So, there’s this trope in apocalyptic fiction. Stop me if you’ve seen it. A lonely man walks a lonely road with a gun. This is the beating heart of the zombie genre, especially in video games. It’s a simple engine for tension and morally clear murder. You might have guessed by my tone that I take issue with this. I get that some people like zombie movies. Those people aren’t me but they exist. At the end of the day, I think that a zombie is a very boring enemy. A zombie is weaker than a human. A zombie is dumber than a human. Now, one might argue, that zombies are most effective in chaotic shambling hordes. Well, let’s get into this.
Now, most zombie fiction takes place in a contemporary world. Most zombie outbreaks are viral. Now, the core conceit of zombie fiction is that zombies overrun society and throw the world into utter chaos. The problem I have with most zombie fiction is that it skips over the initial process of the world going to shit. No zombies, lab accident, zombies. Depending on the fiction, zombies begin from a single group and spread from there. I’m going to present two scenarios about the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse. Feel free to disagree in the comments or on social media.
First, a broken lab sample results in one of the scientists getting infected. Let’s say that the effect is realised immediately and that the initial outbreak occurs at the lab. One scientist gets infected and manages to kill two others when they attempt to subdue him. These three zombies then set out after the remaining humans in the building. How long before they encounter a door. If it were mostly glass they could break through with no self-preservation instinct. Great, now how long before they encounter a door mostly composed of metal. Can zombies turn door handles? I’d err on the side of not. Doesn’t take too long before the zombies are outrun, outsmarted and eventually eliminated.
Now, let’s say that the initial incident doesn’t result in an immediate turn and lax protocols allow this guy to go home. Let’s say this guy has a family and manages to turn his children and they all turn the wife. This family unit must them spread amongst their community. How long before the police subdue the situation? Do they manage to get any of the neighbours? Are there ways around this nitpick? Am I not suspending my disbelief enough? Maybe, but there’s an interesting film in simply see how a zombie virus tries to take hold and how society reacts to that.
Now, in this post-apocalypse, who survives? Generally, we see small groups of survivors who are armed fighting the hordes of zombies. The contemporary zombie genre is in some ways an evolution of the western. A lone gunman in the savagery of the wild world. Civilisation as a respite and a cesspool. Thematically, you can see the similarities. Now, I might take issue with the unique American-ness of the zombie/western genre and its idolisation of the gun. Zombie media often features a gun-toting hero, whether it be the genre staple of the shotgun or the less-used pistol. Now, I admit, some of my trepidation around this idea comes from the fact that guns are hard to come by in my home country. Thus, guns to be are notable when they exist in fiction because they are heavily regulated where I live. Thus, gunslingers feel like they’re playing into a very specific myth. The good guy with a gun myth.
I’m not here to ruin anybody’s fun. You can still enjoy zombie fiction. I enjoy Fallout despite its relations to these troupes that I don’t enjoy. I just want to show why I don’t like this type of fiction. Now, what would appeal to me more in zombie fiction? Personally, one thing that would interest me immensely is how a modern society reshapes its ideas about society when faced with a massive internal cataclysm. Fiction like The Last of Us seems to fit closely with my ideas on this. It also examines the hero figure of the western genre in the way that Joel is portrayed. Another element is that for the zombies to feel like a credible threat, I would like to see a central intelligence connecting them. So, imagine the following film:
We begin in a walled-off settlement. Life is tougher than before but there seem to be structures in place. The leader of the settlement is a sensible man. He assigns other sensible people to oversee their own section. Each has their own flaws but they’re all fundamentally good people. Then, the perimeter fence seems to have been broken in the night. More forces are deployed to that section and a now unguarded section is attacked and the leader of the settlement is kidnapped. The remaining leaders begin to bicker and discuss what should be done. A squad of military forces are sent out beyond the wall to find the mayor. The small group are convinced the mayor is dead but do as ordered. As they follow the horde, the settlement seems to suffer continued attacks that chip away at their defences. This continues as tensions mount inside and outside the wall. The settlement cedes more and more power to its military leaders who take more responsibility until it seems as if the city has become an authoritarian regime. The group outside discover that the zombies are moving to a centralised point. They uncover an individual who has been organising the zombies. He seems to have had a hand in their creation. The group fight bitterly to defeat him and bring down the zombies. Only one survives. He makes his way back to the settlement and soon discovers what has become of his settlement. It has become completely totalitarian, so much so that he is threatened as an outsider, despite his belonging not so long ago. He leaves in search of a new settlement.
Of course, that’s just the movie I want but I suspect I’m not the only one who wants to see zombie media engage with a thematic examination of society, like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Horror can examine themes in a way that other genres can’t. Stoker’s Dracula, Peele’s Get Out. While I’m not the biggest horror fan, I think it can be deeper than the schlock it tends to be characterised by in the current moment.
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