Since zombies are relative newcomers to the world of supernatural pop culture, their depictions in media have not seen as much variation as we have seen with vampires, ghosts, and other creatures over the last 50 years. Indeed, zombies were only just appearing in pop culture at this time. However, the recent explosion of zombie fiction and the obsession with the “zombie apocalypse” have allowed them to achieve a varied presence in modern media.
Prior to the last decade or so, the most widespread depictions of zombies stuck with the George Romero formula of lumbering creatures incapable of speech or independent thought, robbed of humanity and motivated only by a lust for human flesh. As the readings mention, they exist in a realm of “the other”, metaphorically exploiting our public paranoia of those different from us, be it politically, culturally, or otherwise. Recent zombie films, however, have toyed with this formula to develop unique portrayals of zombies. In the film 28 Days Later, zombies result from people infected with a “rage” virus, creating fast, ravenous zombies. The zombies in this movie serve not only as the uncanny other, but more importantly, serve as a contrast to the misogynistic, primal actions of the surviving military force in the movie. This causes the viewer to question who the real monsters are in the movie: the zombies, who act this way by nature, or the soldiers, who willfully abandon their civilities once the situation (post-apocalyptic environment) allows for it.
Other films, like Shaun of the Dead and Fido, introduce satire into the zombie genre and further the use of zombies as metaphors. Shaun of the Dead portrays the main character specifically and the public in general as easily contented with a linear, average existence. When the zombies are introduced, “the film’s more profound thematic concern about the apathies of modern living are expressed, as the oblivious Shaun doesn’t look much different from the zombies walking about in the background of the frame” (Richardson). More than presenting the “other” element and emphasizing our humanity, this portrayal focuses on what is the same between us and the zombies. In Fido, the film is implied as taking place in the 1950s, with very strong cultural associations present from that time period in the U.S. The zombies, which are now controlled by electronic collars that suppress their urge to kill people, are utilized by families and the community for labor. Children are trained in how to shoot zombies that are “out of control” and any attempts to humanize them are discouraged. When the main character’s family buys a zombie to help around the house, Timmy (the young protagonist) begins gradually treating his zombie affectionately and naming him “Fido” and the zombie in turn begins to protect the boy. Of course, Timmy is shown to be an outcast in school and his opinion is not the popular one. Affection for zombies, especially of a romantic nature, is deemed scandalous as shown by the attitudes towards Timmy’s neighbor (who often admires his female zombie companion) and Timmy’s mother, who also begins showing affection towards Fido. The role as labor workers, the taboo of romance, and dehumanization of zombies is a strong metaphor for the treatment of minorities in the 1950s (and even today as well).
I think this current obsession has led to some interesting portrayals of zombies recently. They function well as comparative devices due to the blank canvas afforded by their lack of complex thinking. We fear them as the vague “other,” but can project whichever “other” fits the metaphor we’re trying to achieve. I look forward to seeing how else they will be used in future media.