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Uuuuuuugrh. Raaaaaaaah! Ugh. Unh.
That, my friends, is the sound of the villain of the year — heck, of the past decade. Nameless, mostly faceless (because their faces are chewed off) and shambling en masse, zombies are everywhere. They’re the subject of existential angst on The Walking Dead, misfit romance in Warm Bodies, and soon a big-budget blockbuster starring Brad Pitt with World War Z. Once, zombies were a threat reserved for exploitative B-movies. Now they’re getting all high-brow. So when is this zombie bubble going to burst? When have we reached peak zombie?
The zombies began to rise, not from the dead, exactly, but from a long dark slumber, with Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later. The director’s “fast zombies” make for much better action sequences than their shambling predecessors, and the grainy-real digital film style made waves in Hollywood (and launched a thousand imitators). But more importantly, the movie wasn’t just a horror flick. Roger Ebert called it “an intriguing study in human nature.” People who didn’t like horror movies saw 28 Days Later anyway, and the film entered pop culture with a vengeance, as did its zombies. The next year saw a remake of Dawn of the Dead, as well as Simon Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead. Zombies were off and running.
Zombies make a great threat because they’re people, but not quite people. They’re soulless, speechless — all Id and no Ego. They violate our basic human rule that once someone dies, they’re gone. In that regard, they’re not so different from those other undead creatures: vampires. We’re coming off quite the vampire phase in popular culture, and one which I’d gladly see put to rest. The past could of decades saw a rise in vampires who did more talking than biting, more emoting about their immortality than actually drawing any blood (Angel and Twilight, for example, although both can trace their bloodlines back to Anne Rice’s influential 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire). It’s cool to think about the alternative consequences to being undead — it makes for terrific human drama. But, after a while, we have to hit a reset button. Vampires need to be fanged killers who stalk the night, not just sexy dates for angsty teens.
The same goes for zombies. While the first appearances of zombies – or “walkers,” “lurkers” or “biters,” if you prefer — on The Walking Dead were terrifying beyond belief, now the big scares come from the living, not the dead. In the trailer for World War Z, Pitt’s character is faced with a wall of zombie bodies that looks cool. However, the frightening thing about zombies is that you — just you – could lose your humanity in the span of a heartbeat because of a bite or scratch.
There’s a point, however, when zombies stop being zombies and could be just about anything we find frightening — aliens, robots, grandmas wielding sacks of nickels. If we don’t focus on what makes zombies scary, interesting and disturbing, then they’re just a big wall of bodies. The more these movies explore our humanity by exploring what’s inhuman about zombies, the longer I’ll keep watching.
Otherwise, wake me up when we get Teddy Roosevelt: Zombie Hunter. I want a front-row seat to that one.