Monday, March 11, 2013

The Cultural Significance of Zombies in Contemporary Society

It's funny how certain horror subgenres achieve prominence for periods of time.  During the 1970's Satanic possession was all the rage; in the '80's it was slasher movies; vampires had a strong resurgence a while back, and these days zombies are the new hotness.

Part of the reason for these trends is that Hollywood will jump on any bandwagon that looks likely to pay off, so all it takes is one popular film to spark a host of copycats.  But they wouldn't have become popular to begin with if they didn't appeal to the fears and insecurities of people living at that time.  So, in a way, horror trends gauge what we, as a society, fear at particular points in history.

It is widely regarded, for example, that the suite of Japanese monster movies (Godzilla et al.) reflected the fears of a society subjected to nuclear holocaust, while the popularity of alien invasion movies of the 1950's represented America's fear, at the time, of the spread of communism.  So what does the current popularity of zombie fiction say about us as a society?

I'm quite a fan of zombie fiction and cinema, and I've had them on the brain quite a lot, lately (if you'll pardon the pun).  I wait anxiously for each new episode of The Walking Dead, and I'm currently besotted with UbiSoft's recent survival horror video game, ZombiU.  Consequently, I've been spending a lot of time pondering why this subgenre has suddenly become so popular.

Zombies, in the modern context of cannibalistic undead as opposed to the classic voodoo automatons, have been around since 1968 when they were introduced by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead.  But only in the last few years have they become the popular culture phenomenon that they are today.  In other words, whatever it is that zombies represent has now achieved currency in our society - they strike a chord that they didn't before.  There's something about them, beyond the ghoulish flesh-eating, that frightens us more now than ever before.

I think that what we are currently afraid of is ourselves.  There are now more than seven billion people in the world, and the number continues to grow.  And, like a mindless horde, we consume everything in our path and leave nothing behind.  It is no coincidence that Romero set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall; it was a rather pointed critique of our consumer culture.  But this is nothing new; the human population has been growing steadily since the end of the Black Death in the fourteenth century, and it has been exploding since the 1950's.  What is new is that we are finally beginning to experience the repercussions of growth: our resources are being rapidly depleted, we are polluting our environment, global temperature is rising and sea levels will soon follow.  And we feel helpless to stop it.

I think helplessness is one of the most prominent themes of zombie literature.  It is positively Lovecraftian in its nihilism - perhaps more so than any other modern literature.  There is very rarely a happy ending to a zombie story.  In most of them, survivors struggle to find safety, fail, and then die.  The only exception that I can think of is Max Brooks' World War Z, which is writtten as an after-action report at the end of the zombie apocalypse when civilization is rebuilding.  Most zombie stories don't have such happy endings.  Among the most disheartening is The Rising by Brian Keene, in which a large-hadron collider accident tears a hole in reality allowing demonic spirits to possess the bodies of the dead.  They are infinite in number and have only one purpose: to create more hosts for their limitless brethren to inhabit.  Likewise, in Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, every person on Earth is infected with the virus and when someone dies, by any cause, they rise as a zombie.  In both of these scenarios there is no hope of eventual victory.  Mankind is ultimately doomed.

Even in Night of the Living Dead, where the zombie infestation was short-lived - the product of radiation from a passing asteroid - the protagonists all died.  The one man to live through the night was mistaken for a zombie and shot by the clean up crew.

Like any other fad, zombie literature will soon reach its zenith, if it hasn't already, and will fade into the background.  But, for the time being it allows us to confront the likelihood of human extinction - probably at our own hands - and somehow come to terms with it.