Why are Zombies so Popular?

If you are reading this article, then let’s face it, you probably are already a fan of zombies. You don’t need much encouragement to play zombie games, watch zombie movies, and maybe you even dress up and participate in zombie costuming at conventions, or the growing number of ‘zombie walks’ occurring globally. But why? Why does zombie genre continue to grow at an unbelievable rate, why is it that almost every game release has a zombie mod, or a zombie themed story. Zombie fiction, and in that I encompass all fiction, movies, games, literature, continues to be a boom genre, and many, many people want to know why.

Zombie fiction has certainly been around a long time, it is not a new concept, although the iconic flesh-eating monster is a somewhat newer take on the term. Originally, it meant someone that had their will taken away, by drugs, or hypnosis, or in general voodoo terms, brought back from a deep coma or death in order to serve their master as a mindless slave. So…generally not flesh eating, and well, not really all that threatening, unless you happen to piss off their voodoo master, or if you happen to end up with one. Zombies really didn’t become the flesh-eaters in common parlance until one of our other favorite storytellers H.P. Lovecraft penned the short story Herbert West – Reanimator. This was really the first storytelling of reanimated corpses that still hungered for flesh, and even continued to work despite damage or decapitation.

The 1954 novel, I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson tossed the idea of a spreadable plague into the mix. He did it more as an exploration of vampires than zombies, with a creature that drinks blood, infects the living, and spreads the disease, and so on, until there is only one person left in the world immune to the virus. Here we have the inclusion of the survival horror elements showing up as the main character, Robert Nevelle, frantically works to reinforce his home during the day, in order to stave off attacks during the night. His desperation is a component we see often in modern zombie horror.

This all came together in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, really the first modern movie that contained all the familiar tropes we continue seeing even today. This black and white film was extremely graphic, and showed nudity, violence, matricide, patricide, suffering, people torn apart and eaten by flesh-eating monsters that could not be killed unless you shot them in the head. These creatures also turned the dead into more of them, spreading the infection, and thus…the zombie apocalypse is born. This movie also birthed zombie movies, because despite reviews and warnings that asked parents not to show this movie to their kids (since the MPAA didn’t exist yet) the movie took a small budget and turned it into millions of dollars worldwide, ensuring that the zombie movie was now in the playbook of almost every major movie producer.

This doesn’t really explain why these movies are so popular though. Even grade B schlock zombie rip-offs do remarkably well, such as the cheesy, over-the-top Return of the Living Dead series of movies. Sure, the zombie has morphed someone from specifically the dead, to any plague carrying person that is out for blood, ala 28 Days Later or the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead that featured zombies that ran inexhaustibly as they chased after their prey.

Zombies also made their impression on games, most notably from the original Capcom’s Resident Evil. In this game, (that borrowed heavily the mood and setting of Night of the Living Dead) the concept of the modern survival horror game broke out, and despite it’s horrendous control system and nonsensical puzzle system, Resident Evil spawned more sequels then the most ambitious zombie movie, as it continues in production. One of the most famous, and pervasive Zombie game of recent memory is the Left 4 Dead pair of games, bringing together four players locally or online in a movie-tribute style game that as they try to fight their way through various ‘acts’ in order to make it to safety. These games not only have fast zombies, they have zombies mutated in horrible ways, all to make the players’ life miserable. These games also allowed players to compete against each other, and give players the taste of what it is like to be one of the ‘super’ zombies and try and prey on their human opponents.

One thing that perhaps makes Zombie fiction so attractive is their lack of moral ambiguity. In almost every circumstance, we are asked to understand things from a different perspective. Do unto others as you would have them do to you, obey the golden rule, or put yourself in another person’s shoes. It seems like the zombie is one of the few things these days where you can point at it and say ‘that’s bad…it doesn’t matter where it came from, or what I means, just destroy it.’ That is quite a moral release valve, here you have something that looks like a person, kinda moves like a person, and might even look like someone you know, but all you really care about is what happens when you put the shotgun in its mouth, and pull the trigger. Sure, how the characters in a game or movie interact, and the drama between them might draw us in, but when it’s time to pull the trigger, there’s nothing there that prevents us from just blowing them away.

Other professionals will tell you that Zombies are the manifestation of our cultural paranoia and depression, that they represent the big ills in our world and how those problems oppress us. I am not sure if that is the major reason that zombies have become so popular, but I’m sure there are also very smart people correlating data between zombie game/movie/literature sales and the overall unemployment rate, or suicide rate, or anything like that. I think they forget that zombies can be scary, scary can be fun, and when that scary thing is something you know you can dispatch and deal with, without any concerns other then how cool, or fun, or scary it is, then you have something that is going to key with people. There may be more mystery behind why zombies are so popular, but let’s also not forget that sometimes the basic, visceral, and most simple reasons are often the correct ones.

– Geoff Quick

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