Zombies are my favorite monsters. It wasn’t always the case. When I was a kid, I loved vampires. I could tell you everything about the myths surrounding them, how the myths evolved throughout the centuries, how the myths differed based on location, and how the media helped shape it. Then, when I was around 8, it changed to Godzilla. Hell, he was the King of the Monsters for a good reason! He could breath fire. And on a deeper level, he existed as a warning about the use of nuclear weapons. It was that deepness that drew me in and captured my interest.
The use of monsters as symbolism.
When I sit back and watch monster movies, I like to be drawn into the symbolism behind the monster. What does the monster represent? How is it being used? What does the movie have to say about the human condition?
To me, zombies present the most interesting answers.
What Do Zombies Represent?
This varies from movie to movie, so there can’t be a set answer of “this is who they are and nothing else.” The horrible zombie movies use them as a foil for the heroes. They are nothing more than something that leaps out of nowhere. They exist to be killed. They do not represent anything at all. These sorts of zombies are hollow and pointless.
The better ones give a far more complex answer. Yes, the zombies are foils for the hero. Every zombie movie needs the zombies to route the heroes to some location. It’s the hallmark of these types of movies. Heroes walk up, encounter zombies, run like hell to survive, and finally fortify themselves in some location. For the great movies, they are far more than that.
They are consumers. They exist to devour. They may eat humans. They may destroy their surroundings. They don’t create. There’s nothing about zombies at adds to the environment that they exist in. They only take. They never give. In this way, they represent some of the worst that humanity has to offer. They are effectively selfish humans.
They are legion; a horde of mindless entities that operates on a basic level. They never think critically nor seem aware of their surroundings. They force everyone to conform to their standard, stripping away every ounce individuality someone may have. They go after their goal with single-minded devotion, moving at it in a straight line. Others join in for no other reason than there is a direction that a few are moving in. They are followers. In this way, the represent the way we exist in daily life. If we are honest with ourselves, a lot of our day is spent acting rather than thinking.
They are, at heart, us.
How Are The Zombies Used?
Zombies are never the true antagonist in the zombie movie. They are not the reason why everything goes to hell. More often than not, they are in the background, hovering and waiting for something to go wrong. They aren’t really evil since they have no intent behind their actions. Zombies are closer to a force of nature, like an earthquake or a tornado. Sure, they are awful… but nobody (outside of philosophers calling it a natural evil) would seriously consider acts of nature evil.
When the zombies attack the protagonists, it is normally because something went wrong on the protagonist’s side. Internal betrayal and the like. It’s not like an accident happened. It’s always someone who does something horrible which causes everything to go to hell. In that way, the zombies are used to reinforce the horrible action done to cause the protagonist’s downfall.
What Do Zombie Movies Have To Say About The Human Condition?
I see zombie movies as optimistic. Really, I do. They always fill me with a sense of hope that no other horror movie can.
I can see humanity can still survive in the worst of situations. I can see that our success and failure are in our own hands. Remember, the protagonists lost because someone did something bad on their end. The breakdown could have easily been avoided. The zombies, the worst of humanity, never wins. They never overwhelm the protagonists because they were superior. It was the protagonists that faltered.
Despite that, zombie movies reveal to us that we can still fight against the worst of humanity. We can struggle against the things that the zombies symbolize. It is a never-ending struggle, but it is a struggle that can be done. That’s why I feel uplifted after a zombie movie ends. When we falter in our struggles, it tends not to be as… catastrophic as what occurs in the movie (though it is possible for it to be). We’ll have to fight to get back to our feet and continue to survive. But it is possible to do so. We can survive.
We can survive. That’s one of the most important themes laced within every zombie movie ever made. No matter how dire the situation is, it is possible to survive it.
That’s why zombies are my favorite monster. They reflect the worst of us. But they also allow us to be at our best. Human beings are survivors. We overcome obstacles. That’s part of who we are. And I think zombies magnify that special part of us.