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The close-up: How the zombie craze is eating our brains

Photo by Edwin Choi

With the second season of “The Walking Dead” underway, the recent game of Humans vs. Zombies Tag, and the release of the video game “Dead Island,” it seems that zombies have clawed their way to the top of the list of cultural obsessions. Sometimes I feel like all that’s left is me and a small group of survivors who must find ways to escape from the massive horde of zombie-related media. Let’s take a look at exactly how the zombie craze began, and what it says about our culture.

What is a zombie?

The term comes from voodoo folklore of West Africa and Haiti where “zombi” means “spirit of the dead.” Most importantly, they’re creatures that were once humans that now have a hunger for flesh and an extreme hostility toward people. Purists believe zombies must be reanimated corpses, but often they’re depicted as humans infected with a terrible disease. In almost all popular zombie stories, they operate as a horde and spread their disease with a bite.

How did we get here?

While werewolves and vampires both date back to medieval times, zombies didn’t enter Western popular culture until the 20th century. Perhaps the earliest appearance of zombies in fiction was William Seabrook’s novel “The Magic Island,” published in 1929, and, past that, the ’30s and ’40s featured a few films involving zombies. However, Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” published in 1954, is widely considered the most important catalyst in the development of the modern zombie story.

While Matheson called his monsters vampires, his story popularized the idea of a monster horde, and the focus on loneliness and isolation featured in many modern zombie stories. He also explained his monsters through infection, which, while common now, was a departure from the idea of corpses reanimated by supernatural power. His novel’s influence is apparent, considering the fact that there are four film adaptations of it.

Film director George A. Romero, nicknamed the “godfather of all zombies,” acknowledged the influence the book and its first film adaptation had on his film “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), which has since served as the benchmark for all zombie films. Romero has made six zombie films, but his first three, “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), and “Day of the Dead” (1985) are considered classics.

So what makes them so scary?

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Zombies primarily capitalize on our fear and fascination with death.

“A big part of what makes them so scary is that they were once human. If they were an alien critter with the same qualities, I don’t think they would be quite as horrifying,” said Theron Stevenson, an administrator in the Comparative History of Ideas department who is trying to put together a two-credit focus group involving zombies. There’s something uncanny about creatures that so closely resemble humans on the exterior but otherwise have no humanity. Even their gruesome, cannibalistic tendencies are acted on without emotion or sentience. Perhaps the proximity zombies have to humans reminds us of how fragile we are — an uncomfortable idea that many would prefer kept out of mind.

The confrontation between survivors and their zombified loved ones is also a common theme. This idea explores the difficulty we have accepting death and letting go of the ones we love.

“Zombies show us that, after death, there is no heaven or hell,” said Kevin Hamedani, a UW graduate student who made a film in 2009 called “Zombies of Mass Destruction.” It’s a comforting thought that, when loved ones die, they’re at rest, or at least somewhere better. However, zombies challenge that idea by turning all that is left of our loved ones into lurid abominations.

What does our obsession say?

The horror genre consistently plays on the fears of a generation.

“In the ’80s, apocalypse films were about [the] post-nuclear-war [world]. Films like ‘Mad Max’ were about surviving in that world,” Stevenson said, adding, “I think the focus is now on fear of contagion. … It taps into our hysteria over HIV and bird flu.”

However, zombies are unique in that they’ve explored a diverse set of topics.

“Zombies are always a mirror of aspects of our culture,” Jennifer Bean, director of film studies at the UW, said. Romero famously used zombies to comment on consumerism in “Dawn of the Dead,” which largely takes place in a mall.

“As the zombies walk through the mall, they look just like normal people,” Stevenson said. The ending of the film’s parody, “Shaun of the Dead,” comically alludes to this when the humans and zombies decide to live together and life goes on, much like it did before the outbreak. These zombie stories explore how modern society turns us into the walking dead and suggest that lining up for the iPhone 4S may be one symptom of zombiism.

“We live amongst zombies,” Hamedani said. “I know zombies and I don’t understand them or how they can live that way.”

A zombie apocalypse also has a certain appeal to the anti-social. Those who fear crowds or feel they don’t fit into modern society may find escape in the simple existence of foraging for supplies, running from danger, and finding safe places to camp (though most forget that they’d probably die if the Internet went down for longer than a week). Most post-apocalyptic settings can fulfill these fantasies, but a zombie apocalypse goes further. While hordes capitalize on our fear of crowds, the necessity to fight and kill them allows us to fantasize about confronting that fear in a way we cannot in society. This setting allows outsiders who don’t flourish in society to be heroes. Many of my own friends have spent a lot more time focusing on which way they’d run in a zombie outbreak than on their upcoming midterms.

Zombies also create a moral clarity that we don’t enjoy in reality. Our fears of terrorism, economic collapse, and disease have no clear or easy solutions. However, when society falls to zombies, the enemy is clear and may be killed without hesitation.

“It’s an appealing notion to have a bad guy you know is all bad,” Stevenson said. “Zombies allow you to create a film where you can gleefully lay waste to all of your enemies without any pangs of regret or remorse.”

Our fears and ambitions become so simple, and, while existence is miserable, at least it’s not complicated.

Zombies are one of the most flexible canvases on which to paint our fears, and the focus on hordes of mindless monsters allows zombies to symbolize greater societal issues. Many past tragedies were only possible because of the hordes of individuals who were too scared, misinformed, or mindless to stand up to injustice, and zombies allow for an easy way to represent this. At the cusp of the civil-rights movement, Romero used zombies to speak out against racism in “Night of the Living Dead.” Hamedani has done a similar thing in “Zombies of Mass Destruction” but instead focuses on the fear many Americans have of Middle Easterners in the United States. As time passes, we will likely see zombies used to explore many new ideas.

“Every genre is organic and is allowed to change,” Hamedani said. “Only zombie fans can tell us where things go.”

Reach reporter Andre Stackhouse at weekender@dailyu.com.

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