The Walking Dead’s ratings Armageddon tells us that the fascination with the Zombie Apocalypse is devouring our attention. Even the recent Warm Bodies—a Twilight-esque take on zombies—has become a respectable movie hit ($54 million and counting). Since George Romero’s foundational Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, the interest has risen steadily in these lumbering, existentially-challenged cannibals and their overrunning of our neighborhoods.
But what is so engaging about an end time entertainment with so little hygiene and so much sanitized dystopia? Zombies are not as sexy as vampires or other occult icons; and they don’t exactly light up anyone’s top list of memorable villains. It’s hard to envision a Hollywood executive pitching for James Bond or The Avengers to confront zombies in their next installment (even if they do have more personality than the Na'vi from Avatar). Then again, if Michael Jackson could make zombies into dancing darlings in his “Thriller” video, then it seems they have that “it” factor the entertainment business looks for in order to monetize art.
Our fascination with Zombie Apocalypse entertainment truly lies deep in our collective psyche and its perception of the surrounding environment. Some of the reasons found there are actually more disturbing than the actual idea of being groped by mindless, human carcasses (no, I don’t mean a typical Friday night at the local nightclub).
So be warned:
We plain love any type of Apocalypse. In his book, Apocalypse Not, John Greer details the main reasons why humanity just can’t wait for the end of the world: One, it legitimizes our religious or cultural viewpoints (“God does exist, you burning sinner!”/ “Those capitalist pigs should have bought a Prius!”). Two, Western Society is drowning in boredom and a lack of fulfillment—to the point many people would rather dare the perils of a collapsed civilization than go back to another day of work in a cubicle.
We have become zombies. This reason is not new but it’s still alarmingly obvious: our civilization has become increasingly dead to passion and compassion, leaving us as numbed creatures walking the streets glued to smartphones or sitting on couches starving for the content of blinking screens. The 2004 film, Shaun of the Dead, has the main character wake up during the Zombie Apocalypse and not even noticing the change at first! The more recent flick, Zombieland, satirizes our society’s dimming soul against the backdrop of conquering zombie armies.
We love to kill when we can get away with it. It sounds disturbing, but if the kingdom of Heaven is within us so is the kingdom of Hell. We are all natural born killers, and that’s a basic Freudian notion, for those of you more secular-minded. Zombie Apocalypse entertainment is soft porn for our inner Hannibal Lecter, snuff films with a clumsy, vicarious victim whose danger to us is directly proportional to our bad decisions. Brutally exterminating the already-dead can be as cathartic as it is therapeutic, especially if their appearance reminds us of henpecking neighbors, overbearing bosses, or Jared from Subway.
We need to be constantly reminded of our place in the cosmos. Zombies fall in the same camp as sentient machines, insectoid aliens, and corporate bankers—powerful enemies with no real moral agenda who sometimes just feel the need to consume the human race. It’s rarely personal when we become the main course. These antagonists are a reminder that nature is an uncaring mistress, capriciously dishing out environmental cataclysms and worldwide plagues to the nearest organic colony. The only lesson that endures is that we’re not the center of the universe. Even deities in all religions will often push aside any goodness and piss down lightning if it serves their utilitarian itineraries. God or the Lion King is rarely found in Zombie Apocalypse entertainment.
We feel increasingly hopeless against diseases and suspicious of science. Zombies (and how they came about) are the ultimate 24-hour flu. Mass transportation has shrunk the world but increased the reach of exotic illnesses that can cripple entire communities. At the same time, science is reaching for God particles and playing God in gene-laborites, making us wonder if we’ll wake up one morning as the creature in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The successful video game and movie series, Resident Evil, underscores both premises by using viral warfare to continually reboot zombies into more grotesque incarnations. Some have come close to looking like Dolly Parton.
There are certainly more nuanced reasons why Zombie Apocalypse entertainment has become as viral as the T-Virus. But the truth is that zombie invasions are a universal and even a holy trope in human annals. After all, Matthew 27 does say, “The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” In other words, Jesus came not only to save us from sin but to obviously fight the walking dead.
The problem is that we, as a culture, promote the walking dead as we have become the walking dead.
(Those of you less zombified may wonder why this article is posted in Internet Rehab. Look at reason #2, and watch out for that manhole while you’re looking at your smartphone)