I had an interesting conversation with Tim last night about how Zombies are just like native Americans. Bear with me.
Most literary ideas, especially those in horror, can be seen as an expression of peoples fear. Vampires represented a fear of giving in to our sexual desires while werewolves are all about the fear of giving into our animal instincts. Loss of control was a big deal for people.
Zombies started out being about a fear of others. Migration of populations were the thing that created zombies. After time they came to represent a fear of overpopulation. With hundreds of people crowding in there would a shortage of resources and we would turn on one another.
Now though zombies aren’t scary, they’ve reached a point where we are so over exposed to them that they aren’t scary any more. Most zombie media now shows us that it’s not the zombies we should be frightened of but other people. So the zombie just becomes a generic threat.
The point is they are a persistent threat always in the back of your mind. The real concern in a zombie apocalypse is the loss of all our modern comforts. The scarcity of food is a more pressing concern than becoming food ourselves. So that threat could really be anything.
Tim referenced the game and book Metro 2033. The basic premise of which is that the survivors of nuclear holocaust live in the Moscow Metro where a war rages between rival factions and they all fear the Dark Ones who are mutated humans living on the surface.
While these mutants come pretty close to zombies there are technically no living dead. The game and book still feel like they are zombie based though because the necessary generic threat is there and the loss of civilisation. So there is no need for the walking dead to appear for it to be a zombie story.
Even those zombie stories that have them in aren’t really about them. They are about the people living in an uncivilised world where they have to fight for they’re survival. This usually occurs in America and not in the big cities but out in the smaller towns. The characters are easily identifiable and somewhat clichéd. In the walking dead the main character is police officer.
More recognizably though he wears a big hat, has a star pinned to his chest and carries a revolver. He’s a sheriff then, in the style of the Wild West genre. That’s what most modern zombie material is about. It’s the old west come again. This time though the vague threat isn’t the natives its the dead.
This isn’t about zombies, this about going back to nature. Having simple problems even if they are big ones like there being no food. This says a lot about what people are currently afraid of. We have complex, largely financial, problems and we live a world where we don’t know where our food comes from and we don’t know the people who live next door.
Some of the Zombie genre isn’t about this escapism fantasy, British media doesn’t have the wild west to draw on so films like 28 days later are about something else, more scary. The loss of humanity in desperate times, a much more horror movie set up.
Most of the modern zombie genre then can be seen as vehicle being used to explore other ideas. The big exception in my mind? World War Z, the book not the film, which covers the zombie apocalypse arc from start to finish and is unfailingly about the zombies.
The Audio Book of World War Z is particularly impressive.