But why all the love? It wasn’t always like this. In the greater scheme of stories, zombies are a relatively new creation in the realm of monsters. Zombies have their roots in Caribbean culture, with stories of witch doctors controlling the minds of victims through drugs and hypnosis until they obey their every will, shuffling along and moaning as they go. Pretty different from their current state, right?
Thank George Romero, his Night of the Living Dead is the genesis of the modern zombie. Not a mind-controlled victim carrying out the will of a sorcerer, but corpses raised out of the ground with only one thought in their worm-ridden brains, to eat yours!
It’s a macabre idea and one that has only become more graphic as practical and special effects work in movies and television have improved. Whereas the zombies in Night of the Living Deadsunk their teeth into victims in mostly shadowed environs, the walkers found in The Walking Dead rip open their victims without edits and for all to see. With such graphic violence, the focus on zombies has moved from the speculative and thought-centered horror of having to face loved ones that are now out to eat you to the visceral shock of being eaten alive.
A Bit o’ the Old Ultraviolence
While the idea of being eaten has always been a major part of zombie lore, writers and directors seem more intent than ever to show the effects of an attack.
Maybe this has a direct relation to their popularity. The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on TV, often getting more viewers than shows on network television, and more movies than ever are being made on the subject. World War Z is the biggest and most expensive zombie movie ever made. Five years ago, no studio in the world would have spent more than $200 million on a zombie film, there would be no way that they could make a profit. Now, World War Z, plot holes and story fixes aside, has done well enough to spark talk of a sequel.
While that movie shied away from ultraviolence to obtain a PG-13 rating in hopes of broadening its audience, The Walking Dead, the poster boy of the modern zombie movement, by no means cuts away when the biting starts. Countless characters, well-established characters and not castaway background actors, are regularly chomped, slashed, and even torn apart by hand! But the public can’t get enough. Even when the show dips in quality, and boy, when it does it really aims for the bottom of the barrel, viewers are still hooked.
If You Want (Fake) Blood, You’ve Got It
Maybe with such high stakes, viewers can’t help but feel invested in every person they come to know on the show. No one wants to see their favorite character ripped apart or slowly dying from a bite-caused infection, but they cannot simply stop watching and never know if they are going to be ok.
These high stakes also enhance the emotions felt by and the decisions made by the characters. Think of the millions of rom-coms that have been made over the years. If a protagonist messes up, he or she will not end up with the person he or she is “destined” to be with. Although, let’s face it, that never happens. If the protagonist of a zombie story makes a mistake, he or she could be bitten, cause a fortified town to be overrun, or decimate the remaining contingent of people on the planet. Pretty high stakes.
While there is certainly a large audience for light and forgettable romantic comedies, audiences also want to see desperate times and characters stuck between a rock and a hard place. However, they also want their entertainment to be slightly disconnected from reality. Zombies have just enough unreality to them, while still feeling like they could show up in the real world, that audiences can have their cake and eat it too. Zombie films take their unrealistic antagonists, give them some sort of real world-ish explanation, and drop them into the middle of present day.
Your Fears Given Form
Why do you think there aren’t any future-set zombie movies (that I know of)? Because the audience that eats up these films, see what I did there, want to feel threatened in the here and now. Zombies pose an immediate threat – You’re about to be eaten! Your family is about to be eaten! Your world will never be the same! – so why would you set the story in a time and place that is not immediate?
Like most horror films, audiences can delve into their real fears – virus outbreak, worldwide collapse, destruction of loved ones – for an hour or two and let themselves feel frightened. But once the movie ends and the lights go up, the fear is over. We can’t say the same about those same fears in a real life context, they are still present when we watch a scary movie, we’re just distracted enough to not directly think about them.
Any and all of these threats share something in common – a fear of death. And what’s scarier than a death that rises from the grave and tries to munch on your sweet, sweet brains? Maybe in today’s world, people are more afraid of death than ever? What good are monsters that embody eternal life – vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, those dudes from Hellraiser – or real-world psychopaths – Freddy, Jason, Leatherface – when it is what happens after these villains kill us that scares us the most.
If you look into the unknown that waits for you after you take your last breath and find yourself frighten, you may find that zombies scare you the most.