Why Zombie Movies Stay Popular
Recently, there have been a rash of zombie films, from serious horror films to comedies. It’s zombie this and zombie that, and everyone who can’t think of anything more original wants to make a zombie film. It’s more than just a rash; it’s a glut. But why? Why so many? Daniel Drezner says, “[T]he living dead are the perfect 21st century threat: they are not well understoon by serious analysts, they possess protean capabilities, and the challenge they pose is very grave.” This jarred my thinking loose. I realized that zombies were the perfect 21st century threat, but not for the reasons he says. It has mostly to do with video games, where you kill one faceless enemy avatar after another (video game fans: you know that the lion’s share of video games are exactly like this.) The avatars are your clear-cut enemies, they don’t have feelings, and you get rewarded for killing them. In fact, in many video games, the enemy avatars are even zombies. And in most of the zombie movies, the zombies are basically video game avatars; they’re clear-cut enemies, they don’t have feelings, and you get rewarded for killing them. Whether you’re running them over with a car, gunning them down, or bashing them with metal pipes, you’re satisfying your urge for violence in a healthy, socially acceptable way. This can work, but of course, a lot of these films are fast food and empty calories.
Needless to say, it wasn’t always this way. Zombies started out… well, ok, in the original voodoo sense, zombies were men raised from the dead to act as slaves, and they just wanted to return to their graves. There was no flesh-eating involved. But in movies, zombies started out, I think, as an expression of our fear of being dead. Not so much dying as being dead. I mean, once you die, you’re gonna be dead for the rest of your life, aren’t you? (It’s like déjà vu all over again.) And when you’re dead, you’re most likely going to spend a great dead of time decaying. Your flesh is going to rot and be perverted by bacteria. But nobody wants to see that. That’s why we whisk dead people away to the morgue as soon as they die, and when we see them again, they’ve been prettied up for their funeral, and then we put them in the ground, and we don’t see them ever again. And on those rare occasions when we do see them again — if a corpse has been exhumed for whatever reason — it tends to be deeply disturbing. If these dead were to get to their feet and start walking, well, you can just imagine. And that’s what zombie films did.
Zombie films could be satirical, too. Why do all the zombies mindlessly flock to the mall in Dawn of the Dead? Because they mindlessly flocked to the mall when they were alive. It’s embedded that deeply into us; take away our brains, and we will still go to the mall. Or perhaps going to the mall is a mindless pursuit in the first place. And of course, there are also zombie films today that use zombies to say something about human beings. In Shaun of the Dead, there are a number of false alarms before the actual zombies arrive; Shaun lurching around because he’s just woken up, Shaun’s stepdad staring glumly out a window, etc. And of course, there is the long sequence in which Shaun, on the morning that the zombie epidemic gets big, walks out of his house, goes to the store, gets some milk, walks back home, doesn’t even notice that there are zombies all around. In that sense, we ourselves are zombies, blindly sleepwalking our way through life. And then there is the resolution, in which zombies have been transformed into the trash of society; competing on humiliating gameshows, having their spouses talk about them on Rikki Lake (or whomever they have in the UK,) or just sitting around playing videogames all the time. Even if most zombie films today follow the video game mold, there will be the films like Shaun of the Dead that ride the zombie movie vogue and still have something to say.
Zombie films have had footholds through the years for different reasons. The genre has evolved in order to stay relevant.
So what’s another movie form that cuts through to a universal nerve like a zombie film does? Oh, I’ve got one! The pandering romantic comedy; the chick flick. Why can they make one after another of these bland crapfests and still get people to come? Like I said, universal nerve. Look at the formula. There’s a woman who is beautiful but a bit of an awkward misfit. And she’s lonely. Then she meets a really awesome guy. Will he fall in love with her? The suspense is killing me! He does! He does fall in love with her! Sad as this may be, it speaks to a lot of women. Why? First of all, the majority of movie watchers are stupid. (I don’t have delusions of grandeur; I know I’m better than other people.) Hollywood can pander to them, condescend to them, tell them right to their faces how stupid they are, and they eat it up like pigs at a trough. If half the population is female, half the population of stupid moviegoers will also likely be female. (The male half goes out to see movies by Roland Emerick and Adam Sandler.) Second, the idea speaks to a great deal of women. Heck, it speaks to sensitive people in general: make a movie about a quirky guy who gets an awesome girl to fall in love with him, and you might see plenty of sensitive guys going to see it. Women in our society, of course, are encouraged to be more sensitive than men, so more of these pandering comedies get made for them instead of men, hence “chick flicks.” Anyhow, it speaks to many women who are lonely or used to be lonely and still have a strong memory of how it feels. These women were raised by Disney films, so they have dreams of Prince Charming coming to rescue them from loneliness and make them complete human beings. It’s cheap, instant catharsis. Again, it can work, but it’s usually fast food and empty calories.