The planet has been overrun with zombies. No, it isn’t the zombie apocalypse, and no, it isn’t some bizarre rage disease descending upon us. It’s just that over the past few years, zombies seem to have hit on that rare global commodity called zeitgeist, and the “infection” continues to spread unabated — to the great delight of sci-fi and horror fans worldwide.
When George Romero wrought his iconic zombie that was heard ‘round the world, he noted that, “Zombies don’t represent anything in my mind except a global change of some kind. And the stories are about how people respond or fail to respond to this.”
The zombies of Romero’s B-classic Night of the Living Dead bear little resemblance to the folkloric voodoo zombie of the Haitian religion. And although you might think that zombies more properly belong filed under the “horror” genre, their very existence in pop culture is a response to science and technology gone awry, or beyond our ability to understand it. The unknowns of space exploration and the cold war of Romero’s 1960s or the potential for biological and chemical warfare (and our fear of superbugs evolving from our overuse of antibiotics) of the 21st Century have spawned scores of the cinematic and literary undead.
Ambling and shambling slow-movers feasting on brains (Night of the Living Dead and its numerous offspring, including comic grandchildren like Shaun of the Dead) or sprinting living “infected” with a mysterious virus, and changed the instant they share bodily fluids of any sort (28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, Zombieland), zombies have become the go-to metaphor for all our social angst and anxieties.
Long before Night of the Living Dead (1968), the 1951 novel Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham) hit upon many themes that traverse contemporary zombie stories. Although his story is about man-eating plants, and not man-eating men, in Triffids (later made into movie, radio and television programs), the root cause of the problems comes from our own hubris with science and technology – and given the time of its writing, the Cold War. Like any zombie apocalypse story, Triffids explores not only the trigger, but also the effect of our own greed and inability to see beyond the personal self-interest.
Want to dig your teeth (metaphorically speaking) into a good zombie story, but don’t know where to begin? Start here:
Night of the Living Dead (1968) – George Romero’s classic that started the still-impenetrable zombie rage. It was remade in 1990, but the original, shot in retro black and white is in a zombie-league of its own. The rising of the very hungry dead is triggered by explorations into the void of outer space. In 1968, as we upped our ante in the space race by landing on the moon, it is little wonder that (in fiction) we would return something that threatens our very existence. But Living Dead is about so much more: prejudices, a changing world, and generational conflict.
28 Days Later (2002) – Danny Boyle’s frightening account of a virus gone wild and turning Londoners into enraged cannibals is a social commentary on the tendency in this new century to rage of all sorts: road rage, airport rage, gun rage, etc. His quick, deadly living zombies – “the infected” – are a departure from the Romero risen-from-the-dead archetype. A breathtaking early scene in the sequel 28 Weeks Later (after the virus had supposedly been repressed) features a survivor running for his life across a huge field with the zombies in hot pursuit. So quick they nearly overtake the man (but he escapes – only barely).
Comedy your thing? Go for Zombieland (2009) and Shaun of the Dead (2004). Shaun is more outright comedy, but Zombieland has plenty of humor, including a gun-wielding survivor (Woody Harrelson with a thing for Twinkies).
Television is the place for long-form storytelling these days, and The Walking Dead, based on Robert Kirkman’s critically acclaimed graphic novel series (also highly recommended) tells the story of the zombie apocalypse in a near-future United States. Like much of 21st Century sci-fi and very much in keeping with classic zombie stories, The Walking Dead is as much a cautionary tale about government, technology and our own humanity as it is a thrilling, frightening sci-fi story.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (the book, not the movie) is Max Brook’s follow on to the hugely successful (and satirical) Zombie Survival Guide. World War Z takes the personal accounts of survival 10 years after the zombie apocalypse and is narrated by the fictitious United Nations Postwar Commission. The movie starring Brad Pitt (2013) takes but one narrative. Nowhere as effective or chilling as the book, I recommend you read the book and skip the movie!
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of zombie novels, graphic novels, and collections of short stories ranging from the terrifying to the silly to the sexy and sassy (and downright odd like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame Smith, which I loved – and I think you can figure out what it’s about!)
The Zombie Apocalypse: it is the genre du jour, it seems, for escaping from the travails of our troubled times whether in film, TV or on the printed (or digital) page. The world might be going to hell, but at least no one’s ambling (or shambling or running) to devour your brains. Not yet.