Boy, I love zombies. So much so that I can’t wait for the new season of The Walking Dead, starting this Sunday. I’m really excited to see if they can continue the momentum that the show built at the end of last season, especially since A) they’re moving into what I call the “good part” of the story from the amazing comic series. Sure, there have been some discrepancies in the television version, but the basic plot lines are fairly intact, and B) the first half of last season was fairly lackluster. Enough with the fucking farm already.
But I digress.
Zombies have taken over the public subconscious so much that it’s almost a running joke. When you’re at the hardware store with a buddy to pick up a new Estwing roofing hammer, you will invariably pass some sort of garden implement or power tool that will cause one of you to remark “Heh…this would be pretty handy in the zombie apocalypse, eh?” It’s like we all know it’s coming, so we just try and stay as prepared as possible, except that, you know, IT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN. And if it did happen, Cracked actually outlined how quickly it would fail in this article. Of course, they double-down and tell you exactly how it could happen here.
Why all the zombie stuff? And to be clear, I’m including the non-traditional style 28 Days Later-style outbreaks in this discussion. Why now? Why zombies and not killing machines, like the Terminator? (Heads-up: all this will change once Spielberg’s adaptation of the incredible “Robopocalypse” novel hits theaters in 2014. Then, lookout, zombies: there’s a new boogeyman in town.)
One word: Martians.
“Wait,” you say to me, holding your hand out in the classic ‘stop’ position. “Martians ain’t zombies. Unless it’s some B-movie hybrid from the mind of Ed Wood, Jr. or on SyFy.” True, but you see, the modern zombie infestation is exactly the same as the martian threat of yesteryear. Why? Because they are both the analog, the manifestation if you will, of our modern-day fears.
Back in the post-WWII days in the early 50’s, there was something weighing heavily on the minds of every American citizen: hot atomic death at the hands of the damned Communists. This spawned a bunch of “atomic monster” movies, like “THEM!” which were actually really fucking good. (Also, the only country ever nuked…twice…churned out a shload of these films, beginning with the classic “Gojira.” Not that we should feel guilty about all that unpleasantness.)
Hiding, sneaking behind the obvious “Oh, god!! Nuclear bombs!” threat was the more sinister, lurking threat of invasion. Not the obvious “Red Dawn” style invasion, but the subversive “get your kids to like Socialism” sort of invasion. McCarthyism had everyone checking on their neighbors, and paranoia was rampant. Movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Invaders From Mars” played on that subconscious fear: My God, what if the new guy at work is one of THEM!?! They look like us and act like us, but something is just…off. It was a trend that eventually evolved and sometimes even questioned the logic of this nationwide witch-hunt for Commies. Films like “It Came From Outer Space” made us look in the mirror a little bit. See, in that film the “alien menace” was just an alien whose ship had crashed and the alien dude was just trying to fix it up so he could go home. Eventually this sort of theme carried over into more modern films like “E.T.” and “Super 8” where they actually go so far as to make the Big Military/Government Machine look like the bad guys.
Which brings us to now. “28 Days Later” premiered in 2002, almost a year after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. If you haven’t seen the movie, a guy wakes out of a coma to find the world he knew to be a desolate place filled with formerly-normal humans filled with hate and rage, intent on killing. Every time you get rid of one of ’em, there seems to be a thousand of them right behind, willing to do whatever it takes to end the lives of peaceful humans.
Lighthearted fare like “Zombieland” would come later, along with the big-budget remake of “Dawn of the Dead” and the comic/graphic novels like “The Walking Dead” plus a billion other shoddy zombie flicks. Ladies and gentlemen, I present the theory (I’m surely not the first) that the recent zombie-hype has been driven largely by the national panic and paranoia that has existed in some form since 9/11. Sure, once a couple of films made money, Hollywood decided to churn out as much similar product as possible. That’s normal. But beyond that, there is a whole sub-culture of zombie jokes, zombie costumes, zombie video games, zombie ammunition (it should really be billed as ANTI-zombie ammunition, but whatever) and so on. Think about the last week that went by that you didn’t see/hear/read some sort of zombie reference. Impossible since 9/11. This wave of shambling undead has even infected hyped-up news stories like the infamous “Bath Salts Zombies” this past summer. How often did zombies get mentioned before that fateful day in Septmber eleven years ago? Um..maybe when you played Resident Evil?
Let’s go back to that video game idea. The Resident Evil franchise was huge, beginning with the original Playstation One game and seemingly a dozen sequels. But that was pretty much it. Now you have Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, Dead Rising, and the “zombie mode” add-ons and DLC for every single first-person shooter on the market today. Wow. We got kinda carried away, didn’t we, folks? Several video game reviewers have mentioned that zombies are perfect video game fodder. Before zombies took over, the only “safe” bad guy in games and movies was Nazi Germany. But even then, either someone had to be the Nazis in multiplayer (which still feels weird to me) or you had to gloss over the fact that these soldiers might not be rank-and-file Aryans, but maybe conscripts from Poland who just want to live to see their families again. (I tend to over-think the character-development of video game figures.) Zombies? Hell, they’re already dead! Blow their fuckin’ heads off!
As we move further and further away from the events of 9/11, I’m sure the zombie trend will lose its luster. Even now, kids don’t have any idea how or why 9/11 happened. They just know that it’s fun to watch zombies’ arms fall off. They don’t understand the feeling of vulnerability, like every time you get on that public transportation there might be death waiting for you at the end of your ride. The all-encompassing fear of the unknown, that your life could end at any moment, at the hands of an enemy you never saw until it was too late. They don’t get why we sometimes feel like zombies ourselves, so much cattle shuffling through the line at the TSA gate. It’s lost on them. Perhaps it’s the same way most of you feel when you watch “Independence Day.” You’ve never lived under the long, cold shadow of impending doom at the hands of the USSR and their millions of megatons of thermonuclear holocaust aimed right at the heart of the good ol’ U-S-of-A. You just want to see the good guys beat the crap out of the bad guys and maybe see some really cool explosions. Fair enough. I’m happy for you. You get to enjoy those themes without a context. A new generation of kids has lived safely and securely in the days since September 11th and has no reason to flinch at the specter of a jet airplane on approach that seems to be a little too close to the ground. They don’t turn a wary eye to the somewhat ethnic guy reading a newspaper at the airport with one earbud in, listening to…something. They live in a world without fear, except those damn zombies on the eighth wave on COD. Those suckers are brutal!!
And you know what? Good for them. Because one day their world will be shaken, and some new multi-media meme or theme will crop up and they’ll get to explain to their kids why it’s so poignant and scary. The robot uprising. It’s coming, man. It’s coming.