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Apocalypse, Pleaze: Investigating the Roots of the Zombie Craze

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“Why would I devote my life to something like this? Well, let me put it this way. I’ve never had my house catch on fire, but I have a smoke alarm. I’ve never been in a car accident, but I have an airbag. I’ve never gotten scurvy, but I drink orange juice at breakfast.” –Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide

“What’s in your head,
In your head,
Zombie, zombie, zombie?
Hey, hey, hey, hey, oh, oh, oh,
Oh, oh, oh, oh, hey, oh, ya, ya-a…”
The Cranberries

These are dark times. There are riots in Egypt, catastrophic blizzards on the east and middle coasts, and The Biggest Loser runs two seasons a year. And the Zombie Apocalypse is almost upon us.

Unlike the myriad other eschatological dangers that threaten us, such as nuclear war, the second coming of Jesus Christ, the Grey Goo Hypothesis, the twin comets that will careen into the earth, or the technological singularity that will elevate machines to godlike status, the Zombie Apocalypse seems quite possible — even probable.

As if the robust sales of The Zombie Survival Guide were not enough evidence enough that people are wary of a walking dead pandemic — be it caused by some form of virus, biological warfare, television, or a sinister plot from outer space — government agencies and university researchers have dedicated time and attention to the subject. I am convinced that the question of a Z.A. is more of a “when” than an “if.”

But the probability of the dead rising to harvest the meat right off of our writhing bodies is not the question here; either it happens or it doesn’t. The real debate is about why zombies resonate so much with us.

Like a plague of flesh-eating automatons, zombie mania is sweeping the nation. Many critics will tell you that the recent and disturbing resurrection of zombie media is a natural counterbalance to the current surplus of vampire and werewolf material out there. The logic of this argument hinges on the premise that vampires appeal primarily to females, and that zombies are manlier than vampires. Indeed they are.

Or rather, stories about zombies happen to appeal more to men than stories about vampires and werewolves. Zombies themselves are not manly; few things are less manly than a genderless, brainless, friendless meat bag. And besides, the ever-growing flood of zombie fanatics includes women as well as men. No one is safe.

Others chalk up the popularity of zombies to their metaphoric applicability to just about everything. The lazy writer can use zombies to criticize any aspect of consumer culture or politics, as I did a couple paragraphs ago. But it’s unfair to relegate zombies to standing in for Tea Partiers or American Idol fans. And more importantly, it’s too easy.

To prove my point, here are Three Zombie Metaphor Movies that Never Happened:

Dial Z For Zombies

Loosely inspired by a scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Stephen King novel Cell — and with a title directly ripped off from one of the sequences of The Simpsons’ “Tree House of Horror III” — Dial Z For Zombies combines zombies with our dependence on mobile devices to create a bone-chilling indictment of the evils of our modern age. Or perhaps it’s just a metaphor for a crap movie.

He’s Just Not That Into Zombies

A lovelorn Manhattan hipster discovers the reason why the women around him are unattainable: They’re dead!

The Social Z-Work

In this hackneyed social commentary, Facebook turns people into zombies.

Still others claim that zombie popularity is a result of humankind’s death anxiety.

These depressing psychologists hold that people are comforted by the idea that they will come back from the dead, even if they are doomed to thoughtlessly wander the earth forever with an unquenchable desire for meat, sating themselves with rats and grub worms until they are lucky enough to stumble upon someone who has not read The Zombie Survival Guide. And yes, many fans of the zombie’s feminine cousin, the vampire, actually want to become leather-clad techno enthusiasts for this very reason. But only an utter fool would hope for his own zombification.

You Killed Zombie Flanders!

It’s Not About The Zombies

It really isn’t. Zombies make good metaphors for the simple reason that people like to think of themselves as lone rangers of rationality amidst a sea of shuffling meat puppets. And the many purchasers of The Zombie Survival Guide are not so much locomotive corpse enthusiasts as they are fans of imagining themselves surviving perilous scenarios. People who claim to love zombies really just love themselves.

I must admit that there is something about the Zombie Apocalypse that makes it more attractive than other end-of-the-world scenarios; otherwise Waterworld wouldn’t have performed so poorly at the box office. I think it’s because zombies provide all the fun of the end of civilization with the least amount of danger. As long as you’ve prepared, you should be able to evade your snail-paced, braindead pursuers. The only real danger is that one might get the drop on you because you’ll be having such a good time.

The first thing to enjoy about the Zombie Apocalypse will be the restructuring of the social order and people’s revaluation of personal worth. Accountants, pizza delivery boys, telemarketers, and activists will rediscover their self-esteem by refusing to yield to the slobbering maw of uncompromising Undeath.

Next would be romance, which goes out the window in any kind of apocalypse scenario, as relations between male and female are stripped down to brass tacks. When you’re trying to re-populate the earth, there’s no time for snuggling, candle-lit dinners or the baggage that comes with them.

Third would be tolerance. Everything from stances on the role of government to traditional religious cosmologies is rendered absurd in the face of zombiism. The result is pure cooperation.

So, paradoxically, a zombie-fueled dystopia eventually transforms into a utopic vision of peace and prosperity as society comes back from the dead to…feast on the brains of the living. I really need to get away from this zombie stuff.

Strangely enough, the zombie craze has proven to be the one thing that can get people excited about disaster preparation. Nobody wants to be the crackpot that builds a fallout shelter in his backyard. But a zombie shelter—not that it would save you—is somehow more socially acceptable. A person who stockpiles firearms and medieval bludgeoning weapons to fight off aliens would appear insane, but if he explained that they were for zombies he would pass as merely eccentric.

Take, for example, the Zombie Squad over at zombiehunters.org, who bill themselves as “trained, motivated, skilled zombie extermination professionals and zombie survival consultants. Our people and our training are the best in the industry.” These guys are the Executive Outcomes of zombie control, except for free. And there’s more to them than that:

“When the zombie removal business is slow we focus our efforts towards educating ourselves and our community about the importance of disaster preparation.

To satisfy this goal we host disaster relief charity fundraisers, disaster preparation seminars and volunteer our time towards emergency response agencies.

Our goal is to educate the public about the importance of personal preparedness and self reliance, to increase its readiness to respond to disasters such as Earthquakes, Floods, Terrorism or Zombie Outbreaks. We want to make sure you are prepared for any crisis situation that might come along in your daily life which may include having your face eaten by the formerly deceased.”

Perhaps it’s a little sad that it took something like zombies to get people interested in preparing for the worst. But no more sad than having to shoot your parents in the head as they dine on the family dog.

David Monroe reveals the hidden truths from the worlds of sports, politics, and pop culture. And zombies. Oh, and the Zombie Apocalypse. Read his HyperVocal archive here.

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