Bang Your Head, Wake The Dead: Zombies in Pop Culture, Part 1

It’s nearing the middle of August, so you know what that means — time to start thinking about Halloween!

Alright, so it might be a bit early for some to delve into the season of spoops and scares, but I was getting antsy waiting to talk about something horror-related. Thankfully, between The Walking Dead on AMC and the acclaimed Resident Evil 7 game release (those are still current, right?), there’s a horror trope that’s proven time and again to match with any seasonal outfit or style: zombies.

Biological or magical, hivemind or mindless, the undead are a mainstay in modern geek culture. Games, comics, films, and novels are packed to the brim with these moaning monsters, having been a go-to for the horror genre for decades. However, not all zombies are the same. Some are a cheap plot device or a nameless, antagonistic force to spur the narrative. Others are meant to scrutinize a culture, and are a shuffling signholder to address social issues. Even the dead can be an advocate for the living, depending on who pulls the strings.

From physical differences to philosophical meanings, these next few biweekly pieces of mine will be a sort of roadmap to guide us through these stinking hordes of horrors.

Hope you have your shotgun ready.

Patient Zero: The Romero Zombie

While George Romero didn’t invent the cinematic zombieNight of the Living Dead certainly popularized them. The consuming of flesh, the awkward shuffling, and the relentless pursuit of the heroes, among other traits, formed the basis of the modern zombie in and outside of cinema.

However, while these creatures formed the skeleton of the modern zombie (haha puns), certain aspects of Romero’s ghouls were rejected. The ability to communicate, use tools, and remember past experiences are generally regarded as outside the undead’s capabilities. They are mindless, ravenous creatures driven to feed, not party goers queueing up for their turn at the buffet. The opening cemetery attack scene, for example, has the first undead of the film trying to open a car door and, failing that, using a rock to break open the window in an attempt to catch Judith O’Dea’s Barbra. Most modern zombies aren’t as quick-witted, instead acting on the basest of instincts: see prey, get prey, full stop. No time or capability to “think” beyond that.

As is often the case with competent zombie movies, the undead here aren’t solely intended as the be-all, end-all “big bad” of the story. Rather, they’re meant as a cathartic pressure that forces the characters, and by extension the viewer, to acknowledge social tensions and issues within the current culture. One strength of having an omnipresent antagonist without personality, i.e. a mindless horde of undead, is that they can be utilized to tell a more human story. Identity is stripped away, and yet highlighted in the face of unending waves of monsters. All present are shown to be human, scared people fighting to survive, and yet sometimes unwilling to suspend social biases and hangups in the face of that horror.

Needless to say, Romero’s influence on the horror icon is long lasting and far reaching, influencing more recent creators such as our next author, Max Brooks. But we’ll look at his works next time. For now, board up the windows and turn off the lights. The night is dark, and full of terrors.


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