I don’t think saying that the zombie trope has completely taken off since its introduction about forty years ago would be a surprising statement to anyone, nerd or otherwise. Zombies have swiftly grown into a major cultural phenomena, infiltrating movies, video games, books, comics, and television. Not only are zombies everywhere now, but they are even evolving. From the slow, staggering, recently risen dead, to the terrifying, running-fast-as-any-sprinter, infected pseudo-human, zombies have made quite the transformation since their American cultural debut in the 1960’s. So what’s up with this big change?
In a 2010 interview with Wired, George A. Romero stated:
“Zack Snyder, in the remake of Dawn [of the Dead], has them running, and he under-cranked it so it made them seem even faster, which never made any sense to me. I think subsequent people caught on and said, ‘Wait a minute, if they’re dead they can’t do these superhuman things, so we won’t make them dead! We’ll make them have caught a virus or something. Or they’ve got the Rage bug, and all of the sudden they’re these superhuman things. I don’t like that — to me it fights tradition.”
In the interview, Romero also credits the inclusion of zombies in video games with their gradual “speeding up”. Now, as an avid zombie lover, it pains me to disagree so heartily with the “Godfather of the Dead”…but that’s what I’m about to do, anyway. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The most striking refutation to this claim is the fact that the canonical beginning to the “zombie-via-infection” trope was actually well before Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead, in the novel I Am Legend which was published in 1954. The “zombies” in this novel are certainly more vampire than shambling dead, but it was still the defining moment of mass apocalypse through metamorphosing-infection. In addition, Romero’s own film The Crazies (1973), utilizes the idea of a bio spill inducing homicidal madness (quite similar to the “rage bug”). So it is very apparent that infected zombies have been around since well before video game dynamics dictated the need for a faster enemy to mow down.
I can’t claim to have any insider information on the film industry, so whether the desire to simply have faster, and therefor more threatening, zombies really was the driving force behind the first infectious zombies, I can’t say. But, even if that was someone’s reasoning behind their creation, I think it is far from why they seem to have stuck so well within the genre. Zombies have always served as a great horror antagonist upon which we can place all of our fears; they serve as a blank slate for social commentary and as a mirror to what fears currently drive us. Given this, the rise of the infected zombie seems well placed in our modern times.
The rise of globalization has spawned a new world with new advantages, new problems, and new fears. While disease has always been a black cloud of dread over humanity, until modern times it hasn’t been seen as a truly global threat. A bad bout of plague or smallpox could wipe out entire communities (and the Black Death certainly came close to ending Europe at one point) but a truly apocalyptic pandemic is something we could never truly fear except in an age of rising urban areas, quick global transportation, and surging populations. We truly fear for our species as a whole for the first time in our existence. This fear goes beyond disease, but encompasses the fear that we will destroy ourselves, whether by degradation of the Earth, nuclear war, or depletion of resources. This rise of infectious zombies is simply continuing what the zombie genre has always done by giving us a way to superimpose our fears within the traditional horror medium; it is acting out our prevalent fear of human-like beings swiftly destroying the world.
The more classic zombies that follow Romero’s model had a way of infecting others, with the well-known idea of transfer through bite. This mode of “zombie infection”, while terrifying in and of itself at the time of its creation, contains the spread of zombie-ism to pre-globalization standards; entire communities and maybe even countries may fall, but with physical quarantine and other containment measures, the idea of a truly global zombie apocalypse seems less likely. The use of a contagion that is spread more easily than the necessary physical act of being caught, bitten, and killed, helps promote this modern fear we currently hold of a catastrophic pandemic.
I would go as far as to say that this “speed up” we have seen in zombies is yet another way of capturing that fear of a quickly-spread lethality. The “rage virus”, featured in 28 Days Later, would have been severely hindered if not for the very fast zombies that carried and spread it. In this film the disease is infectious and can be transferred without a bite, but it does rely on the blood as a mode of transport for the disease. If these zombies were truly dead, and had the hindering muscular effects included with that state, the spread of disease would have been greatly slowed. It is this fast spread of disease via fast zombies that truly encompasses this modern fear of a sudden apocalypse; the idea that humanity will end so swiftly that we won’t even have enough time to comprehend what is going on, let alone stop it. This greatly reflects the state of global threats other than disease as well. It seems we are only truly becoming aware of environmental threats as they loom apocalyptic before us, growing and spreading quickly out of control just as we are beginning to understand their workings.
This new fear of global catastrophe is both depressing and real, which is another reason that I believe the infected zombie trope will continue to be popular. Not only do they accurately represent our new fear in this modern age, they also grant us one thing the merely undead zombies simply couldn’t: Hope. While undead zombies have fought against nature to walk once again, we are never given any indication to believe that death is a truly reversible thing; that these walking dead humans will ever return to what they once were. The idea of a spreading virus, however, grants viewers the hope that humanity may not have lost just yet. Whether through development of an actual cure, or through a small cadre of humans hiding out until the disease has finally run its course and consumed all of its infected, it leaves us with the idea that even if humanity brings itself to its knees, that there may be hope for recovery. And that what will rise from this recovery will hopefully be a wiser and more resilient humanity than that which came so close to ending itself.
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