The asymmetries of combat in a zombie movie are unlike any other: you have to shoot to kill because only one side is fighting, the other is just hungry. The fate of mankind depends on an effective death blow. Characters can outrun monsters or grab a knife in the kitchen to defend themselves. Or, if the movie was shot in America, there is probably a gun. Only one side can manage the tools.
It’s right there on movie posters where the actors usually appear with their primary weapons. Brad Pitt has an assault rifle on the Second World War (2013), while Martin Freeman is pictured with a cane on the poster for Cargo (2017), an Australian film. Main character has an oar and nunchucks on the 2011 Cuban Zombie movie poster Juan of the dead. Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson are pictured with long guns for the land of zombies (2009). In the poster of Anna and the Apocalypse (2017), filmed in the UK, the protagonist wields an oversized candy cane because it’s also a Christmas movie.
I started noticing how guns appeared in zombie movies after stumbling across a website called IMFDB (Internet Movie Firearms Database), a classic hypertext wiki with articles organized by movie and weapon. Its contributors are a passionate community with the kind of obsession with specs and features one might find in threads of analog synth parts or rare sneaker colourways. In the ‘conversation’ section, users debate things as if a weapon that needs to be cleaned frequently is a smart choice for an elaborate combat sequence. The “Zombie” category is one of the most populated pages on the website (okay, its definition is broad and includes movies like Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975) and video games (generally first-person shooters). Tickets for films like Second World War and TV shows like The walking dead are long and thorough. I now recognize the gun Pitt carries in the Second World War promotional image as M4A1 carbine with M203 grenade launcher.
Second World War begins with chaos and wreckage in downtown Philadelphia. In the midst of the first zombie attacks, Gerry, Pitt’s character, is fortunate enough to stumble upon an abandoned camper van with a shotgun inside. He drives his family to a crowded Newark supermarket as he is looted. At first it looks like Gerry is the only one armed, but in the pharmacy section he meets another man with his Glock. There is an unspoken respect exchanged between the two as men standing up for their families. In one of the aisles, a man with a Sig Sauer P229 attacks Gerry’s wife, and Gerry shoots his newly acquired Remington Model 700. until I read the IMFDB notes.) A police officer arrives at the scene and Gerry signals with his gun to surrender. But the officer is also there to collect preserves; you never see what weapon he’s carrying.
A scene like this would make no sense in a country where public access to firearms is restricted. Weapons appear halfway Cargo and 28 days later (2002). In both films, gun owners exploit the power imbalance their guns establish and serve as examples that not all hot bodies are trustworthy. Two zombie films released last year, each based on the same Matt Naylor script, unwittingly reveal how guns are viewed in the United States and abroad. In Only, set in Los Angeles, the main character accidentally finds a shotgun outside his apartment. In #Living, adapted from the same scenario by Cho Il-hyung, produced in South Korea, the hunting rifle was replaced by a revolver that a police officer dropped. The character who finds it feels remorse for having used it.
Guns as props have oversized meaning in action and horror cinema and shape the way these stories are told. When a weapon is introduced, specific decisions are made in the blocking and composition of the shot. Characters stand differently when attacking zombies with trash can lids or furniture. Train to Busan (2016), which like most international zombie movies only rates a low entry on IMFDB, creates suspense by the absence of weapons. Instead of assault rifles and cowboy confidence, the characters work with the architecture of the train. They dodge and surround the zombies behind the gateways or push them back into the aisles of the seats, washrooms and luggage areas.
The central idea in zombie stories – a fate worse than death – comes from Haitian folklore at the end of French colonial rule. The tales of Golem and Frankenstein’s Monster were also influential. Mid-century sci-fi novels like Richard Matheson’s I’m a legend and that of John Wyndham The Day of the Triffids suggested what the fallout might look like: a pandemonium and deserted cities. (The walking dead and 28 days later both started with a character waking up in the hospital, as the main character in Wyndham did.) Due to George Romero’s influence, zombies were often portrayed as rabid cannibals. They spoke of visions of societal collapse, fear of mortality, chaos and hell on earth. Because Night of the Living Dead, American gun culture and its absence also made an impression. The 1968 film’s extreme script rooted him out of a key part of the rhetoric around gun ownership: protection from the state. There is no coordination with these crowds of uncontrollable human bodies. As a visual, the closest real-world counterpart to humans taking down zombies is a mass shootout.
What once seemed like a trend has never gone away, and now the zombie genre is in a phase of self-reference. Characters in Train to Busan and in novels like that of Paul Tremblay Song of the Survivors (2020) use the word “zombie” to describe the horrors unfolding in front of them. In Warm bodies (2013), an undead character played by Nicholas Hoult poses next to a Lucio Fulci DVD Zombie. But I haven’t yet seen an American zombie movie that deliberately challenges the way guns are portrayed in these stories. Even comedy the land of zombies chooses to satire the zombie tropes rather than the notions of meritocracy that crazed survivors cling to (“The first to go were the fat ones,” Jesse Eisenberg’s character says in the voiceover narration. No wonder the magazine general public of the NRA, American rifleman, named it as one of his favorite films in 2013).
Zombies are used as fictitious threats in real-world emergency response training. They are also common target practice on ranges. In Las Vegas, there is even a âzombie huntâ package, with M4s and Glocks. Come to think of it, a zombie could be the perfect target for the time. It offers us the fantasy of a perfect and victimless shot.