Zombies, they’re everywhere.
This hasn’t always been the case, not long ago zombies were relegated to poor cinema and looked down upon by most respectable citizens. Somewhat like comic books. But now zombies have bloomed, taking up residence in movies, games, books, comics, and even music. Ask a person how they feel about zombies and instead of the former “Zom-what?” you will now get a bevy of answers ranging from “OMG I love zombies!” to the phrase that has inspired this article, “Pft, zombies are so overplayed.”
Before we begin it is best we fully establish what we are talking about, and a bit of what we will not be talking about. First, for the purposes of this article I will be using Zombie to reference the eternally decaying undead that feast upon the flesh of the living. The same zombie as depicted by George Romero back in 1968. Being a fan of both voodoo and zombies I am aware that they go back much further than the sixties but also that they were not always walking corpses. But as the traditional voodoo zombie is not the focus of popular culture we will not be focusing on them.
Secondly, concerning the purpose of zombies. I will be discussing why they are relevant and what purpose they serve. But my scope will be limited to their aspects in modern media, with a possible primary focus on games, and not their fear effect in whole. Zombies are a reminder of death, the one enemy we can never escape, and the corpse variety take that even further by not only showing the afterlife in a horrible light but by literally consuming life. These are high concepts that relate to all manner of zombie but I will be focusing on lower concepts for reasons of brevity and because we all know zombies represent said fear of death.
So what do zombies represent and why are they in every game and movie released as of late? Primarily because they transcend evil. It is a long standing fact that tossing Nazis into a game makes for a simplistic and morality-free villain. Even the Germans came to hate Nazis whose cruelty is handily recorded. ‘Shoot a Nazi and move on’ my grandpa always used to say. Well, not really. The point is in the hierarchy of bad guys, the Nazi is king. We give more love to Imperial stormtroopers then we do to Nazis, despite some pretty heavy similarities. But in an age where we have begun focusing on human rights, motivation, and the possibility that our previous ‘lots of violence’ approach to problem solving is wrong it can be seen that while upper management is pretty dirty there was a very human element to german soldiers which could lead to grief. Not so with zombies!
Zombies don’t care, they don’t reason, and the most I’ve ever heard one say was one line to lay a trap for more food. They are a force of nature, a destructive element with no redeeming value that all of our advanced ways can never hope to communicate with. They don’t even have an ideal to strive for; they simply eat man and move on. But zombies have a face, and a form, and that makes them awesome. With that face comes our ability to punch back. Hurricane takes your house? Sorry buddy but you’re screwed. Zombie eats your wife? Take this axe and give ‘em hell! In this fashion zombies represent a force of evil that transcends itself, and uncaring force of destruction that has just enough of a physical form to allow us hope.
It is that form which gives us the second reason why zombies have achieved such a high status. Zombies are human, mostly, in form and origin. We can understand them; we can discuss their weaknesses and strengths. This simply fact alone is strong evidence to their popularity; how many of you have sat around with friends having a debate on what zombies can do and how you would escape? It’s a pointless debate, but it’s fun and because they are so closely tied to humans it makes it easy to base decisions and set limitations. You know zombies won’t have laser vision or the ability to fly, but can they run? That’s a question open for debate with strong evidence on both sides because they were human.
Their previous humanity leaks into our mentality and how we perceive them as threats. Imagine for a moment the game Perfect Dark. It never achieved the success of Goldeneye but on it’s own it was pretty fun. Mostly in the beginning though, as you infiltrated office buildings and got into shootouts with guards. Later in the game they introduce the main plot, which was giant aliens and mother ships and all kinds of things above our heads. Then the game became muddles, because we don’t know how a gun would affect aliens, or what their attacks would encompass. We don’t even understand how they think or operate because they are alien. The game removed itself too far from a human perspective and the focus suddenly blurred.
You need that focus in fiction, it draws the viewer/player in and helps immerse them in the world. This is why the primary protagonist in most fiction is human or at least human like in the case of Lord of the Rings and The Dark Crystal. Zombies being human simply reinforces their capabilities and limits, it lets you know what might or might not work. And on a darker level, it’s simply more satisfying to shoot a human target. It fits in your mind, gives you hope, and when you finish pulling the trigger you get a small rush that the target is dead. Take any game where the damage is offset to the high end, such as Black, where you have to nearly unload a clip into a human bad guy just to kill them. It diminishes your power; it doesn’t make the game harder it just makes you worthless. Sure zombies can take a lot of damage, but most people know it’s either a shot to the head or a significant amount of body damage to put them down. Or a shotgun, also called the win button.
And the final reason, ease of creation. Having taken a class on stage makeup, and achieving decent to good marks, I can say that blood and gore effects are pretty easy. Getting the face to look mangles is not a hard task and there are quick ways to cheat. Sure the makeup can be done poorly, but compared to old age, gender swapping, or even animalism it ranks pretty low on the difficulty scale. Moving on to video games it can be a simple matter of applying a new skin to an existing character. In Minecraft they simply modified the ‘steve’ skin and used that for the zombies. This makes it very easy to not only stick zombies in a game, but to quickly add them into an existing game such as Call of Duty.
This concludes my examination of zombies and their relevance in the media. Next time we will discuss the route zombies traveled to get here. We will also discuss rather they are played out and why. And then sum up with where I think the future of the zombie belongs.