Zombies are no passing fad or Halloween conceit.
They’re a $5-billion industry, with fans from Rio to Moscow, from outport Newfoundland to downtown Toronto, the birthplace of a now-international phenomenon, the Zombie Walk.
There are movies, children’s books, video games and music dedicated to the subject. But zombies are much more than a commercial opportunity. These pustulating shamblers are really you and me, and have a lot to tell us.
With AMC airing new episodes of the popular TV series The Walking Dead starting this Sunday, CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition offers you four brain-blasting thoughts about zombies.
1. Any one of us could be a zombie
One of the recurring themes of zombie entertainment is that it’s blind to gender, race and class distinctions, says Chris Alexander, filmmaker and editor-in-chief of Fangoria magazine.
He cites George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, where “we see nun zombies, Hare Krishna zombies, Little League baseball players, clowns — every walk of life that you can imagine… meets their end in some way and comes back as the living dead.”
The result, for the viewer, is an even greater sense of unease, as so many symbols of a secure, happy existence are shown to have been compromised.
“It’s that dichotomy, that feeling of attraction to something, and you get too close to it, and immediately you’re repulsed by it.”
The nun, for example, “is a symbol of safety, of grace, of a higher power, if you will. And yet you get closer and there’s chunks of human flesh wedged between her teeth, her one eyeball is missing, half of her cheek is torn off, she’s staring at you hungrily and now suddenly is perverted and threatening and horrifying.”
2. Zombies are all our anxieties bundled into one package
One thing that zombie mania has shown us is that the walking dead make a convenient metaphor for all sorts of manmade ills, says Andrew Watson, a Ph.D candidate in environmental history at York University in Toronto.
He points out that George Romero’s first film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), was about a zombie epidemic that was unleashed when a probe returned from outer space.
“So this first movie is really a reflection of people’s anxiety during the 1960s about nuclear fallout and radiation, that kind of thing,” he says.
Romero’s next film, Dawn of the Dead, tapped into the nascent environmentalism of the 1970s: “It’s very much of a reflection of people’s concerns with overconsumption, overpopulation and the finite resources of the earth.”
Watson says after the 9/11 attacks, the films took yet another thematic turn. Movies such as 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead showcase a more threatening type of ghoul: fast-moving zombies.
These are “zombies that can run really quickly, can climb fences, break down doors more easily,” he says.
These post-9/11 zombies are in a lot of ways “a reflection of our fears about the idea that you might find yourself in a situation where you’re surrounded by people trying to be violent against you. It’s a response to the kinds of anxieties that people had after 9/11 about crowds and terrorism.”
3. It’s the humans who are scary, not the zombies
Zombies are frightful, but they’re also a reflection of our own greed, selfishness and stupidity, says Fangoria’s Alexander.
“The zombie is, plainly put, [a] shadow of what we were now coming back to consume what we are, and I can’t think of anything more horrifying than that,” he says.
“What’s really interesting is that in the best zombie movies, indeed when you look at the humans versus the zombies, you start to question who the monsters are,” he says.
The humans are “the guys that let ego get the better of them, that let their own insecurities and anxieties get the better of them. They’re the dudes that always end up plugging each other, killing each other, fighting with each other, segregating each other and usually it’s them that bring about their own demise, not the zombies.
“The zombies are just kind of the afterthought. They’re just the guys who are sitting there, waiting for their cue. Again, zombies are death, but death is brought upon by many factors, and it’s always the humans who screw things up.”
4. The zombie world can actually be a comforting place
Yes, it’s possible to find solace in the living dead — just ask Thea Faulds, a.k.a Thea Munster, the founder of the Zombie Walk, a street celebration that was launched in Toronto and now takes place around the world.
“I think the idea of the zombies was really appealing to me because I was an only child,” says Faulds, an avowed horror fan.
“I always think of myself as kind of a loner, and that’s why I related to monsters in the first place. And when I saw zombies, it was just a number of monsters together who were outcasts who came together to form a group. And to me that was a very attractive idea. I wanted to find that sense of community.”