Care for some brains with your popcorn? With the release of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, the overwhelming popularity of zombie television shows like the CW’s iZombie, AMC’s The Walking Dead and the premiere of Santa Clarita Diet last month, it doesn’t need to be Halloween season for zombies to re-enter the public dialogue. Year-round, movies of the zombie horror genre stand out as creative, bloody, and real depictions of life on earth, and, particularly, of American society.
Even if you’re starved of brains, it’s clear to see that zombies are symbols of fear stemming from overpopulation and declining social structure, fear surrounding grief and loss, fear in our own government and what they are capable of, and fear of ourselves. Zombies prove time and time again that they reign supreme; more so than any other movie monster.
Newsweek writer Raina Kelley’s 2010 article, “The Social Significance of Zombies” perfectly sums up our relationship with zombie movies as the top champs of the supernatural subgenre. “Forget about vampires; they’re for porn addicts and tweens. And werewolves, well, finding those hairy beasts sexy just smacks of bestiality,” Kelley wrote. “Only zombies allow us to dream of saving the world a la Mad Max, and remind us that most of the time, we’re just shabby, mindless drones.”
While many horror movies take a stab at confronting societal fears and cultural problems, the zombie genre takes it a step further. Movies like Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Maggie, and 28 Days Later cover a range of societal illness and fears. In these three movies alone, we can see themes of population control, widespread disease, militant greed, natural disaster preparedness, politics, consumerism, and racism throughout.
The last and most recent Resident Evil film concludes with the “Umbrella Corporation” revealing that they released the “T-Virus” on purpose in order to essentially socially cleanse the overpopulated, crime-filled, and natural resource-depleted world. This literal and symbolic Noah’s Arc plan was designed to eradicate the population and start over again, leaving the elite and wealthy corporation heads with the sole responsibility of remaking the planet. The plague of zombies in the films was a deliberate end game for humanity. While there might not be any serious plan to demolish over half the planet’s people count, the idea that flesh (and brain) eating disease being used to decrease the planet’s carbon-based life-forms is a unique, yet disturbing way to address a serious planetary concern.
Zombies are not just a useful metaphor for population control, they are also used as a tool to talk about the aftermath of actual diseases. In the 2015 movie Maggie, the plot focuses on the relationship between a father and daughter after the daughter becomes infected with the zombie virus. While dangers of any zombie virus are a prominent feature in the film, the point of the movie is not about zombies, but the stages of grief for a parent after their child has been delivered a death sentence. The film weaves a zombie narrative around a very real topic using the deteriorating transformation of human to zombie to mirror the deteriorating transformation of healthy to sick.
Of course, no zombie movie would be complete without a militant force driving the birth of the virus. The opening scene of the 2002 movie 28 Days Later features an animal lab full of chimpanzees that have been given an experimental dosage of a rage virus ultimately intended to make them super soldiers in times of war. This experiment goes horribly wrong and infects everyone not only did the virus not produce super soldiers, but it ended up turning priests into flesh eating monsters.
But let’s rewind a bit because military, government, and/or scientist involvement in viruses — either for warfare or the benefit of mankind — turned disastrous is a highly used plot in numerous zombie films. In I Am Legend, The Crazies, Planet Terror, Zombie Strippers, and Aaah! Zombies!! (just to name a few), the cause of the virus didn’t appear naturally — it was chemically engineered to enhance humanity, and boy, did they miss that mark.
Another interesting use of zombies as a metaphor for society is how they can function as a reminder to be prepared for disasters — in this case, apocalyptic ones. In all zombie movies, it is important to find a shelter on high ground, clean water, food, medical supplies, and means to defend yourself. Regardless of the situation at hand, most of the plot in zombie movies is to stay alive and wait out the storm, just like any natural disaster scenario would advise.
In fact, zombie apocalypse movies were so good at representing actual disasters that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) actually started using zombies to advertise for disaster kits. They have an entire “zombie preparedness” section on their website to go along with their preparedness blog, zombie posters, and their graphic novella describing how effective disaster kits can be in time of crisis. “Wonder why Zombies, Zombie Apocalypse, and Zombie Preparedness continue to live or walk dead on a CDC web site? As it turns out what first began as a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages has proven to be a very effective platform. We continue to reach and engage a wide variety of audiences on all hazards preparedness via Zombie Preparedness,” said the CDC’s opening statement on their zombie page.
The zombie narrative even found a way to creep and crawl into American politics. S. Peter Davis, editor and writer for the comedy and entertainment website Cracked, published an article in 2011 titled “6 Mind-Blowing Ways Zombies and Vampires Explain America” After the article juxtaposes our fears of vampires with Republican fears against the Democratic party, if he compares zombie-ism to the reverse — Democratic fears of Republicanism. Davis argues that Democrats fear zombies because of the fear the notion of the mindless horde, which they associate with Republicans when they’re in office.
“The current incarnation of the zombie was given to us almost single-handedly by George Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead and its sequels. Specifically, it’s the second movie in the series, Dawn of the Dead, in which Romero decided his blood-and-guts horror movie was going to double as a metaphor for mindless, mass consumerism,” wrote Davis. “And to really drive the point home, the survivors who barricade themselves in the mall in Romero’s movie immediately fall victim to the allures of capitalism. They greedily loot the place… At one point, one of the characters looks upon the zombie horde and laments, ‘They’re us.’”
Even sketch comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele contributed to the zombie narrative when they created their “White Zombies” sketch, featuring racist zombies. While humorous in structure, the selectiveness of the zombies’ pair with the racist selectiveness in America.
Although zombies technically aren’t within the realm of possibility (as far as we can tell), there are scientists at the U.S.-based biotech company Bioquark who were recently given the go-ahead to “combat our unfortunate transition toward disease, degeneration, and aging” by experimenting with stem cells. One such project of theirs, according to a Telegraph article, includes the possibility of essentially re-growing the brain. As we all know, that’s always how it all starts. Even though it’s true that sometimes things are better left dead, in the realm of fiction, we still have a lot to learn from the horror movie genre.