Zombie Nation

On TV, the silver screen and in our games: it’s post-apocalypse, now...
Night Of The Living Dead

Brad Pitt’s latest movie, World War Z (out now, you know), took over $66 million at the US box office on its opening weekend. The film – an adaptation of the 2006 novel of the same name – finds mankind battling a global zombie pandemic, and winning. Sort of.

On the small screen, two shows focusing on events surrounding very different revivals of the deceased, The Returned (aka Les Revenants) and The Walking Dead, are reaping significant acclaim. The former, a French drama in its first series, has beautifully merged supernatural motifs with tense, Lynch-like mystery. It’s a wondrous thing, stylish and creepy, its ‘zombies’ far removed from the rotting, groaning grotesques of formality. The latter, meanwhile, is now in its third series, its more-standard nasties weighed down by an impressive number of industry awards.

And in gaming, zombies – after a fashion – are leading the sales charts. The PlayStation 3-only title The Last Of Us has held the UK top spot for three weeks running. The game sold around 1.3 million copies globally in its first week on sale – an astonishing figure given its single-console exclusivity.

But why are zombies so prevalent across the entertainment industry right now? Is it coincidence that these cross-media releases have converged like some sort of zeitgeist-defining Triforce? 

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World War Z trailer

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As an antagonistic force in storytelling, the shuffling and moaning – or, in some cases, sprinting and screaming – zombie hordes have only been a notable villainous presence since George A Romero’s 1968 flick Night Of The Living Dead. And even then, Romero never referred to his terror-inducing grave-escapers (one of them, pictured main) as “zombies”. It was fans of the film that named them such.

Before then, one might have to go as far back as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the genesis of the modern zombie character – even though the monster of said tale isn’t actually a revived individual, but comprises, we presume, the body parts of several late souls. And Shelley’s creation didn’t want to be evil; society painted it in those colours, and circumstances conspire to deliver on the promise.

Today’s zombie is a multi-faceted beast – and some zombies aren’t really zombies at all. In The Last Of Us, the ‘zombies’ aren’t dead, just as the red-eyed terrors of 28 Days Later aren’t, either. Rather, their motor skills and propensity for extreme aggression fall under the control of a neo-parasitic fungus, cordyceps. That this is a genuine fungus, which spreads itself via the infection of ants across Southeast Asia, lends the Naughty Dog-developed game a real-world parallel not entirely commonplace in the zombie genre.

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The Last Of Us trailer

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28 Days Later’s screenplay writer, Alex Garland, gave zombie-themed movies a considerable shot in the arm with his 2002 depiction of slavering, murderous masses, who seem to exist only to increase their ranks via the savaging of the uninfected. Forget the questionable sequel, which Garland didn’t write: 28 Days Later is, in places, even over 10 years on from its release, genuinely terrifying.

Garland, a keen gamer, spoke to Edge magazine in late 2012, about spurring the zombie renaissance. “Zombies is just a genre,” he told the mag’s issue #245 in October, “like vampires or aliens. You can reinvent them and keep working them as long as you want.”

“Just a genre,” perhaps – but a massively popular one at the moment; so much so that a major gaming presence, Nintendo, decided to launch their latest console with a zombie-themed title. The Japanese superpower’s Wii U emerged in late-2012 with the horrifically violent and tremendously challenging ZombiU as a bundle-packaged attraction. It was a bold move from a company typically associated with family friendly experiences, and cutesy characters from the Super Mario Bros. universe.

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ZombiU trailer

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In Edge’s issue #244, from September 2012, it asks why zombies are “everywhere at the moment”? To which ZombiU’s story design director Gabrielle Shrager replies: “As Romero said, they’re an allegory for whatever troubles society is facing at the time. More and more, people think the world is moving toward a bad ending. Survivalists are stocking up for the apocalypse. Zombies are also the worst thing we can imagine becoming. To make them more scary, you humanise them – they are us. Zombies look like cannon-fodder, until you’re faced with your brother or sister…”

It’s true that, with the end of the world supposedly scheduled, via a misreading of the Mayan calendar, for December 21st 2012, last year some people went a little OTT with their weekly shops. So perhaps zombies as an allegory made sense then. But now? With (at the time of writing!) a British player on course for Wimbledon success, and peace talks with the Taliban looking likely? Surely we’re due a little optimism in our television habits and occasional trips to the cinema. 

Well… perhaps. But the zombie-as-allegory relationship doesn’t have to hold ties to a true apocalypse. Scan the ‘net and soon enough other theories pop onscreen. Zombies as an allegory for Western cultural values, as the embodiment of consumerism gone mad. As the result of man’s pursuit of ever-advanced technology. (Romero’s original ‘zombies’ having risen after the explosion of a radioactive space probe.) As a clear, black-and-white visualisation of the divisions in social and economic class across humanity.

So the genre can twist to suit many a narrative backbone, and it’s perhaps this flexibility of zombies within the fantasy sphere that’s seen them rise to the top of the supernatural pecking order: putting vampires back in their caskets after the runaway success of the Twilight series, and aliens on the back foot as Prometheus failed to fully reignite the fires that drove H.R. Giger’s acid-dribbling xenomorph into the nightmares of millions.

Whatever the principles of a fictional piece, chances are some brains-munching lurches can be shoehorned into proceedings. We need look no further than the 2009 novel Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, a film adaptation of which is planned, for evidence of a modern monster infiltrating a culturally momentous cornerstone of English literature.

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The Returned (Les Revenants) trailer

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So: why zombies, and why now? The answer’s a simple one. They are our blank canvasses. They can be whatever we make them into. They are fictional, entirely, yet oddly more believable as constructs as many other fantasy ghouls, ghosts or goblins. Romero’s model might dominate our preconceptions of what a zombie should be – but through Garland’s inspired revision of the monsters, furthered by Naughty Dog’s relating of far-fetched but nevertheless legitimate cause to shocking effect, zombies are evolving.

Pitt fought hard for the rights to World War Z back in 2007. Now, the film is paying back that investment. Did he have a crystal ball informing him that zombies would be big business in 2013? Of course not. But maybe, just maybe, he recognised that nobody’s ever killed the head of the zombie genre, and so the body will crawl ever-onwards.   

And may that head never be squashed beneath the boot of an upper-hand-achieving mankind, for the sake of all our entertainment futures.

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Bitten by the zombie bug? Tweet us about your favourite examples of the genre.

Sort-of-related: check out seven of the best Zomby tracks, here.

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