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Zombies may represent our darkest fears

by Matthew Price Modified: April 22, 2013 at 4:08 pm •  Published: October 31, 2011
A sign promoting zombie preparadness is seen in a hardware store in Omaha, Neb., Monday, Oct. 10, 2011. The Westlake Ace hardware chain with stores in seven states is offering tips on how to "zombie-proof" your house. The store is advertising nail guns and chain saws for "zombie defense," and one part of a Q-and-A section asks: "A zombie fell and put a hole in my drywall. What tools will I need to fix this?"(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
A sign promoting zombie preparadness is seen in a hardware store in Omaha, Neb., Monday, Oct. 10, 2011. The Westlake Ace hardware chain with stores in seven states is offering tips on how to "zombie-proof" your house. The store is advertising nail guns and chain saws for "zombie defense," and one part of a Q-and-A section asks: "A zombie fell and put a hole in my drywall. What tools will I need to fix this?"(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

What makes the zombie genre so popular?   I looked at some reasons for this Halloween story for The Oklahoman.

“Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill.”

— Dr. Foster (“Dawn of the Dead,” 1978)

Arguably the most popular horror subgenre of the past decade has been the zombie tale, with motion picture hits including “Zombieland,” “Shaun of the Dead,” and the “Resident Evil” series. People have even taken to dressing like zombies in “Zombie Walks” in various parts of the world, including in Oklahoma City. (In 2010, fake blood left by a zombie walk led to a brief police investigation.)

But what has led to the ongoing appeal of these brain-eating, slow-witted monsters? Maybe it’s a way of facing our fears.

“I find zombies to be an interesting subgenre of horror because unlike their narrative cousin the vampire, the werewolf or even Frankenstein’s monster, zombies don’t have individual identities or personalities,” said local comics writer and critic Rob Vollmar. “You don’t fear an individual zombie so much as you have concern about the phenomena of zombies. Horror tends to be a genre that takes on the fears that we can’t face in their primary form and so they mutate into something that we can process. It seems to me that the re-emergence of zombies in film, fiction, etc., was tied to the onset of the War on Terror; a sort of sublimated fear of the unknown horde with no demands that can be satisfied except through mindless killing.”

Zombiezonenews.com estimates 45 zombie movies were released in 2010, almost enough to watch a new one every week. The highest-grossing was Milla Jovovich’s “Resident Evil: Afterlife.” According to Box Office Mojo, it’s the second-highest grossing zombie movie of all time, with a $60 million gross, behind only “Zombieland” from 2009 at $75 million.

“The Walking Dead” continues to be a juggernaut on TV and in comic books, with the graphic novels hitting The New York Times Bestseller list. Robert Kirkman created the series and writes the ongoing comics and graphic novels. The first prose novel, “The Walking Dead: The Rise of the Governor” by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga, and “The Walking Dead Chronicles: The Official Companion Book” by Paul Ruditis were released in recent weeks.

“The Walking Dead” follows sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes and a band of survivors following a zombie holocaust.

“The central genius behind the Walking Dead is that zombie narratives are typically very self-contained affairs,” Vollmar said.

“It’s usually the Night or the Day of the living dead, not here’s how we cope with zombies being around for a long time.”

The long-running narrative gives more time to explore the world after this major event.

“Kirkman excels at creating characters that people can identify with and so the payoff when one of them has to be sacrificed or gets eaten is always big. I think WD also plays on a generalized anxiety about the direction that the world is heading. Apocalypticism in general is on everyone’s mind and, ironic as it may seem, contemplating that through the lens of something that probably won’t happen (i.e. zombies take over the world) as opposed to one that might (Western civilization collapses) is a safe and escapist way of dealing with those nagging feelings that won’t go away.”

“If we hole up, I want to be somewhere familiar, I want to know where the exits are, and I want to be allowed to smoke.”

Ed, Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Of course, zombie history goes back farther than the past decade. Zombies first appeared on-screen in 1932 with Bela Lugosi in the film “White Zombie.” George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” reinvigorated the genre back in 1968.

Oklahoma City University’s Marc DiPaolo wrote about the genre in his book “War, Politics, and Superheroes.”

“In many ways, it was no wonder that popular culture was replete with apocalyptic imagery during the first decade of the new millennium, as the civilized world did, indeed, seem to be besieged on every level, and on the verge of total collapse,” he wrote. “The zombie apocalypse that George Romero had envisioned as a result of racism, class warfare, and American imperial policies in his ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968 — present) series of films had gradually come to symbolize an apocalypse initiated by any number of causes, from germ warfare to foreign invasion.”

The zombies represent fears that we don’t know how to tackle head-on, DiPaolo writes.

“One of the appeals of the zombie figure as the physical manifestation of cultural anxieties about a number of abstract issues — ranging from fears of death to economic hardships created by difficult-to-identify culprits — is that they give angry Americans something to shoot at,” he writes. “Killing zombies in video games and watching zombies killed in movies may not solve America’s social, political and economic woes, but it makes people in the audience feel a little better watching zombies get shot in the head or chopped up by helicopter blades.”

Former “Saturday Night Live” writer Max Brooks came to fame in the 2000s with his best-selling “The Zombie Survival Guide.” His “World War Z” is in development as a movie.

He told CNN in 2009:

“‘You can’t shoot the financial meltdown in the head — you can do that with a zombie.’”

- By Matthew Price
From Monday’s The Oklahoman

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by Matthew Price
Features Editor
Features Editor Matthew Price has worked for The Oklahoman since 2000. He’s a University of Oklahoma graduate who has also worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern for the Dallas Morning News. He’s...
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