What exactly ARE zombies for?
Sometimes I say things that I shouldn’t be allowed to say–things like, “If no one is going to use zombies for what they’re for…” as though maybe there is a specific thing that zombies are for, and all right-thinking zombie stories are confined to that particular usage. I keep expecting someone to challenge me when I say crazy stuff like that, but most people can’t be bothered, so what happens is, I challenge myself.
What do you mean, “what they’re for“?
Okay, so, I am one hundred percent sure that someone wrote a play that was about a college professor opposed to his student’s idea for a musical version of Antigone. I can’t remember what the play was, or who wrote it, or the names of the characters. All I remember is that the professor has a speech in that play that says something along the lines of: “Tragedy isn’t supposed to be nice. It’s supposed to be dark and scary and make us afraid of the world.”
I believe that, when done correctly, the genre of horror has a legitimate and vitally important place in the tapestry of human expression–and I believe that modern horror, along with its close cousin Absurdism, is the heir to the ancient conception of ritual tragedy. Not tragedy like, “an airplane crashed and forty-five people died,” but old-fashioned, cosmic tragedy about parents eating their children and people gouging out their eyes.
The point of horror is to say this: the world is horrible. This is a perfectly valid and very useful statement to make. Why? Because in a horrible world, we, human beings, are each others’ only refuge. The point of horror is to make us all afraid to be alone at night. And while we’d suffer if there was nothing BUT horror around, in small doses it is extremely useful for strengthening our social bonds. Especially when that fear can be cast onto something that does not have a real-world political, social, or racial analogue.
So. Zombies. The nature of zombies is that they are meant to make us afraid of something. Now, you might reasonably say that sometimes putting zombies in things is funny–in fact, if you’re a modern playwright, or that guy that wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies–you probably think that’s really what zombies are for.
This, of course, is nonsense. Any monster put into a comedy is funny. That’s why Abbot and Costello met the wolfman. Anything serious in a comic world is funny, so the question is, why did we take them seriously in the first place?
What is the horror story that you tell with zombies that is NOT the horror story you tell with Dracula, or the Furies?
I’m just riffing here, for a little bit, don’t take me too seriously.
Most of our modern tropes about zombies come from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. This is a story about people huddled in a cabin, surrounded by teaming masses of the undead. This is the essential zombie story–in some way or another, all zombie stories are basically this story.
In fact, many elements can be switched out. We all recognized 28 Days Later as a zombie story, despite the fact that there were no zombies in it. In Dawn of the Dead, people are trapped in a mall. In Day of the Dead, it’s a military base.
But many elements can NOT be switched out. Aliens has the same basic premise as Night of the Living Dead–people are trapped in a location, surrounded by masses of unreasoning monsters which they are not prepared to fight. And yet, we don’t think of Aliens as being in the same category.
There are a couple of key ingredients here, and I think they are: numbers, mindlessness, and contagion.
This yields two basic kinds of horror from the zombie story–one makes it kin to Rhinoceros: it’s about the rise of fascism/nazism/&c. Formerly intelligent, independent, real human beings lose their self by becoming infected with [zombieness], and become part of a mindless horde that regularly engages in activities that individuals would before have found horrific. It is a metaphor for the mass, irreedemable loss of the minds of those one loves. (And this is the nature of horror: losses must be irredeemable. If you are in for a penny, you need to be in for a pound.)
The second is less about the psychological contagion and more about individual alienation: that the world is full of things that look human but behave atrociously drives home the idea that the individual is lost in a completely hostile world. Here the point is to set the hero, or heroes, at odds with a universe that is both familiar-looking and also completely alien. (Interestingly: the death of the main character in Night of the Living Dead, despite not being a zombie-related death, actually supports this theme; why? Because the movie is not about ZOMBIES, it’s about what zombies mean.)
his is the other key element of the zombie mindlessness: they are unreasonable. There is no way to negotiate with them, no way to argue with them, there is no possible reconciliation. It’s why “zombies” are so often paired with “apocalypse”: because the end of all systems of succor, cooperation, of human achievement highlights neatly the unending and unnegotionable nature of the mindless hordes. That is a story about the inevitability of death, and that no matter how you slice it, there is no way out.
So, near as I can figure, those are the two good ways to use zombies. Of course, there are other considerations. No matter how good a play, book, or movie is within its own context (its First Domain, for you devotees of my aesthetics theories), you can’t get around the fact that it exists in a world full of referents and history (Third Domain). Even if you can write a really good zombie story now, DON’T. The fact of zombie popularity is only going to drown out any good work that you do. You’ll come up with some awesome–let’s say, for the sake of argument–some awesome satire of the marketing industry and memes, and it’ll have zombie elements in it, and even if it’s good, who cares? Next week, someone will have made a musical about Pirates Versus Zombies Versus Benjamin Disreali and no one will remember your awesome play.