I've often written about my decades-long love affair with zombie films and how the usually hyper-violent subgenre of horror movies has in recent years been experiencing a puzzling (to me) acceptance by a much larger and more mainstream audience than ever before.
Hardcore horror fans tend to be very protective of the types of movies they enjoy, and very passionate about them. Attend a horror convention or a late-night showing of any scary movie with a cult following, and that becomes obvious. Like any type of horror movies, zombie films have changed an awful lot over the years, and while it's not for me to decide if those changes are "good" or not, I have noticed a few trends that I personally find odd, and one that disturbs me.
The mainstream acceptance and integration of all things zombie is weird enough. Anyone checking out any retail website that sells cutesy fandom items will stumble across plush zombie dolls and other cute toy versions of a creature that, in most incarnations, is still a flesh-eating reanimated corpse. That's kind of weird, but also cool, and is definitely evidence that the zombieverse has shambled into a much broader section of pop culture than ever. I still remember the days of trying to explain why I liked "those movies" to people who couldn't understand the appeal, even to other horror fans who just didn't get the whole zombie thing. That's definitely changed, it's rare that I encounter someone with that reaction now.
When other movie monsters have become really popular, the material they're in and the fans they have tend to broaden in ways that aren't always cool, if a person is happy with their status as a monster. Vampires are a perfect example. While they were once spooky, blood-drinking, undead creatures that were usually played for scares, we now have lame lovelorn creeps that sparkle and fall in love with teenage girls, or they're presented as some sort of bisexual superheroes that would be more at home in a Gothic club or a romance novel. Lame.
Zombies aren't immune from such treatment either. So zombie movies with a romantic angle have appeared, such as Warm Bodies and the semi-romantic comedy DeadHeads. I guess I can't criticize people for coming up with new angles for this type of film. Creativity is a good thing, but the idea of romantic zombies just kind of leaves me cold. I hope that they don't eventually get the Twilight treatment and become accepted as brooding, sparkling sex objects. I asked my friend Thea Munster (professional last name she adopted), the Founding Director of the Toronto Zombie Walk, the first and among the largest zombie fan gatherings in the world, her thoughts on this:
"The appropriation of zombies from horror culture into the mainstream has somewhat decentralized the power of the zombie as a monster. Originally zombies were outsiders terrorizing the status quo, but they were also a very powerful political tool, as a zombie's strength lies in numbers and a relentless, unstoppable refusal to back down and to see a goal through. One zombie is easy to outrun or kill, but a horde is unstoppable, it will overwhelm in numbers. For those of us who grew up punk rock or in an alternative culture, the zombie represents the ability to have a voice against the wrongs of society. One person cannot change a civilization, but a unified group can make an impact."
After mostly being ignored through the '90s, new types of zombie movies began to appear, and they seemed to be aimed at a different type of fan than before. In 2002, 28 Days Later was released; while technically not a zombie film, basically it was. Its popularity with wider audiences seemed to begin a new era for zombie horror.
Then Shaun of the Dead, a comedy take on George Romero's monsters, came out in 2004, simultaneously making fun of the genre and paying homage to it. Shaun in particular was largely referential to the older films, but breathed a new life into zombie lore. It made them fun again.
That same year, a remake of Dawn of the Dead was released, further affecting and pushing the zombie into mainstream pop culture. That film was a pale reflection of the original film it remade, which is widely considered one of the best zombie films ever made, but it did well with audiences, and it seemed like zombies were suddenly on the radar again, and more than ever.
In 2009, Zombieland was released to general acclaim, mixing a strange brew of action, coming of age, and comedy, with a famously hilarious cameo by Bill Murray.
Lots of smaller Independent zombie movies were released as well as plenty of terrible ones, but it became clear that zombies were and are "hot" again. One thing is for sure. over the last couple of decades the humble zombie slowly stumbled out of the underground and into the mainstream, appearing in video games, comic books, and now an extremely popular television show. And while I'm not a fan of The Walking Dead, it's fair to say that the series has completely changed zombie fandom, and probably permanently. Underestimating its impact would be ridiculous.
I'm sure some will find the idea of a zombie fan who isn't really into The Walking Dead confusing, so what gives?
It's just not to my liking I guess. I think that the show has a weird imbalance. It has over the top comic book type characters, but still milks as much maudlin drama as it can, and it's rarely scary. There's also something strange to me about a show that's sometimes extremely graphically violent, but goes for a PG when it comes to love scenes. I'm not saying that a lack of nudity and profanity is a bad thing, but it's a weird feeling to see a show where occasionally someone gets torn to pieces but no one drops F-Bombs. That's probably more to do with the fact that the show is on basic cable, but it also illustrates a pretty strange American acceptance with violence but a weird prudery with other material. Who is this show's target audience anyway?
The other issue I have with The Walking Dead is how the zombies themselves (I'm sorry, I refuse to say "walkers"), are killed in droves and easily in every episode, by the comic book style commandos that every major character seems to have become. It makes them less frightening, and it also illustrates something I personally find troubling. There seem to be a lot of newer fans that really like that aspect of the show, and it's manifesting in the real world, in the form of people who seem to wish a zombie apocalypse would really happen so they'd get a chance to shoot a whole bunch of them.
Gun manufacturers are even pandering to this type of zombie fan, making "Zombie Hunter" versions of popular rifles such as the AR15, and that's pretty weird to me. I'm not suggesting that the types of people buying those are nuts, but I don't really like overly playful humor when it comes to real firearms. You can also by realistic ballistic dummies that look like zombies and bleed when they're shot. There's a scene early into the original Dawn of the Dead where people described as "rednecks" are enjoying shooting zombies wandering around the countryside. They aren't portrayed exactly positively, and that's something that seems to be changing in the now broadening fandom. Romero's zombie films wrote the book and the rules that The Walking Dead borrows from, but Romero's work was usually subversive. It was understood that just getting a bunch of people with guns to hunt zombies wasn't going to work, but that's exactly what a lot of fans of The Walking Dead seem to enjoy seeing. Munster also seems concerned by the trend. She continues:
"I can't help but wonder if people are attracted to killing zombies because it is the closest thing most people will get to killing a human. After all, it's acceptable to shoot a walking corpse in the head but there would be a huge backlash if a gun manufacturer sold anatomically accurate human ballistic dummies for people to use for target practice."
When asked about her thoughts on how zombie films and the fans have changed in recent years, Munster added this:
"Here's where it gets weird; a mainstream culture who idealizes what it originally feared. As somebody that runs a very popular zombie walk, I find it strange that the same people who identify with zombie hunters will also dress as zombies for the zombie walk. Sure, I see hunter types reading hunting magazines featuring beautiful deer, or television programs romanticizing fishing, but you don't seem to see hunters or anglers dressing up as deer, waterfowl, or giant fish in festival or play. All of a sudden the living are walking amongst the dead."
One of the interesting things about the classic zombie, as portrayed in George Romero's films (and there's not much debate about him being the filmmaker who established the zombie rules) is that zombies were portrayed as being distinct characters with their own individual traits. Yes, they were part of an ever growing and dangerous horde, but they retained those unique personalities.
On the other hand, Romero's films generally portrayed the military and other groups as nearly faceless, and I think that's a powerful subtext in those films. It's sad to see zombies mostly shown as faceless members of the undead, briefly menacing, and then quickly dispatched with a Samurai sword or a quick bullet to the head. In the recent film adaptation of World War Z, the zombies are nearly portrayed like a swarming hill of ants or a tidal wave, there's nothing individual about them.
For longtime fans such as myself, seeing the fan interest shifting away from zombies and more towards fantasies of becoming a zombie killer can be kind of jarring. At an enormous event like a zombie walk, where the fandom comes out in force, that divide is readily evident. Munster has watched this new phenomenon develop over the years, and has this to say about it:
"It's almost like a science fiction scenario where you are walking amongst a group of undead and you don't know who or how many among them are entertaining many horrific and brutal ways to annihilate their peers. It takes the unity out of the group mentality of the zombie. It is not that zombies are not all accepting creatures, part of the wonderful thing about them are that everyone from any and all walks of life can be a zombie and walk with the horde. It is just odd that people would fantasize about being a zombie AND killing a zombie, and has definitely weakened the undead pack."
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The Walking Dead is not the only zombie show or film in recent years with an emphasis on making the central monsters more of a target than a consistent threat, but its popularity can't be underestimated when looking at how the fandom is changing. Munster says:
"In every interview I have had in the past five years, I am asked how I am planning for the zombie apocalypse. My usual answer is that we are already in the zombie apocalypse. This is a trans-humanist world, as we experience life through technology; our bodies are just walking shells going through the motions of mundane quotidian existence while our minds are completely wired into online identities. Of course, most people don't like this reply and would rather hear how I am planning to kill zombies. It usually ends with them accepting the response that I am joining the zombies! The fact that this has become a regular and common question in western society, akin to talking about the weather, hurts my undead heart."
I suppose that many people will just point to the fact that The Walking Dead and other recent entries into the zombie world are just entertainment, and that monsters change over time to better reflect the current interests and fears of fans. While there's truth to that, I feel that when you stray too far from a monster being scary -- and in the case of zombies turn them into easily dispatched cannon fodder -- something is lost along the way.
I also wonder if zombie saturation in pop culture is reaching a critical point. Eventually The Walking Dead will end, and unless it has created enough new fans to spawn more of the same kind of material, then the zombie might fade back into the underground. Waiting until there's no more room in Hell, and the dead will walk the Earth again. Time will tell.