That zombies have become a staple among genre and pop culture is an understatement, but even the undead have a right to evolve. From terror to hilarity and back to terror again, the zombie has undergone several incarnations over the past century. There are diseased zombies, slapstick zombies, ravenous zombies, hesitant zombies, romantic zombies, and at the end of each one's outstretched arms dangle the struggling bodies of mankind. Perhaps this is why, in addition to the countless reanimated mash-ups and smash-ups, there are several instruction manuals and "how-tos" devoted to ensuring our survival during the "z" epidemic, an actual mathematical analysis of mankind's odds during an attack[pdf], and why American universities like University of Florida have put disaster recovery plans in place [pdf].
To shed light on the zombies' neverending reign, the below roundtable of experts expound on zombie being and nothingness, and why we should, while even laughing, still be very, very afraid.
Jesse Bullington is the author of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, which does not feature zombies, and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, which does. His first professional sale was "Charlie's Hole," a zombies-in-Vietnam story that appeared in the anthology The Book of More Flesh and was recently reprinted in The Best of All Flesh. Along with artist and classmate Jimmy Joe Roche, he convinced his high school drama club to adapt Night of the Living Dead to the stage.
Roger Ma is the author of The Zombie Combat Manual: A Guide to Fighting the Living Dead, which was just released this April, and the founder of the Zombie Combat Club, a civilian organization dedicated to providing accurate training and information to fight the living dead without a firearm, and survive. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Philip Nutman is the multi-award-nominated novelist for the seminal apocalyptic zombie suspense novel, Wet Work, and author of the short story collection Cities of Night, available from ChiZine press this May. An internationally acclaimed journalist who has written over 2,000 articles, he was Fangoria magazine's British Correspondent for over 10 years; the author and editor of over 70 comic books; an award-winning screenwriter and producer; and has his own brand of coffee. You can find out more about the Nutman here.
Molly Tanzer is the Assistant Editor of Fantasy Magazine, where her interviews with Garth Nix and Jesse Bullington have appeared. Her nonfiction has appeared in Herbivore magazine, and her short story "In Sheep's Clothing" will be appearing in Running with the Pack, Ekaterina Sedia's forthcoming werewolf anthology. She is an occasional, if out of practice, translator of ancient Greek, an avid admirer of the novels of eighteenth-century England, and her time in graduate school has made her unable to watch a zombie film without thinking of the Marxist implications of dehumanization in the modern world.
Why are zombies so funny?
JB: Greater minds than mine have explored the myriad connections between humor and horror, but I think it is universally acknowledged that both are highly subjective; what is funny to one person can be frightening to another, and vice versa. I would allow that cinematic comedies involving zombies have been more successful than comedies focusing on other monsters, though that might have more to do with the filmmakers than an intrinsic silliness on the part of the living dead. Perhaps the archetypal zombie created by Romero is to blame for people not taking the monster as seriously as they once did. Not to enter into taxonomical quibbling, but I think it's fair to say that the shambling, unintelligent brain-eater is what comes to mind for the average layperson when the Z word is used, and compared to faster, smarter monsters the zombie is a rather ridiculous threat, and therefore more open to parody. Then there's the obviousness of the metaphor, which it took Romero himself all of one sequel to explicitly focus on in the original Dawn of the Dead, and the shift from horror-as-satire to comedy-satirizing-horror is a fairly predictable progression. For my money, some of the best humorous zombie movies out there are the first Return of the Living Dead, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, and the criminally overlooked Wild Zero.
RM: Personally, I don't think zombies are very funny, but I guess they can be funny for two reasons. One, their humanoid appearance—they don't transform or mutate; they don't have special powers; they're funny because they're us. Two, they don't seem that threatening; everyone thinks they could handle a zombie or two. That is, until a pack of 50 come storming through your screen door.
PN: Zombies are funny? Personally, they disturb me more than other horror archetypes—now, vampires are funny (I think the vampire has become a huge joke . . . with the exception of Near Dark and Let The Right One In). I mean, The Lost Boys? Do not get me started on a list of dumb vampire movies or books . . . but everyone should read Michael Talbot's A Delicate Dependency.
MT: I have two theories, neither of which may hold any water. One theory is that zombies are funny at least partly because they are associated with amusing antics (shambling, rotting, making dreadful sounds, and generally needing the monster equivalent of a bumper sticker that says "honk if parts fall off"). My other theory is that zombies are funny because they have a far more limited sex appeal. Werewolves, vampires, ghosts, fallen angels, demons, succubi: on the surface, all these monsters are more universally dangerous/sexy and thus more able to be conceptualized as a lover by a large segment of the population. It really takes a certain type of person to look at a zombie and see anything other than a rotting, brain-eating, mindless creature. Now, when someone can see past all that, good things can happen (Cat Rambo's "The Dead Girl's Wedding March" springs to mind), but, again, it's far less universal. In my experience, humans tend to be rather unwilling to laugh at what they find sexy, especially when that sexiness has an element of danger or risk to it, so zombies, being monstrous but typically unsexy, are much more able to inspire a comedic monster treatment.
Were zombies ever scary?
JB: Absolutely, and they still can be—it's all in the handling of the trope. After 28 Days Later you heard people moaning about how the infected weren't really zombies, and after the Dawn of the Dead remake the same people were crying about how zombies don't run, and so on. By that kind of logic, and I use the term loosely, Romero's zombies aren't zombies either, since they break with the original Haitian definition of the vodou-created creature—and Romero himself credits Richard Matheson's vampires in I Am Legend with giving him the idea for the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. The way monsters stay scary is by evolving, changing, defying our expectations. Horror has its roots in the unknown and the mysterious, and when archetypes are simply reused over and over again without being renovated than they stop being scary and become parodies of themselves—see Question 1. Are 28 Days Later's rage-infected killers the same as Romero's zombies? Of course not, thank goodness, and if the Dawn of the Dead remake's zombies are fleet of foot more power to them—not quite a groundbreaking shift considering Dan O'Bannon had his zombies running in 1985's Return of the Living Dead, but whatever jolts people out of their seats. Hell, I'm optimistic enough to think that even the classic Romero model can still be scary if it's done right.
RM: Zombies were always scary to me because they were imprinted on me at a very young age, but I also think that for our day and age, zombies are scarier than ever.
PN: Erhmmm . . . ever seen a couple of movies entitled Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead (1978; although the remake wasn't bad)? Jorge Grau's The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1974), despite sounding like a bad 70s heavy metal album, is very disturbing.
MT: Zombies still scare me! I (seriously) got scared during parts of Shaun of the Dead. I'm a total marshmallow; thus I remain ignorant of many of the zombie movies more widely held as (genuinely) frightening.
What is the difference between the 20th-century zombie and the 21st-century zombie?
JB: Is there one? Frankly, I haven't noticed a huge shift but that's the way with evolution—it's a gradual process. I suppose zombies are perhaps a larger part of the public consciousness than they were a decade or two ago, but even that claim falls apart under scrutiny—when the King of Pop features you in a fifteen minute long music video you've officially made it as a monster.
RM: This century's zombie feels like a much more realistic threat. The zombie has always represented many kinds of fears: fear of disease and infection, fear of chaos, fear of societal collapse. Since the start of the twenty-first century, we've been subjected to threats of this nature more than a few times. And they've occurred right in our backyard, not in some third world country. 9/11, anthrax, hurricane Katrina, avian flu, H1N1, the financial meltdown. It's felt like we've teetered on the precipice more than once. It's no wonder that the zombie has become a popular horror theme for this century.
PN: A year? There was 1999 and then 2000. Is this a trick question? Well, all the zombie stories I've read since I wrote Wet Work back in 1987 have . . . well, 97 percent have been shit (and I make no apologies for being an arrogant shit).
MT: Monsters tend to reflect what people view as frightening in their society, so I believe that as we see a world ever more dominated by technology, globalization, jobs that dehumanize us, pollution, diseases that spring from how we make our food, etc., we will see those themes reflected in zombie films. That is what they have traditionally been used to address, after all (that and, you know, munching the bejeezus out of bystanders and pets and stuff) and I can't see that changing much.
What does the zombie represent to you?
JB: I briefly met George Romero at a convention years ago, and had the pleasure of hearing him speak several times. Invariably during the Q&A segments someone would ask him to spell out exactly what his zombies symbolized, or even worse, offer their own in-depth theories, to which he responded, "I don't know, man, ask Roger Ebert." If that's the sort of answer the man who popularized the modern zombie gives, how can I hope to offer anything more illuminating? One of the great things about zombies is their flexibility as a symbol; they wear their creator's heart—and often someone else's—on their sleeve, and can mean anything we want.
RM: The zombie represents the worst of our humanity—not only in our physical being, but also our behavior during times of crisis. That's what makes them so damn horrifying to me.
PN: The great unwashed mass of mankind which scares the crap out of me. Ever been to a baseball stadium? There is a mindless mob mentality in the human herd. Put a bunch of people together and they seemingly turn into a retarded gestalt. I am recalling my favorite Peanuts strip when Charlie Brown says "I love humanity. It's mankind I can't stand." People are stupid, and stupidity scares me. Zombies are perfect metaphors for the mob mentality which allowed Hitler to rise to power and the mass murder of over six million Jews.
Just remember: aim for the brain. Shoot 'em in the head and they will stay dead. You can get a lot further in this world with a loaded gun and a kind word.
There's nothing a Glock loaded with Black Talon hollow points can't solve.
MT: Too many years of hanging out with folks simultaneously into Marxist criticism and zombies have made my mind automatically jump to a sort of Office Space theory of zombie films; that zombies represent what we are as a society: victims of forces we can't understand or control, perhaps also mindless drones created by the world, hell-bent on obtaining what we want ("at what cost?"), that sort of thing. I'm not sure if I thoroughly buy it, though. As I said earlier, monsters scare us, and when we're too old or too jaded or too whatever to be scared by the boogeyman, we make the boogeyman a metaphor for what does scare us. Sometimes that can be repressive and/or ideological state apparatuses, as Althusser would say; sometimes it's more personal: disease, the environment poisoning us after we've poisoned it, uncontrolled rage. I think that's what can account for the many varieties of zombies out there (and the trash-talking that occurs when people deal differently with the conventions of the genre): we're all different, we all are scared of different things, and what strikes us as funny or sad depends on the person, and sometimes on the very moment a piece of media is consumed.