Recently my brother (the other cinephile in the family) and I were discussing films, and we got round to exploring the issue of why the last decade of film has been dominated by so many movies about zombies.
This phenomenon hasn’t just been the hallmark of Hollywood blockbusters either, there have also been plenty of independent films dedicated to the issue of the undead, and they have even been the subject of one of the biggest rating shows on TV recently.
So, the million dollar question is: why now?
It’s important to understand that the culture of the day has a huge bearing upon what we see expressed in our cinemas. In the 1970s, prior to the release of Star Wars, the cynicism and pessimism of the Vietnam War/Watergate era dominated the tone of movies. The same was true earlier, around the dawn of the atomic age and then during the McCarthy period. In the 1980s, of course, it was the Cold War that dominated the cinematic landscape.
So why has this past decade witnessed the return of the zombie?
One way to look at zombie films is to think of them as little more than a pessimistic take on mankind’s true nature. After all, a zombie is ultimately nothing but a human being who has died and returned to life as their basest of selves, an unthinking, virtue-less, violent, self-obsessed consumer. However, I think that such a reading of zombie films, generally speaking, misses what’s really going on in this genre.
Zombie movies aren’t really just about zombies, they almost always entail the break down of society and the end of the world as we know it, and as such they are ultimately about exploring the question, “What would happen if social order broke down tomorrow?”
When you start examining this question you have to put different moral philosophies on trial and ask whether they would be justified in the event of total societal breakdown, and what that means for us today. For example, would the end truly justify the means if the only end ever in question was the survival of you and your loved ones? Or, does societal breakdown justify a resort to social Darwinism — letting the weakest go to the wall?
You also have to start asking questions about the nature of man. Questions like; are we truly capable of choosing the good when every incentive to do so is taken away from us?
I think that most people, if they are honest, and if they take the time to think about things (rather than just distract themselves with the latest amusements and pleasures on offer in our sensuality-addled culture) know that something is seriously amiss in Western society, and that we’ve lost our way as a culture. At the same time, most people are not sure of how to fix what is broken, or even what it is that is broken.
And this is where zombie films come in, because they provide us with a forum where society as we know it can be completely deconstructed and humanity put on trial, and where our current ways of interacting with the rest of our community are put under a microscope and scrutinized in great detail.
Just think back to the zombie movies you’ve ever seen – and you haven’t it would be worth having a look at one or two for the sake of the social commentary — almost all of them have one thing in common; the real threat is not actually the zombies, but other human beings and how they choose to react to the breakdown of social order brought about by the zombie outbreak.
In many ways, zombie films are also a manifestation of our cultural awareness of the fact that despite our massive technological advances and growth in knowledge over the last 150 years or so, the one thing we still cannot do is save ourselves.
Zombie films are a reminder that science and technology are not saviours (in fact, a lot of zombie films begin with an unethical and arrogant Icarus-like use of science) and that all of our new found knowledge and technology is little more than a millstone around our neck if it causes us to forget what is truly important and worth living for.
Brendan Malone lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, and blogs at The leading Edge