I feel like zombies have been escalating in popularity in recent years, with our undead infatuation reaching an all-time high during 2010. Video games have seen a recent explosion in zombie population, with bundles of additional brain-munching content released for everything from the western-themed action game Red Dead Redemption to arcade beat-em-up Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Television and film have recently seen an undead uprising of sorts, and most of it has been well-received by the general public; popular mini-series Walking Dead basically came out of nowhere and lured millions of Americans to their TV sets every week, and Romero’s “of the Dead” series has seen a new release as well as several imitators. As a long-time gamer and fan of science fiction, I have noticed this sudden escalation in the marketability of reanimated corpses and I’m prompted to wonder: why is now the time for zombies to invade our media and literature? What constituents of human psyche incline us to fall in love with hating the undead? Why are those who are typically avert to horror and science fiction suddenly buying in like the nerd kingdom has been for decades? Let's explore a few possibilities...
The theme of good vs. evil is common themes in literature, films, and gaming alike, and there is a reason for this: everybody loves it. Popular book series like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, countless successful films, and just about all video games feature (or attempt to feature) protagonists with whom we can relate conquering a clearly-defined and unambiguous evil force. The nature of a zombie is an animal and vile character, one who isn’t responsible for his own conduct. A zombie is a model of the behavior that follows the lifestyle whose only urges and inclinations spawn from primal instinct. A zombie is human only in physiology; in psychology it is an animal. An animal whose sole drive is to prey upon our kind, our race, our friends and families must be evil, as their existence directly relates to our demise. With such a clear-cut conflict of interests at hand, no ambiguity is present to smear the boundaries of morality. Reality rarely hands us a situation in which the decision-making process is so simple, so we love zombies because so little deliberation is involved in choosing one’s alliance. Americans are faced with an unpopular war in Afghanistan and Iraq every time we read the paper or watch the news, every voting year politicians appeal to us on very confounding issues like abortion, gay marriage, and death penalty. The ability to participate in fighting off a ravenous zombie horde in a video game is a welcome and mentally relaxing break from confronting issues that plague our news outlets with moral dilemmas and a lack of resolve.
Another popular theme in storytelling is the conquering of great obstacles. Popular films and video games often feature a lone hero or a small group of protagonists fighting a losing battle against a foe whose alliance and resources far outnumber those of our hero. We connect with these themes as a race because everybody is fighting an uphill battle in their life; no matter the age or the circumstance. From paying bills and feeding children to making tryouts and passing exams, everybody struggles. Zombies, when they invade, may start out small in number but eventually grow to greatly outnumber those whose minds are still their own. Whether the cause is a ravenous contagion or a necromancer’s influence, zombies are always present in high quantities. An infinite horde of zombies in a work of fiction is a superb stand-in for the infinite pressure of reality, and the capacity to witness or participate in the defeat, or at least management, such an intimidating threat delivers some satisfaction and hope that relates to our own lives.
Fighting and killing is an innate part of human nature. The rampant success of violence in all forms of media exemplifies, if not proves, this point. Violence is a rarity in the day-to-day activities of the working class just about anywhere one could inquire to look. The lack of violence in our lives means that our innermost urges for bloodlust go unsatisfied, as our meat is purchased at a store and not hunted down, national defense institutions replace the need for self-defense, and rivalries are settled with competitions of wit and skill, rather than strength and sleight of hand. An important remark is that the fantastical killing of humans carries much different implications than the fantastical killing of animals, aliens, and other non-humanoid creations. For two instances, the Call of Duty video game franchise is very appealing to the consumer at large because the antagonists are human figures, not aliens or mutants, and additionally, the vast majority of action movies pit a human antagonist against a human protagonist. When a zombie is an antagonist in a plot, it carries the dissociation of an animal that allows us to witness its destruction with little or no conscientious objection, while retaining the humanoid familiarity that permits a satisfaction of primal inclinations. Mowing down rows upon rows of zombies in Valve’s Left for Dead games, or watching mountains of limbs and gore pile up in a round of Call of Duty’s zombie-themed game mode quenches our thirst for blood. Guilt takes a day off from the human heart while we deter waves of zombies because zombies do not suffer as we do; zombies have no feelings, no shame, no regret, and no sense of loss or abandonment. This is to say that, although zombies share a great many resemblances to us, we have no capacity to feel compassion and pity for them as we witness their dismemberment.
Science fiction’s appeal is in its first word: science. Works of science fiction are commonly based on real speculations and theories. From what I've seen and read in modern sci-fi,a common vector to incur zombification is a virus; a big wad of DNA and protein that replicates using host mechanisms, and then spreads from the host to other victims and repeats the process. Viruses have been known to cause alternative and inexplicable behaviors in some hosts, though these symptoms are more the exception than the norm. However, from this anomaly stems the speculation: what if?? What if a virus could alter human behavior? Can a person really be behaviorally altered to the point that they would mindlessly and unobjectionably harm those around them, even their loved ones? Capcom’s long-standing Resident Evil franchise and blockbuster movie I Am Legend are just two of the examples of fiction whose plots stem from medical experiments gone awry. The catalyst for the zombification of Resident Evil's Raccoon City is the fictitious T-Virus, while I Am Legend implores the use of the measles virus to cure cancer, and these realistic roots carry dreadful implications that prey upon our fears.
The last of the reasons for the zombie invasion of 2010, but certainly not the least, is buzz. A cult classic like Dawn of the Dead will, as cult classics often do, inspire a handful of imitators. If the formula proves successful and marketable, more producers and directors will follow suit in the hope of making a buck or two. It may have been a slow roll since Night of the Living Dead frightened moviegoers in the 1960’s, but the snowball effect is in full tilt, and shows no signs of losing momentum. Additionally, America’s fascination with other myth creatures opened our minds to unusual mediums of storytelling, specifically the more romantic, but just as fictitious, vampires. Many may hate to face it, but the rampant success of the Twilight series of books and movies, along with their often fanatical preteen demographic, set the stage for this year’s full-scale zombie invasion.
Is America’s reanimated romance a by-product of a pressured populace, feeling the effects of a slow economy? Are our bloodthirsty battlements just a flesh-eating façade for fulfilling fantasies? Is film’s corpse-fueled coup of film and television an indication for injurious infatuation? Perhaps this fermented phenomenon is a combination of all or some parts? Let me know in the comments, or add me as a friend on Facebook!!