. Not only was this thing trying to kill our heroes, but it wasn’t even alive to begin with. Clearly shooting it in the head is justified.
We can present moral quandaries too. A parent might be forced to shoot their own child, but that parent isn’t a bad person. They didn’t just kill their own kid, instead, they destroyed the thing that looked like their kid.
The Underlying Fear
Zombies have a natural fear because they are dead things trying to kill you, but that’s not the core. The core is that they are the entire world turned to a threat. Our neighbours, our friends, the whole of society is now out to kill us. Vampires have, at times, represented the fear of disease, the fear of immigrants, the fear of sex — zombies always represent the fear of our fellow man.
There is something ingrained in us that fears the crowd, the nameless, faceless other. Zombies are that. They are the outgrowth of our feelings of alienation and isolation. The stronger alienation and isolation grow in society the more popular zombie movies are.
Right now they are at a bit of a low point — I believe that is because the jingoistic attitudes in the US are fueling more fear of the foreign. We don’t really have a monster for that anymore since vampires got all sexy and glittery. I have noticed a strong uptick in alien invasions though.
What it all Means
I don’t know. All I know is that the next zombie resurgence might be next year, it might be in five years. It will happen when people feel isolated and alienated. Less picking camps and more not wanting to go outside. When it does I will probably sell more books ;-)