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Zombies and their Enduring Popularity

Do you fear the end…?

Given the enormous contribution the Zombie has given to the horror genre (books as well as films) – and the proliferation of soundtracks, mugs, T-shirts, board games et al – it’s quite clear that this particular form of Undead is driving all before it, and has been for some considerable time. In this article I’ll attempt to give my own reasons as to why this might be, and to ponder what the future holds for the relentless evil of the walking corpses.

As described in this site’s introduction, the unconvincing, blue-faced shuffling dead of the 70s’ movies occasionally provided an interesting glimpse into the potential of this creature type. Roll the clock on to more recent years and the viewer is rewarded with the wonderfully rendered prosthetics of series such as the Walking Dead. Close ups of Zombified faces are detailed enough to send shivers down the spine, while the sight of rotting teeth slicing into bloody entrails reveals a godless world that humankind could eventually inhabit.

I think the Zombie works on different levels. Firstly it’s an allegory which is linked to dementia: when a person no longer recognizes his or her loved ones and might even turn violent with them even though they’re attempting to ease the stricken person’s last few years on this earth. Some horror films have dealt with this and the scenes can be surprisingly disturbing, such as when a wife no longer sees her partner as a husband anymore, but merely as meat to be ripped apart. The fact that Zombies cannot be bargained with or convinced to stop partially mimics the awful downward spiral of diseases of the brain.

Another reason for the Zombies’ successful career is more obvious – that they represent the end of the human species and embrace the gory, blood-crazed existence that continues afterwards, and this challenges one of the last great taboos: death. We humans are terrified of shuffling off our mortal coil and, as a result, the prospect of cheating mortality in whatever form – however rudimentary – captivates us. As people age, their thoughts must inevitably turn to their own demise (on occasion) and they wonder when the fateful act will happen and whether the lurid stories of white tunnels and angelic voices are true. And then, possibly, come the ideas of cheating this process and considering if it’s feasible to continue with life even if it’s without a pulse.

Would you want to live after your human death if it meant ripping the flesh from those still in possession of a functioning brain? In the lucidity of a moment’s contemplation perhaps not, but if in a weakened state with the possibility of the end fast approaching and when deals with God have fallen through…then perhaps the answer would then be a hesitant “yes”. So the lust and zeal many of us have for life would possibly lead us to take our meat undercooked if it were possible – and in so doing convince us that we had cheated the inevitability of death. I also find it thrilling to think that several bullets punching through my chest wouldn’t stop me; that the unpleasant grin creeping over my face wouldn’t lessen as my leathery, blood-caked hands still reach out to the terrified human I’d soon be feasting on. There’s something quietly awesome about this: to cheat death; to shrug off the knowledge that every human life will end this way and then rise again without a beating heart – is a lessened form of the divine.

Zombie fans get this idea, I’ll wager: that there’s something after our last breath which waits for us…

The majesty of Undeath.

Another reason for the Zombies’ success is that over the last few decades many different writers, artists, and directors have brought their own ideas to the party thus ensuring the genre remains flexible. This means it’s able to move with the times thus making sure that the Zombie concept is always relevant. As each new generation experiences the cold embrace of dead flesh, this builds a creative friction, just as two seas meeting smash against each other in spouts of violent foam and force.

Of course, the original idea of the Zombie came from Haiti and Africa, and generally within the sinister grip of Voodoo. Many of these Zombies were villagers reduced to vacant slaves by black magic or the application of various substances which dulled a person’s will to resist. According to ethnobotanist Edmund Wade Davis, toxins from the toad Bufo Marinus result in producing numbing agents and hallucinogens, while Puffer fish have toxins that cause paralysis, depress respiration, reduce circulatory activity, and cause a victim to believe he’s floating over his own body. As a result, it’s easy to see how this state of affairs mutated as the legend of the Zombie spread, and the idea was then adapted by writers and other creatives who adjusted the folklore for their own varied projects.

It seems there’s plenty of “life” left in the Zombie genre (sorry, I couldn’t resist that) considering the other different types available to the crazed musings of writers and directors. There’s Atomic Zombies (created by chemical or radioactive contamination); Necromantic Zombies (created by black magic to reanimate the bodies of the dead); Viral Zombies (created by a contagious virus that infects the living and turns them into Zombies following the rapid onset of death) – the list goes on.

It seems the Zombie is here to stay – and not just because its own twisted DNA makes this possible, it’s also because these snarling, vicious forms are wanted by fearful audiences all over the globe.

Peter