Whether you like it or not, the zombie genre has permanently made their mark in the entertainment world. Today we watch zombie films, play zombie shooter games or go for zombie haunted houses. How did the zombie genre come about, and why are these walking dead so popular? Turns out, zombie films are rarely just about the undead with sallow complexion, bad teeth, and a weird shuffle.
We are all zombies
Zombie movies are never just about zombies – they’re a metaphor for political commentary and social fears.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) revolutionised the zombie metaphor with ‘flesh eaters’; prior to this, zombies were merely human puppets, reflecting fears of mind control at the time. Romero’s movie was a critique of violence and devastation of Vietnam – a single zombie bite turning humans into zombies reflects the fears of loved ones turning on one another.
In Dawn of the Dead (1978), the images of zombies mindlessly walking, groping, and drooling over consumer goods reflects the cult of consumerism and capitalism. It’s pretty much the same story decades on, as depicted in the arthouse flick The Dead Don’t Die (2019), where zombies are obsessed by consumer items.
Over the decades, the world had witnessed a number of major virus outbreaks: Ebola, AIDS, avian flu, SARS, and now COVID-19. Contagion became an explanation for how zombies are reanimated, as depicted in movies like Resident Evil (2002) and 28 Days Later (2002), which was credited with a new breed of zombie: the fast-moving, disease-infected type that prefers spreading infection than eating brains. World War Z (2013) made the contagion global as air travel became more affordable.
While external forces can be blamed for societal woes, the biggest fear lies in the darkness of humanity itself.
In the TV series The Walking Dead (2010 to present), zombies are the least of the survivors’ problems. In this post-apocalyptic hellscape, the protagonists are constantly imperiled by other survivors: groups of armed bandits, psychotic cult leaders, biker gangs, and thugs, illustrating the dangers of racism and white supremacy.
In The Cured (2018), zombies are cured and returned to society, but they face discrimination and social issues that lead to militant interference, reflecting how society behaves in an era of anti-immigration.
Korean blockbuster Train to Busan (2016) is a scathing indictment of Korean society, highlighting the archaic hierarchy where the entitled rich screw over everybody in order to survive. It’s pretty much the same in any country with a class divide, from the US to Singapore. Similarly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) is about classism represented by zombies.
Not all zombie movies highlight big, societal issues; some are more personal.
Zombie comedies like Zombieland (2009) reminds us of who we should trust, while Shaun of the Dead (2004) makes us reevaluate our ambition of achieving something. Warm Bodies (2013) is a romance with an underlying religious tone about overcoming sins with love.
Because zombies are great storytelling tools, these films have spiked in the last two decades, giving filmmakers a way to express racial sublimation, war, communism, mass contagion, globalism and, more than anything, human nature. These stories of survival are a criticism of the prevailing social order and the dystopian future that awaits us.