I read an article yesterday about the theory that zombie fads peak when society is unhappy. The researcher and writer of the piece is an American who is not a zombie fan herself. She is an English teacher who ‘can’t stand violence’ but found it interesting that zombie popularity in the US peaked at a time when ‘people felt that they hadn’t been listened to by the Bush administration’. The rise of popularity in the genre is a puzzling one, and it seems very plausible that the spread of ‘Zombie Walks’ and the growing popularity of zombie films and TV Series’ like the Walking Dead have something to say about society – and about our dissatisfaction with it. Otherwise surely we’d pick something a little less, you know, rotten.
I have been a horror fan, and fan of zombie flicks in particular since I was a little kid. Yes, I know you aren’t meant to watch that stuff when you’re a little kid, but I was a sneaky one. I think my first foray into the world of horror was watching A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was about seven after being expressly told by my mother not to, which, obviously, is why I watched it.
I have also been on one of the zombie walks that Lauro mentions in her article, although I wasn’t a zombie, I was on the run from them all over Bristol. The following year I played the part of a zombie myself. It was great fun.
Zombie’s aside, I love horror films, trashy horror novels, old and twisted children’s fables, Munch paintings, Grosz paintings, horror film scores, I could go on. So on one hand, I clearly have a passion and intrigue regarding the macabre in general, which partially explains why zombies appeal to me. However, on the other I think the appeal of zombies in particular, to me anyway, is something slightly different. And I do think it has something to do with dissatisfaction with society, but not quite in the way that Lauro mentions.
It was after all a comment on society that made zombies popular in the early days – when Romero and Savini were making their now cult classics. Their films clearly expressed dissatisfaction with society. While Night of the Living Dead commented on race and intolerance, Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead was the film that really struck a chord with me. It is a deviation, evolution or mutation of this original societal statement that has held my interest in the genre ever since, and it is that original statement I feel has led to the growing popularity of the zombie genre in recent years.
The original film was, among other themes, a comment on capitalism, and the lack of any real meaning that comes from blindly chasing things that aren’t necessary. That’s both the undead who unthinkingly chase flesh they don’t need to consume, and the group of survivors who end up in an abandoned shopping mall surrounded by all the things money can buy for the perfect consumer lifestyle, which now mean nothing at all.
It is this blind pursuit of material things without application of reason that is intriguing. Further than that I think the genre has gained popularity due to its theme of survival in it’s most raw and basic sense. It’s the theme of hunting, of going back to basics, back to the wild, to the brutal and unembellished skill of taking care of yourself without all the unnecessary things that we now pursue that appeals. It is also interesting that this theme first appeared in the genre in the late seventies, just before the ‘greed is good’ capitalist eighties. However, it is an unrest that has reared it’s head in horrific pop culture manifestations ever since, with the publication of books like Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho portraying the same loss of direction and retreat to violence in order to feel something real and visceral.
As we become increasingly removed from nature and buried in city life, and as new technology distances us from reality and throws us into the virtual, zombies represent something animal and a return to our roots.
In a horribly escapist, simplistic and brutal way of course.
Whether or not fans would want the situations we love so much on screen to occur in reality, (let alone whether we could actually survive them, softened as we are) it’s a way to use the neglected part of our psyche that wonders what would happen if zombies really were.
The genre also addresses a loss of traditional ‘masculinity’. I say this for lack of a better word, as I am a woman, and feel the same way. What I mean is a lack of hands on, necessary pursuits, a lack of having to fight for your survival and fend for yourself. A disconnect from nature and necessity.
Modern living, in places like Britain and America at least where the genre is incredibly popular, is often so sterile it can lead to a lust for getting back to basics. We live a life full of internet friendships, of shrink wrapped meat that bears no resemblance to what it once was, of vitamin pills, fashion, music that appears for judgment in various ‘streams’, likes and shares on Facebook and other social media, design and cult interests that are supposed to display your personality.
You can log in your location to show people the trendy places you have been. You can hire people to do your odd jobs, learning a practical trade has lost it’s respect and doesn’t pay as well anymore. Industry is dying – contracted out to the point that we see no assembly at all, we just buy the finished product. The closest we get is the pre-cut and sanded kit complete with allen keys from Ikea, with that confused little bloke on the manual, baby stepping us through the process just in case we still can’t work it out. We make up for this lack by doing a bit of DIY on the weekend, you know, with real tools. Nothing is hands on anymore, and like the zombies, we are lost and lacking a sense of purpose.
To me, zombies are appealing as they are something to fight against. They make me picture myself as the survivor, fighting that dead, decaying and purposeless part of myself. The survivor is free from banal and pathetic concerns about Spotify appearing in their stream to be judged by someone else, the concerns about the place they live and the way they dress. They are immune to and unaware of marketing, of unnecessary embellishment.
They just survive the way they want to and have to, roaming and fighting their way out of the droning, baying crowd who so badly want to bite them them and make them just another zombie – senseless, rotting, consuming and mindlessly wandering in herds. Without ever wondering what the purpose of it is.
But then maybe that’s just me.