Why Do We LOVE Zombies?

I don't know about you, but I'm a big fan of zombies.  So when I found out that someone had made a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I was sold.  I was even more thrilled when I found that it was going to be released as a film in time for Valentine's Day.

I went to go see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies this opening weekend and, overall, I gotta say I enjoyed myself.  The acting was good and the combat scenes entertaining, but altogether, I personally found myself wanting a little less Pride and Prejudice and a little more zombies.

That notion might seem a little askew to some people, and I have a feeling that avid fans of Jane Austen might be entirely repulsed by the idea of adding blood and gore to one of the most beloved romances of all time.  The majority of people I know share the opinion that zombies and their genre are too grotesque and bizarre to stomach.  I know I used to be among them, until I was introduced to The Walking Dead and hopped on the shambling dead bandwagon.  I've even dealt with zombies in my own writing from time to time, such as in my NaNoWriMo book Resist, which I started back in April 2015.

But even in a world where ardent horror fans will leap to consume great television content like TWD, "zombies" have broken out as an entirely new sub-genre of horror that has steadily been peaking in popularity for the last couple of years.

The concept of "zombies" has been around since Romero's time, but only recently has the zombie burst the bubble of "the monster movie" and become its very own genre.  But what is it about zombies that we love so much?

The Uncanny Valley

You might have heard this term slung around, especially in regards to androids and AI, but the uncanny valley also plays a big part into what makes certain niches in horror so potent.  Zombies fall into this category.  The "uncanny valley" hypothesis holds that when the features of an inhuman subject move, look, or act in a human-like or natural way, it causes a natural instinct of repulsion in people.  Repulsion is a big factor playing into what makes horror work.  After all, anyone can become a zombie, and yet zombies are so clearly not human.  Our brains have a natural disposition to create meaning where it might be lacking, and so when we look at the shambling dead, we seek the humanity that obviously used to reside there, and find none.

 Although the uncanny valley acts in a way which repels an audience, within the world of fiction it can also attract.  This is where the notion of "the sublime" comes into cinema.  What we might find "sublime" in life - storms, outer space, great heights, etc. - might inspire awe, but when put into direct context, anyone would be overwhelmed by terror and repulsion.  When elements of the sublime are put into art - fiction, films, painting, etc. - it becomes attractive.  We can admire the awe of these grand, or impressive sights and concepts without actually being in any danger of them while we do so.

On the other hand, because zombies are so clearly "other" but still relatively humanoid, they make an excellent scapegoat for violence and gore in media.  You wouldn't feel bad watching Rick Grimes stick an ice pick in a zomb's eyeball.  It's not "living".  This likely plays a big component into why so many first-person shooter games feature zombies as their antagonistic force; it allows them to do more visually brutal things to their NPCs during gameplay without having to raise their maturity rating another notch.

The Character Dynamic

In recent years, in TV especially, we've seen a gradual movement away from plot-driven stories, and instead towards character-driven ones.  The dynamic that "zombie apocalypse" stories brings to cinema and television is a perfect template for these sorts of stories.  Unlike a lot of monster movies, in which the conflict mainly rides on man versus supernatural force - either vampires, werewolves, Godzilla, or anything in between - zombies come from us, and so the conflict of these stories tend to abide by more of a man versus himself kind of tale.

As many have remarked, zombies aren't that hard to kill.  Apart from the rabid, supernaturally-strong class of zomb that came out of films like 28 Days Later, the walking dead are generally slow, dumb, and frail.  They're only real advantage is in numbers.  And yet, as we know, they win in these stories, time and time again.  Or, more aptly, humanity loses, because these stories tap into the concept that whenever humanity is faced with its own extinction, it isn't the event itself which conquers us in the end, put the ways in which we sabotage ourselves.  Betrayal, greed, and amorality all start to come into play once its the end of the world.  It's these very human dynamics which take the spotlight in zombie tales, and it's a big part of the reason why people will see a zombie film, even if there are no A-List actors credited - we all know what we're in for, and we're all loving it.

The Metaphor

When George A. Romero was making Night of the Living Dead in the late sixties, there wasn't a lot of room in cinema or TV to be making bold statements about society.  Sci-fi and fantasy genres allowed creators to safely couch their opinions for the state of humanity in fantastical metaphors, without actually having to directly bring any of these criticisms up to their audience's face.  Romero's Night of the Living Dead was rife with undercurrents of these criticisms, from the disapproval of capitalistic America, to sexism, etc.  This pattern of critique still continues in the zombie genre today.

By far one of the biggest reasons zombies are still so big, especially here in America, is the same reason that dystopian has taken off - we're hungry for tales which reflect our pessimistic outlook on the world we live in.  Max Brooks, author of the acclaimed The Zombie Survival Guide which sparked the film adaptation World War Z, put it very succinctly.

“We’re living in very uncertain times.  People have a lot of anxiety about the future. They’re constantly being battered with these very scary, very global catastrophes. I think a lot of people think the system is breaking down and just like the 1970s, people need a ‘safe place’ to explore their apocalyptic worries. They can’t read stories about real plagues or nuclear war. That’s too scary. That’ll make them turn away. Zombie stories give people the opportunity to witness the end of the world they’ve been secretly wondering about while, at the same time, allowing themselves to sleep at night because the catalyst of that end is fictional.”

Put all these factors together, and you get an excellent platform for great fiction.  But if zombies still aren't your thing, or you'd consider only dipping a toe into the metaphorical pool of zombie horror, I'd recommend going to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies this month.  Or, if cinema isn't so much your style, you can't go wrong picking up Zombies vs. Unicorns by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier; if you find that the brainless dead still aren't doing it for you, and you crave something slightly more cheerful, there are plenty of other kick-ass stories in their collection about killer unicorns saving the day.

So what about you guys?  What are your favorite zombie-themed movies, shows, etc.?  Do you think the rise of the living dead is coming to its close, or has the wave of zombs only just begun?

Shai Cotten