Zombies are monsters. They will hunt you down. In packs. Tear you apart with blunt fingers. And eat your flesh.
Zombies are the stuff of nightmares. Powered by an unknowable force from the darkest of places, somewhere beyond human comprehension. They don’t stop. Even when their bones are crushed and their flesh is torn away. They don’t even flinch. You can’t reason with them or appeal to their emotions. They are empty vessels of insatiable hunger. You will lose.
The most interesting thing about zombies in fiction is how their mythos changes to reflect the fear of the times. The zombie myth addresses fears that are both inherent to the human condition and speciﬁc to the time of their resurrection.
On a basic level, zombies represent our fear of infectious disease, loss of the self, and death. On a cultural level, zombies reflect current social anxieties. It’s also interesting to note how much of this commentary is intended, and how much is interpreted.
Romero denied that he made his Living Dead films with any agenda, whether as a critique on war, or a commentary on racism or consumerist culture. On the other hand, Boyle spoke explicitly about his inspiration for 28 Days Later (2002): the exploding, inevitable rage we are all capable of when the promises of the media constantly fall dramatically short of the reality we are presented with in an overpopulated world.
The zombie as representative of an infectious disease in a globally accessible, over-populated world is probably most relatable in recent years. However, as survivalism is championed and fetishized to the point that many people now welcome such an apocalypse – to break free of modern social constraints and the inherent rage associated with them, to become a hero or champion in their own lives, to prove to themselves and the (surviving) world what they are made of, that they too can be strong – I think there is a new shift emerging in zombie fictions.
Glorification of the Zombie Apocalypse and a Reversal of Roles
By creating stronger heroes in the zombie-apocalypse world, there is a shift in roles. Instead of the humans being the victims of the zombies, the zombies are now the victims of the humans. They showered in bullets and ripped to pieces. Their skulls are crushed beneath the boot of the hero.
And slowly we are seeing the emergence of the sympathetic zombie.
Because – poor guys – zombies are people too!
Or at least they were.
And as the sympathetic zombie emerges, I think part of the true horror of the zombie myth comes back into focus, and turns full circle:
We are the monsters. Not in the moral way – the way our human evils are laid bare when the constructs of the world break down.
We are the zombies. That’s your mother, your husband, your little sister trying to eat your leg. In a moment, that could be you. You could be a rotting, mindless vessel of evil. That could be your body, with the flaps of bloodless grey skin hanging from your grinding, fractured bones as you throw yourself indiscriminately at the intoxicating pull of living flesh. Those are your fingers pulling the intestines out of that child’s belly and chewing the rubbery tissues slowly with your blunt teeth.
So what if there is a spark of consciousness inside the zombie? What if there is a cure, and the person who re-emerges remembers all the horrors they have been through? What if they are fully conscious?
Consciousness – The True Horror of the Zombie
More and more, these issues are being raised in zombie media. In Zombies Anonymous (2005), the dead retain their consciousness and are attacked as a minority group. In Colin (2008), the zombified title character wanders around violent and brain dead until he makes his way back to his girlfriend’s house (driven by ritual or a retained emotion?). Warm Bodies (novel 2010, film 2013) has a zombie protagonist who slowly regains his consciousness – thoughts, language and emotions such as love. In the Flesh (2013) is a BBC Three mini series that takes place after a cure has been issued, and follows the ordeal of conscious – yet still undead – humans being reintegrated into society. I could go on.
So what does the sympathetic zombie say about our cultural fears?
I think zombie fiction is moving more away from global horrors and focusing more on personal horrors and issues of the self. How do we define our humanity? How should we act when society breaks down? Should we always prioritise survival over morality? What happens to our morality when predefined boundaries shift? How do we treat minority groups in our own society?
These are questions we face in everyday life, to some extent. In an overpopulated, commercialised world full of deep-rooted dissatisfaction in which happiness is dangled in front of us in exchange for a fifty pound note we have no means to earn or spare; in a world where the worth of education is weighed up in pounds, and its expected prospects continuously fall short; and a world of failed democracy of corrupt leaders whose promises are as empty as our expectations; where communication and friendship is digitalised and stratigised and centred around the self rather than the true worth of an authentic connection… Questions about who we are and how we relate and respond to the world are becoming more and more complex.
So perhaps modern zombie mythos has re-focused on the fear of the loss of the self. But also, as an extension of that, the regaining of the self. How we redefine ourselves after the unimaginable happens.
So perhaps the real question is:
How do we deal with the truth of who we are?