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October 6th, 2009

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02:34 am - Why Zombies?
Two of the increasingly common & popular tropes in movies, RPGs, and novels that I do not understand are zombies and zombie apocalypses. From my PoV, zombies are utterly devoid of interest, and media about a zombie apocalypse is at best depressing, and more likely exceedingly dull.

Clearly, much of the appeal of zombie apocalypses is related to the hip cynicism and nihilism that is so prevalent today and also the whole imagined apocalypse schtick, where people can stop going to jobs they loathe and leading lives they consider to be dull and instead go out and become Mad Max. My own tastes are drastically different, but I at least intellectually understand that part of the appeal. But why zombies in particular? What makes them cool, or even remotely interesting? I remain puzzled that something which holds absolutely no interest for me is so inexplicably (to me at least) popular.

Perhaps some of my puzzlement is due to the fact that in addition to not liking most horror (from my PoV, supernatural romance, supernatural action adventure, and stories of magical transcendence are all very cool if done well, but I avoid 90% of actual horror), I also dislike most humor, and zombies seem typically to be used in either the sort of grim horror I actively avoid or in humorous horror, which I also usually dislike. OTOH, I've seen zombies used in action adventure films, and their presence usually detracts from my enjoyment - I'd rather see something less cliched. In any case, if you like zombie films, books, or RPGs, I'm interested to learn why.

Poll #1467145 Zombies?

Zombies in media are

scary & cool
funny & cool
unpleasantly disturbing
actively uninteresting
other (describe below)
ticky box!

Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(30 comments | Leave a comment)


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[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 10:33 am (UTC)
I wouldn't use the word "cool", but I am scared to death by the "fast zombies" of the recent Dawn of the Dead and 28-Days/Weeks Later movies.

I'm not scared by Romero zombies, but I liked the original Day of the Dead movie because the zombies aren't really the point - they're the outside menace that drives people to extremes - the movie is really about the journalists, scientists and military cooped up, and the different methods they use to survive.
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 10:44 am (UTC)
Night of the Living Dead was way cool. Very understated social commentary. The black hero gets shot for a zombie when he is no by a white racist. I watched the movie 6 or so times. I took in a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken which a friend and I gnawed while the zombies were feasting on the screen. Other people around us got very disturbed.

I rarely watch new movies so I have no idea how the theme is being played out now.

I did appreciate this video from Japanese TV showing the heroism of little kids who were utterly terrified.

[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)
I really enjoy well-executed horror, and a lot of the genre's classic tropes resonate with me (vampires, werewolves, reanimated corpses, mummies, ghosts, witches, and so on), particularly when used in a manner that's both archetypal and fresh. I love White Wolf's Promethean, for example.

But zombies are the dullest of the lot, I fear. There's a certain hopeless paranoia to be milked from the zombie-as-monster, and I always liked Clive Barker's line about zombies' being the ultimate liberal nightmare: the world's masses show up at your doorstep, and they're hungry. But mostly they're a pretty snoozy and repetitive class of fiend.

I guess for me zombies are the horror genre's McDonalds: I don't eat there by choice, but if I'm starving I'll partake just to fill my belly. Still, I'd rather have real food.
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 01:24 pm (UTC)
I was going to hunt up that Barker quote as well. Here it is!

"Zombies are the liberal nightmare. Here you have the masses, whom you would love to love, appearing at your front door with their faces falling off; and you’re trying to be as humane as you possibly can, but they are, after all, eating the cat. And the fear of mass activity, of mindlessness on a national scale, underlies my fear of zombies." Clive Barker quoted in the introduction to Skipp and Spector's Book of the Dead.
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 01:30 pm (UTC)
I tend to agree with Andrewducker, here. fast zombies seem to be a new type of undead thing. if they are truly zombies, then why can't a hougan take control of them? Vampires are more interesting for they at least still have will. (an aside, as an Amateur Radio Operator, I have always wondered that if a ham is bitten by a vampire and is made into one, will he or she have to add the prosign of SK to the end of their callsign? (Sk meaning Silent Key, or dead operator))
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC)
Well said.
Date:October 6th, 2009 02:40 pm (UTC)
I am frightened by dirty things. Zombies are very dirty. Diseases scare me. Being eaten alive scares me.

End of the world? Not so much. It actually kind of excites me in a way, but I wouldn't call it scary.
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC)
I also think, believe it or not, that zombies are currently considered 'realistic' in that they are often being used around medical tropes now.

Demons from hell? Space aliens? Not currently considered realistic.

Vampires and Werewolves have been moved almost completely in this generation to romantic tropes.

Zombies are what vampires used to be IMO; our culture's fear of sickness - and in this particular case (28 Days and similar) - our fear of our own technological screw ups regarding sickness and medical tech.

There's also the simplelest fact that you can promise that there's no icky moral issues to deal with; the animated dead aren't oppresed sentients or misunderstood aliens, they're animated corpes you can chainsaw without worry.
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC)
they're animated corpes you can chainsaw without worry.

See also making your bad guys Nazis and/or robots. No one has to feel moral qualms about killing Nazis or robots! Ooh! Or Nazi robots!

I really don't have a lot of use for being told that the hero is heroic and then never seeing him (it's always a guy) put in a position where he might have to prove it.
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 03:13 pm (UTC)
Most of my friends, and indeed gaming buddies are really into the zombie "thing". I don't get it, personally, even though I've been told it's not really about the zombies. Aside from being inundated with them practically everywhere, from rewrites of classic novels (ick), movies to RPG's, etc, etc, they just aren't that interesting. In fact, they are downright tedious. I find disaster flicks as a whole tedious and uninteresting (never mind implausible the vast bulk of the time).

I suppose I should have ticked "actively uninteresting"...
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
If you're serious about that last comment, you can retake the poll. Just click the link at the top of it that says "Poll #1467145", and then click "Fill out poll".
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC)

Fast thoughts

Oh so much said here, and rightly so!

LOVE the Clive Barker quote)--and let me take that a step further, going along with mmsword and xtricks have said:

I think that zombies are VERY attractive as a horror genre, because they are the mindless threat, the hunger that doesn't quit, that cannot be appealed to with reason or logic. And like the best horror, they are a mirror for ourselves.

The vampire still has humanity, sometimes turned to evil, but in general, the vampire has evolved to a creature of will, cold calculation, and sexual romance/appetite. Zombies are the very opposite of that, with the sex stripped away (or falling away in lumps of rotted--er, sorry, images, there...). No seduction. Only the horde. In fact, they are very much like the vampire of folklore, the more demonic Slavic demon that is the restless dead, usually engaged in only sating its hunger rather than seducing prey outright. You can recognize and maybe, momentarily, reason with a vampire. It wears the knowing face of your loved one. It may talk back. You might, you want to believe, have a chance...no so, zombies.

(It can be noted that "I Am Legend" uses both vampire and zombie tropes in horror, with a last man standing scenario that is why it is one of the most influential horror works in horror. You get apocalyptic fiction, the potential seduction of the vampire (live forever, join the rest of us), and the mindless (seemingly) relentless attack all in one. )

Keep in mind, horror plays to fear. The last man standing zombie scenario plays with the fear of hopelessness, terrible death, and also, as Xtricks notes, all our fears of technology, warfare, and science gone wrong. We've upgraded our zombies for a new, modern era! No longer do we think they will be easily killed, slow, shambling zombies, but instead they manifest as a fast, deadly, vicious viral contagion. The technology reference is apt. It is notable that even in the original Night of the Living Dead, it wasn't the supernatural that brought about the zombies, but science--known and unknown. (The meteor, I believe, was to blame in the original, or implied?)

These are not the children of the supernatural. They are our own children of misbegotten science, unexpected results, the response to overreaching, playing god--Frankenstein on a mass scale, out of control, and again, mindless. They are designed to be our doom or our just punishment, depending on how some may frame it. (Frankenstein had human wants, again--we could talk to him and gain absolution for the punishment of stealing the Promethean fire. The zombies are just the punishment for our hubris.)

And still we want to face them. We plan, should the inevitable occur, to take on this new plague (even, especially?) if its our fault. Survival plans are constructed because we want to correct it--or prove we are better, smarter, faster? enough to survive it. We can out think the unthinking hunger because we still have our will, our minds. At the same time that the genre often castigates the misuse of science, it credits the power of the human mind, will, and strength to be able to overcome it's own errors in the face of its own destruction.

Maybe more babble later--these are just my emergent thoughts from all this.

[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC)

Re: Fast thoughts

I might add, of all horror genres, zombies and their manifestations are the only thing that scares the living fuck out of me.

The same tropes in zombie fiction also have origins (well, truth be told, not sure which came first in this) in sci-fi. I am thinking of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"--probably, to me, the scariest damn movie of all time.) I think the zombie genre also plays to that fear of loss of will/mind/self, the very things which make us human to begin with--and thus we are fascinated by all those manifestations and how to combat them. Zombies are a way to physically face and combat the fear of losing the self, because, unlike alien mind/body control, they manifest as a direct physical threat against the self, one that has to be dealt with physically.

[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
To me, zombies take the Survival question and put it into a format that is more understandable to a modern audience.

Even with shows such as "Survivor" on the air, Survival movies/books have a hard time passing by an audience used to their Iphones and DSL lines. Zombies are a form of apocalypse that shows how interconnected humans really are- both in how zombies infect (particularly in large, urban areas) and in the destruction humans face. It underlines that humans have an intrinsic NEED for other humans to survive, and asks the question "So what if that which you need becomes a threat?"

Humans cannot survive alone- and a zombie apocalypse is no exception. However, when systems have broken down- government, business, etc.- and anyone around you could become "one of them" at a given moment, it creates a level of paranoia that runs contrary to your survival needs. Zombies also use that strength of numbers against humans: more humans=more zombies later.

In addition, zombies provide a good "varying threat level" that is hard to get with Vampires, Werewolves, or other horror tropes. 1 zombie is barely a nuisance. 10 is a threat if you are unarmed/alone and they are closing in. 100 is a real threat. When they number in the thousands or millions, they are a plague. It makes certain places uninhabitable while making others relatively safe until the threat emerges.

Finally, I'd like to reiterate the thoughts on the "mindless mob" and its use in horror. People fear other people, but understand that (most) people are essentially rational, and that society protects them from the worst of the lot when the social contract functions. But that same mindless mob, without any social contract, becomes a thing to fear.
[User Picture]
Date:October 7th, 2009 05:49 am (UTC)
Well said!!

One other thing on the "mindless mob" and the social contract that I thought of later: zombie flicks, old and new, definitely tell stories about historical and political powerlessness. (It is notable that Max Brooks, for instance, comes form a Jewish family and you can talk about mindless zombie threats in light of the Holocaust and reactions to it, the prevention of genocide and its manifestations in fiction, etc.)

If we go back to older zombie tales, I think the place where you got the occult phenomena was old 1930s? 50s? (not sure) flicks, usually vastly distorting voodoo and the like, where the evil magician/hougan/zombie master took over people and made them into mindless slaves. These tales were more centered around individual loss of freedom and will, and also the terrifying fear of premature burial. (There was a documentary or one of those making-of film pieces on the movie "The Serpent and the Rainbow" that covered a lot of this discussion.)

So, more to consider in the analysis of zombies and horror.

Edited at 2009-10-07 05:54 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 05:20 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I tend to put zombie fiction in with transhumanist fiction: a few works are entertaining, some of the ideas were cool, but anymore it all seems to be rehashs of the same damned ideas by people who think they're got the Best Thing Evar.
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
What you consider to be transhumanist fiction? I have a serious weakness for what I call transhuman space opera - Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series is perhaps the purest form of this. OTOH, fiction that focuses on transhumanism, ala Stross' Accelerando or Zindell's Neverness is IMHO fairly rare.

OTOOH, SF with transhumanist elements (including both transhuman space opera and the current descendent of cyberpunk) has become a bit like cyberpunk did in the late 80s - there's a fair amount of it around, the general tropes and ideas have also spread to other SF subgenres, and the good stuff is not all that common.
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 06:02 pm (UTC)
I'd always thought of the zombie thing as being related to the fear people have of losing their identities to mindlessness-- mindless destructiveness, at that.

Now, from a Buddhist perspective losing my ego doesn't scare me (the times I've been close to it, I always thought it was a good thing) so zombies don't either, but I always thought that was what it was about. That, and seeing the people you love turned into hollow shells of themselves that you have to murder before they eat you. A monster with the face of a loved one; that's pretty impressive, if you think about it.

Of course, these days, a lot of it's a meme. Pirates are cool, ninjas are cool, etc.
[User Picture]
Date:October 6th, 2009 07:18 pm (UTC)
I'm in your carton. I don't get the appeal of zombie movies or any horror either. I had a thought recently... I think I don't like zombie movies (or apocalypse scenarios in general) because I don't fantasize about the destruction of my world, because my world doesn't suck.

Also, I don't enjoy being scared. I have no idea why people enjoy going to see movies that frighten them half to death and give them nightmares, any more than I can figure out why people enjoy eating thermonuclear spicy hot chiles that burn their tongues and digestive tracts to cinders.
[User Picture]
Date:October 7th, 2009 04:08 am (UTC)
As best i can tell Zombies dehumanize hunabs and atomaticly place living humans above and supirior to them with no effort or change in character. one can depict doing horrible things to zombies and there are no consequences. i imaging if the idea of slavery wasn't so terrible these stories would simple be told during a slave revolt. hope that is food for thought.
[User Picture]
Date:October 7th, 2009 01:02 pm (UTC)
I see zombies as a metaphor for how pandemics start and spread. One person is infected, then hir contacts get infected. Pretty soon, the disease is worldwide and people are dying by the millions.

Occasionally, zombies can also serve as agents of poetic justice. The most noted example is Dawn of the Dead, where the main characters take refuge in a shopping mall and become vapid and stupid - easy prey for the zombies.

I am a huge fan of poetic justice, which is why horror appeals to me.

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