No, that photo above wasn't taken at the Mac Store. This is actually a still from the "Godfather of Zombiedom" George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but it's no accident that it's reminiscent of those harrowing Black Fridays and doorbuster sales. They trudge through desolated cities aimlessly with that blank soulless stare that you get from either being bitten by the infected or staring at your computer for too long. With the release of World War Z yesterday, it got me thinking -- what is it with our obsession with zombies, from the films, shows, literary mashups, zombie walks and zombie pub crawls? What do they represent in film, and why have we chosen to love them instead of hate them?
Zombie flicks have been around for roughly 80 years with the release of Victor Halperin's White Zombie (1932). They've gone by many different names throughout history, like "the living dead," "the undead", recently "the walking dead", and as Ed Wood called them in Plan 9 from Outer Space, "ghouls". It took decades for this subgenre of horror film to become popular, and it wasn't really until Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) that a zombie film saw success at the box office. And because of this film, a lot of the foundation of the contemporary zombie flick was laid: hordes of mindless humans, either infected by a virus, spore, radiation, or bite, overtaking humanity with their insatiable appetite for destruction and human flesh.
As we know, the horror genre is made up of a bunch of moving pictures depicting and representing our greatest fears -- bringing them to the forefront that we may stop repressing them and face them head on. So, what do zombies in film symbolize in our culture? Why are we enamored with them? Here's a video from Idea Channel that offers a good possible explanation.
Film critic Robin Wood described the subject of horror as the "relationship between normality and the monster." His concept of "otherness", which he talked about in his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, describes how -- say -- the machete-wielding maniacs of slasher films from the 70s and 80s represent something foreign, and therefore scary, to the status quo:
Otherness represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with -- in one of two ways: either by rejecting and if possible annihilating it, or by rendering it safe and assimilating it, converting it as far as possible into a replica of itself.
For zombie movies, it has often been theorized and speculated that zombies are a metaphor for technology or capitalism run amok, but I think it may go deeper than that. It's not that we're terrified of what technology and capitalism can do to harm us physically, such as robots taking over the world in The Terminator or a greedy company ignoring the fact that the water is contaminated with hexavalent chromium in Erin Brockovich. It's more about what technology and capitalism can do to harm us mentally.
And this is when it becomes important to understand the evolution of a zombie movie. The zombie films of 30s, 40s, and 50s didn't depict the contemporary zombie that we see today. Back then, humans were turned into zombies by way of voodoo, potions, and spells, and usually were never reanimated corpses. Furthermore, these films were set in the islands of the Caribbean, and African and Asian countries. This signifies, to me, much like slasher movies, a fear of the "other" or the foreign was the focal point, rather than a fear of technology and capitalism.
So, let's break down the possible metaphors that zombies represent.
Too Much Technology
In Romeo's NOTLD, we see slow-moving, aimless, brainless dead people walking around searching for human flesh. These creatures represent humans that no longer have independent thought -- their focus is singular. Does this remind you of people on their cellphones?
In the last decade or so, we've seen an incredible influx of technological advancement. Like the fake quote from Albert Einstein says,
I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.
Substitute "idiots" for "zombies" and you've got a theory on zombie film. Like the video points out, technology isn't inherently bad, but the fear some of us have of it is represented in zombie films. The more we use technology, the less we use our own human abilities, and we become reliant on technology to do our human stuff -- like talking. Nowadays, my phone and computer do most of my talking for me, and I have to admit that I've gone whole days without talking to someone face to face, and once I finally venture out into the real world from the cyber world, I often feel like -- a zombie.
Also, think about what happens in a zombie apocalypse. Technology is gone. As the video suggests, the survivors resort back to more archaic ways of life: fighting with melee weapons, traveling on foot, and finding refuge in places that are isolated and free from technological influence.
Perhaps zombies represent the result of too much technology and not enough humanity -- too many Facebook comments and not enough handshakes. The day we become zombies is the day when our human empathy is replaced with mindless musings about pop culture.
Too Much Consumerism
I don't think it's an accident that zombies are driven by the need to just -- consume. It's everything that they are. The fear that consumerism is stealing our humanity is real, and fits well as a metaphor for zombies. When we see on the news a story about people getting trampled by a stampede of Black Friday shoppers, I'm sure most of us sit back in awe of the power of the human desire to consume.
Romero's Dawn of the Dead shines the light on consumerism in our culture. I mean, the characters in the film, who take refuge in the mall, wonder why the zombies are attracted there in the first place. They decide it's because the mall must've been a strong influence on them, and their instincts are leading them back there. Romero spoke at a TIFF Higher Learning event last year and said this about where he got the inspiration from to write Dawn of the Dead:
I socially knew the people that were developing the shopping mall where we shot ‘Dawn’ and it was the first shopping mall that we’d ever seen — I went out a few days before it opened and I saw all these trucks coming in with everything that Americans could ever want. I said, ‘Wow, this is like a temple to consumerism.’ And that was the thought, and that’s where the thought came from. I started to write a script that had that at its core.
We all like to be considered individuals, right? However, a lot of aspects of our life uniform us into a collection, or horde, of similar entities. We sit in traffic: we're all motorists and we all have the same expression. We go to work: we're all employees -- and if you've ever worked in an office before, you know the slow trudge. We go to the DMV: I don't even think I have to explain that one.
We've seen this in zombie films that center around some sort of disaster, whether it be a drug that has unexpected effects, a virus, or a nuclear explosion -- where the reason for the existence of zombies is an oppressive government. The way we relate to this in our culture is in our workplace. We lose our identities, in a sense, and become a nameless accumulation of bodies, much like a horde of zombies.
But, this all falls on the loss of choice. Zombies don't have a choice about whether or not they want to be zombies and eat people. They are now one of millions upon millions of mindless and disposable beings.
Why We Love Them
How could we love these diseased, oozing, probably smelly, uncanny versions of us that only want to eat our skin and ruin our lives and destroy the world? We have zombie walks, pub crawls, art, movies, TV shows, clothing -- everything. Everything is zombie now. Zombies have become so popular that we're adapting our classic novels to incorporate them!
I personally loathe zombies. Anybody who knows me knows that I can't watch anything with zombies, because of the complete and utter hopelessness of the endings -- everybody dies. Not just your favorite character, or a cute little dog, or an innocent child -- everybody. There's nowhere to run. There's nowhere to hide. You can't kill them all. What's the use of trying? Just lay down in the middle of a burning street and let them come and eat your brain.
And that got me thinking. The economy is bad, violence and crime are all over the news, and the heavy weight of our unknown futures is keeping many of us from standing up tall and proud. People are definitely struggling. Maybe we're experiencing a new level of hopelessness and faithlessness as a society, and in order to combat the negativity, we've decided that, like the old adage goes, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
To be a part of something means having a little more safety than not being a part of something. And making light of a troubling situation, which is one of the bases of the theory of comedy, helps us cope with things that make us unhappy. So, I say -- more power to you. Just, please -- for the love for all that is holy -- don't do a zombie flash mob outside my house, because I will think it's the zombie apocalypse, and I will lay down in the street crying and wait for you all to munch on my noggin.
What do you think? Why do you think we're so obsessed with zombies? What other things could explain the representation of zombies in film?