When zombies were scary

Ronald Reagan said that the ten scariest words in the English language are “Hello, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

In terms of sheer mayhem and spirited murder, Reagan was right. There was no more dangerous creature in the twentieth century than Big Government. Just look at its body count!

But before I became aware of the historical fright fest rule of idealogues, utopians, and other various theory-laden humorless experts, I was scared witless by zombies.

Environmental Zombies

After I saw Night of the Living Dead when I was a boy, I refused to sleep for a week. I couldn’t get the image of a certain dead woman out of my head. She was dressed I think in a bridal gown, pushing through a wall and chomping down on one of the heroes. Those who saw the flick will recall the impromptu sausage factory at the farmhouse gas pump. Good grief!

Dawn of the Dead was supposed, so the critics said, to be funny. They said it contained “metaphors” and that it condemned society and its consumerist ways—and a lot of other words that resemble what is scooped up by shovel-carrying sanitation engineers in parades.

The hell with the metaphors, symbolism, and allusions. It was too real. There was the freaky image of the one-legged priest feeding and ministering to a cellar full of the undead. A TV talking head proposing that the solution was to turn the tables on the zombies and eat them! And there was the renegade biker who, in a mall full of zombies, idiotically insisted on checking his blood pressure on one of those chair machines. You know what happened. The camera panned over the LED meter: Zero, baby! Which I suppose, in retrospect, was amusing. But at the time, if you were young, it was appalling.

It was creepy that the zombies were plodding and mindless. They didn’t run after you. They seeped and flowed inexorably; they were unstoppable. One or two could be evaded, but they always grew in number and overwhelmed their dinners/victims.

But things change. A lot of terror was removed from modern zombies when they beefed them up and allowed them to sprint and become semi-intelligent. They’re now stronger and faster than their non-dead counterparts. Soon they’ll start talking and forming committees, which is not exactly terrifying.

The few zombies that maintain the old ways are not that scary either. New movies are more like video games, with the undead taking the place of the ducks in the carnival shooting gallery. Zombies are now objects of comedy. This course of events was inevitable: it’s impossible to maintain the fever pitch of horror, especially after we’ve seen so many zombies that we’ve figured out a good strategy of dealing with them, should they ever really emerge. Single tap to the head and down they go. It’s only the unknown that truly terrorizes.

There are three reasons why we’re hooked on zombie movies. Deep in our primal minds, and for good evolutionary reasons, we are programmed to think that there is nothing scarier than (1) being eaten alive, and (2) other people. So what could be worse than being eaten by another person? Zombies thus combine our worst fears into one shambolic package. Nobody can be trusted, especially the living. Even your own children will turn against you if they are bitten and zombified.

But the image of the world finally going to hell, of civilization breaking down, of having free access to all those riches left by the dead and eaten, of roaming widely with no rules, of not having to show up to the cubicle on Monday morning, of not having to shop for curtain rods at Bed, Bath, and Beyond!, of the return of survival of the cleverest, of starting from scratch—all of that has tremendous appeal. That’s the third reason these movies are so popular: the ever-lasting appeal of anarchy.

And, incidentally, you can’t go wrong with mentioning zombies in a story. Most of the posts I write have visitors that number in the hundreds. Toss in some climatology, and the tally escalates to the thousands. But stick in a zombie, and you have to append Ks to the counts. The most popular article on this site is “Zombie attacks might increase due to global warming, study shows” (and its brother post, here).

That one garnered tens of thousands of readers. The post is like a back-list Kurt Vonnegut novel: it has a steady stream of readers that never slows.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you a toast. Raise your glasses to the most horrific combination in the modern world: zombies and global warming!

Happy Halloween everybody.

10 Comments

  1. A couple of months ago I noticed in a local bookshop a quite well stocked section labelled ‘Vampire Romance’. So in a little over a century vampires have evolved from incarnations of pure evil without any redeeming features — as in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ — through poor misunderstood immortals who drink the blood of strangers only because of horrible injustice done to them — as in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ — to objects of romance.

    Surely Zombie love will be the next stop in that genre.

  2. I think Vampires must smell nicer than Zombies… So romantically, Zombies are at a disadvantage, unless the plot line involves intervention of a spunky, small-boned, brown-eyed girl with a caring heart whose mother tells her on her deathbed that her father, who left the family when she was two years old, had a smidgen of Zombie blood, and makes our heroine promise to be Florence Nightingale to the troops in the nearby Zombie Wars. While the mother is extracting this promise from her daughter, the windows shake from the shelling. In the wards, our heroine finds a young injured Zombie, whom she is surprised to find burbling with intellect and promise. Once our young Zombie has his wounds cleaned and is spritzed with some French cologne (as a gift, she presents him with his own atomizer, styled in a way that a Zombie would appreciate), and provided with books that our heroine purloins from the local library, he is as good as some Ivy League (or maybe Stanford) graduate, and finds himself invited to work for a tech start-up where he is given stock options and a nice retirement account, which our heroine finds so irresistible she says “yes” to his proposal of marriage.

  3. Zombies are not the problem. The pods (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) are much scarier. And now, 60 years later, we find out what was ambiguous in the original Kevin McCarthy version: The pods did win. Just take a look around.

  4. Stephen,

    No argument. Vampires are the modern superhero. Who wouldn’t want to be one? Live forever, score with any woman, super strength, ability to turn into a bat. Nice.

    Maybe Katie can write the first zombie romance. Poor, misunderstood creatures!

  5. Studio 360 (NPR, boo hiss) did a piece on zombies yesterday that was fun: http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/michigan/.artsmain/article/9/1029/1572382/People/Studio.360.Zombies..Gore.Vidal

    It seems that the rifts between “fast zombies” and “slow zombies” are quite large. It appears that many, including Romero, agree with Briggs. I’m inclined to believe that we should treat the fast and slow issue as a variety issue, just as we treat varieties of a kind of fruit. Just like the fact that I enjoy both Japanese and American-style watermelons, I also like both types of zombies for different reasons.

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