AMC’s The Walking Dead starts its third season Sunday night. The highly anticipated series stands at the forefront of an onslaught of new zombie entertainment hitting shelves this year and going into the next. Some of the highlights of these new movies and games include the sixth Resident Evil game, the 16 year-old OG zombie franchise still going strong, as well as the fifth movie Resident Evil: Retribution. In addition, he new Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 will feature an extensive multiplayer zombie-survival mode; as will Lollipop Chainsaw which is a strange, perverted thing.
America’s, and more accurately, the world’s (because the virus can’t be contained) zombie obsession is more powerful than ever, and it shows no signs of slowing.
Other thriller fads have come and gone, but zombies persist. Alien movies and games aren’t as ever-present as they once were. King Kong and his fellow city-crushers died out a long time ago. Even our vampire craze is running its course. After all these years of groaning and brain-nomming, why is the zombie genre still so popular?
The zombie-survival story has been explored from all angles—from the military perspective as soldiers try to quarantine outbreaks (28 Weeks Later, Infamous 2), from the medical researcher’s perspective as he/she seeks a cure (I Am Legend), humorous takes (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), and a thousand and one stories of survivors struggling to find meaning and purpose traveling the disease-ridden wastes (etc.). The stories all unfold in pretty much the same way — the protagonists seek safety, they get eaten in the end or they don’t, they grapple with the question of whether or not to kill a zombified friend. Still the stories keep coming because the demand is there.
Writers and other assorted media producers have realized that there is something about the zombie fear that resonates deeply with viewers. The zombie fear aligns with a lot of humanity’s current real fears, including the fear of epidemic disease, overcrowding in cities, tyranny of the military, anarchy, and the dissolution of government. It also appeals to some of humanity’s deepest, darkest desires, the foremost being the subtle desire for a break in our monotonous lives — something to put excitement, uncertainty, and some real consequences for survival back into our day-to-day activities.
Humanity’s fear of epidemic disease or its connection to the zombie problem doesn’t need much explanation; just think about the pandemonium that SARS stirred in the early 2000s, or the swine flu scare more recently, or the potent, crippling fear that HIV continues to inspire, or the horror sowed by the bubonic plague. Disease is one of the biggest threats to civilization; zombie fiction provides a good outlet for that fear. It allows people to be flippant with those emotions.
It’s a lot more exciting when the disease destroying mankind is a gut-wrenching zombie hunger, and not a slow, debilitating immunodeficiency syndrome or one of the omnipresent cancers.
The CDC has even cashed in the zombie fear fun posting a Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse guide on their site, and more recently an article on Teachable Moments – Courtesy of The Walking Dead on AMC. The articles give good information about what to do in cases of national emergency, but the CDC makes the information feel fun by talking about it in terms of a zombie scare. That said, in a real zombie apocalypse, the CDC is not going to be around to spread informational pamphlets or tell you whether your water sources are infected.
The lack of government or societal order is extremely frightening to people whose lives are so well ordered and regimented. But at the same time I feel that many people also see the dissolution of ordered society to be incredibly liberating.
Anarchy is at once a fear and a secret desire. The lives of zombie survivors are in constant danger, but they are constantly exciting. They’re always traveling seeing new places (unless they hole up, and the characters slowly lose their minds; those are the most disturbing zombie flicks), searching for food, meeting new people and having to instantaneously determine whether they should be trusted or killed. This level of danger is both exhilarating and terrifying to people like us living our overly civilized lives, working our 9-5 day jobs, going through our well-worn routines.
In a zombie apocalypses, survivors are forced to organize their own societies. This is an intriguing prospect for the people who feel that our governments have become too bureaucratic and impersonal. In a zombie apocalypse survivors get to experiment with self-government, and live in a truly democratic style. They get to have their voices heard in decision-making processes. They create their own laws and when they break them, they are judged by a group of their peers, not a handful of strangers in sterile courtrooms or police stations.
Human beings in a zombie apocalypse situation revert to a simpler, tribal lifestyle, but still with the added enjoyment of many modern conveniences like firearms, automobiles, and canned food. Survivors are also freed from the constant stream of media information we are plagued with nowadays; no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no telephones, no internet — a terrifying, but strangely liberating prospect.
We are now in the midst of 2012, the year of the Mayan apocalypse. People are bombarded with apocalyptic predictions on all sides: global warming predicted by environmentalists, the rapture promised by radical Christians, nuclear holocaust from Iran and our prospective presidents in their debates. Zombie fiction provides a relief from all of these overwhelming feelings of dread and doom. Zombies make our apocalypses feel far off and far fetched. They also give us hope that the human race can survive even when our societies collapse.
Zombies allow us to act out our fears and some of our fantasies, and their movies are filled with blood, gore, and action. That’s why zombies are awesome and why we’ll keep watching zombie shows long into the future.
Check out The Walking Dead Season 3 premiere tonight at 9pm on AMC.