Note: For the counterpoint to the argument that zombies are good horror monsters, check out Gwen’s piece on Wednesday!
For the past decade, zombies have been experiencing a pop culture resurgence. Because they are instantly identifiable horror monsters, it isn’t at all uncommon to hear the gripe that zombies aren’t really all that scary. This, my friends, is utter nonsense. Zombies have style, substance and a penchant for ripping victims wide open. What more could a horror fan want?
Death by Zombie is Brutal
Scenes of carnage in most American zombie narratives make it clear that death by zombie is utterly brutal. In Shaun of the Dead (2004), David is ripped open in horrifically gory detail as he screams in terror. It is a scene that is as bloody and visceral as any you’re likely to find in slasher horror. City of the Living Dead (1980) ups the gross factor when Rose is killed as she is forced to vomit uncontrollably. As both of these cases demonstrate, the assumption that zombies pose no real threat is a misplaced one. Sure, they often (but not always) are slow moving but their tendency to move in groups increases their threat value. And when they catch you, it is guaranteed not to be pretty.
Unlike vampires whose bloodletting is normally obscured by their mouths and who hypnotize their victims prior to death, zombies are a particularly violent breed of monster. There is a knowledge on the part of zombie victims that only increases the horror experienced by the audience, because the victims’ terror is not pacified or obscured in any way. Because zombies require the spectacle of the grotesque for their very survival, specifically the consumption of flesh culled from the living, they evoke an elevated sense of brutality. And yet, there is absolutely nothing personal about the zombie mission to kill. Because they are motivated strictly by need, zombies are especially dangerous: there exists zero hope of being able to appeal to reason.
Political Assessment/Social Fears
Ranging from an indictment of capitalism in Dawn of the Dead (1978) to a treatise on the dangers of becoming detached from humanity in Warm Bodies (2013), zombies provide an access point into broader conversations about the world in which we live. The monstrosity of zombies is uniquely tied to the political in American cinema. From serving to critique Vietnam in Night of the Living Dead to indicting the war in Iraq in Homecoming, zombie films have traditionally helped to create clear categories of “otherness” while simultaneously dismantling the fear inherent in the label. As a metaphor for our cultural fears, zombies provide a unique vehicle for examining social structures and belief systems. They add gravitas to a genre that is often written off as the fleeting obsession of the young, while also representing the decay and perversion that makes horror so appealing to fans.
Zombies are also especially useful in understanding the fears and phobias of the time in which a film is made. For example, 28 Days Later taps into concerns over biological warfare that studies show are of particular interest to millennials. It is also no coincidence that the number of zombie narratives tends to increase in the aftermath of events that shake public trust in authority. With the world economy in disarray, political institutions under scrutiny, and the environment in tatters, many people get the sense that societal breakdown is inevitable. Zombies provide an effective way of seeing the chaos that results when society breaks down, while also providing hope that with enough foresight and luck, it is possible to survive.
Fear of Becoming
Death is an inescapable fact of life and one that zombie narratives continually emphasize. As decayed and rotting bodies tap into an American cultural assessment that equates physical ugliness with monstrosity, zombies visually represent to us our inevitable future. Other monsters in horror such as vampires, werewolves and mermen rely upon an element of the supernatural, placing these monsters in a safe space away from our own experiences: there is never any real possibility that humans can morph into such creatures. Becoming a serial killer, too, is outside of our realm of comprehension because those acts require an element of insanity or pathology that no person wants to think himself/herself capable of. But becoming a rotting corpse? That is our inevitable future.