Zombies are everywhere.
Seriously, they are everywhere. I just read today that Dr. Who alumnus Matt Smith has signed on for a movie adaption of the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Yeah, that’s a real thing.
A couple of days ago I finally watched Brad Pitt fight zombies in World War Z, also an adaption of a book. Oddly enough, when I turned the film off, the television news was on and it was about . . . the ebola virus. I thought the movie had started over again on me.
And those are just big budget ones. Go over to Amazon or Goodreads and search for zombie. You’ll be there a while.
What I’m want to know is why? A parallel question would be why are dystopian stories so popular now, but I’ll save that for another day.
First, let’s do the typical stylistic reasons, and then I’ll get to the real reason, or at least the reason I think zombies are everywhere.
1. For an action movie, there has to be an enemy that can be killed without remorse. This used to be the Nazis, the Indians, the other army, or whatever. You can’t do that too much now because we always put faces on those blocks of people. That leaves you with about three choices—aliens, robots, or . . . zombies. Those are really the only bad guys you can have in a film and let your hero/heroine kill on sight with no questions asked. I hear you saying, “What about Sharknado?” and I say, okay, but aren’t those really just aquatic zombies?
2. Zombies also can stand in as a symbol for “the system” or “the machine” or even “society.” That was the intention of the king of zombie flicks, Night of the Living Dead. The zombies represent the process by which teenagers grow up, take responsibility, and are consumed by the system into soulless cogs. The zombies in Star Trek, called The Borg, started off as stand-ins for communism but eventually turned into stand-ins for dictatorships. In Zombieland I think the zombies represent the pain the world inflicts on us. Although, I still don’t know why they had to kill Bill Murray. Consider for a moment that The Matrix is really just a zombie movie, where machines steal the soul of people, but people fight back to regain their humanity.
3. One more artistic reason. Zombies are a ready-made template which require almost zero exposition. The reader/viewer knows what is going on, so the writer can spend most of the time on character development. Shaun of the Dead is a good example of this, so too is Warm Bodies. Those are both really just character movies that explore feelings and relationships. The Zombies are the canvas to work with. Take the zombies out of Warm Bodies and you just have Romeo and Juliet.
I think all of those are partial reasons why zombies are everywhere. They each have merits, and I don’t dismiss them completely. However, the over-arching reason zombies are everywhere is theological. There are three reasons why.
First, zombies (and that annoying dystopian predilection I mentioned earlier) are one way our culture is registering its comprehension that something is simply not right with the world. I got a root canal last week, and the dentist told me to raise my hand if I felt any pain. All these zombies everywhere is one way our world is raising its hand to tell us it is feeling pain, or at least, anxiety. Although zombies have been with us for a while, dystopia and zombies both emerged heavily after 9/11 . Click here to go over to Zombie Zone News and see the listings by year. See how the list explodes after 2001. Think about it.
How is that theological, you might say. In literature/film zombies come from outer space, disease, genetics, food, mutation, radioactivity, etc… It is the problem of evil. It is the idea that the world is not right. It is original sin. A perfect world was messed up. Eden was ruined.
Second, as stand-ins, zombies are the ultimate ‘undead.’ They have bodies and bodily functions, but there is no higher cognitive power (metanoia). They represent those who are governed by their instincts and fleshly desires. Again, consider the movie Warm Bodies. What is it, in the end, that heals the zombie? Love. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, just love.
Is that not, in some way, connected to the gospel which teaches that while we were yet dead in our sins, Jesus loved us and died for us? Buddy, that’ll preach.
Third, and last, zombies ask us what does it mean to be a human being? If a person is only a body, then a zombie, even after being bitten/diseased/possessed is still a human being. But in these movies, once a human ‘turns’ zombie, he or she is no longer human. That means, de facto, that in the zombie universe there is something about a human being that makes him or her different. In one way, it is art shouting, even if it doesn’t know it, that no matter what scientists and biologists keep saying there is no way that a human being is just another biological entity. There is something different. Artists rarely come out and say it, but Christian theology calls this difference the imago dei–the image of God.
Of course, reverse this thought and another interesting idea emerges. In the zombie universe, a human can lose the unique distinctive, turning into a violent animal. Perhaps that is a fear of the future without a spiritual center showing itself up in our societal art.
I have argued before, and will continue to argue, that the human desire for stories, and the way we tell those stories is evidence of God and of the gospel. For all their yuckiness, that truth applies to zombies as well. The reason why zombies are everywhere is because the world needs the gospel, as it always has, but it is a patient who doesn’t want to take the medicine, and therefore keeps complaining about the symptoms.
image from junkee.com and wikipedia.