Zombies (probably) aren’t real. These are metaphors. From their roots in Haitian folklore to their current incarnations as victims of a global virus, zombies have reflected the social anxieties of every generation for decades. Either way, for better or worse, the undead defied their limited cognitive abilities to tell us something beyond, “Uuuunnnggnnn…”
Their final message, of course, lies in World War Z – the Brad Pitt vehicle that elevates the zombie outbreak metaphor to a global level. The movie threw a lot of undead legacy under the bus, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have a place in the continued evolution of zombie lore. It’s just about taking the idea of zombies as a substitute for social anxieties in a new direction — in this case, primarily xenophobia and fear of viral outbreaks. This continues a long and distinguished history of zombie themes replacing hot topics like slave rebellion, communism, über-capitalism, technophobia, and globalization. However, the way Zombie Tales – and their fans – deal with these issues has proven to be as problematic as the issues themselves. (Like, for example, the production of zombie ex-girlfriend shooting targets.)
Perhaps the most iconic notion of the zombie was defined in 1968 with George Romero night of the living deadwho transformed the terrifying but ultimately harmless zombies of the first half of the 20and century into a mindless, brain-eating nightmare that would most certainly wipe out the human race. It placed humanity – in a deeply tumultuous time – in an ominous, dystopian context that offered no solutions and presented death as random and senseless. It even ended with the death of its hero.
It was normal for the course.
“Zombie movies all ended, in those days, with this incredibly dark sense of despair,” says Sarah Juliet Lauro, a zombie scholar who currently teaches English and film at Clemson University.
(Spoiler warning: Minor spoilers for World War Z follow in the text below.)
Lauro, whose thesis and all of his work (including Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as a Posthuman and “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism”) deal with the history of the zombie mythos, says Romero’s iconic zombie trope was overturned in 2002 in another genre revolution by the director Danny Boyle. 28 days later. The film, which imagined a faster, more brutal version of the monster, focused on symbolic fears of terrorism after 9/11 and reassigned blame for the zombie apocalypse to a highly transmutable character, 21st-century virus. This shift was “a defining moment in zombie narrative,” says Lauro, transforming it from a story of desperation and extinction into a story of survival – or at least its possibility.
“[28 Days Later] opened the door to all the ways post-millennium movies seem to end on a happier note,” she adds.
World War Z was no exception, with its emphasis on survivalism and the idea that there was a cure to be discovered and a future to be won. But another significant thematic shift took place, from the fantasy horror of its predecessors to a more logical concept of the end of days – one where zombies could easily replace realistic modern threats. As Wired’s Angela Watercutter wrote, this reality softened the zombie narrative so that “it could just as well have been about a different kind of epidemic and just as harrowing.”