Zombies are big news these days, and there are no immediate indications that we have reached zombie saturation point. All around, zombies continue to burst from the ground like slightly rotting crocuses and daffodils. But the end must surely be nigh. Sooner or later, the zombies will have had their day (of the dead). If they want to survive, they’re going to have to evolve.
Actually, zombies have been evolving for many years. Back in the days of classic monsters, the zombie was a poor, decaying relation indeed. Dracula, of course, is probably the most famous of the undead, but Dracula was no zombie. Dracula was suave, sophisticated, slicked of hair. He quite probably smelled a bit – Bram Stoker recorded the particularly 'rank' odour of his breath in the original novel – but he was not rotting. When he deteriorated a bit, blood could restore him. When defeated, he disappeared in a sanitary heap of dust. And cleanliness aside, Dracula had mind, motive and volition. It was that volition that characterised all the old-style monsters. Frankenstein’s monster just wanted to be a real boy. The werewolf, only a part-time monster, wasn't even dead - talk about not keeping up with the Jones' - while The Mummy was not unlike a bandage-wrapped Dracula...
All of those old-school monsters were fairly solitary. They had purpose of sorts. And generally speaking, they weren't necessarily all that hung up on brain-munching. Though to be fair, there was a point when neither were zombies.
Zombies did appear in early films, but most usually as mindless and often under the spell of a more powerful other. The idea of zombification originated from the Haitian tradition that a magician could make someone into a zombie - effectively a mindless slave, who remains entirely under the will of the sorcerer who has enslaved them. There were also suggestions that psychotropic drugs could have a similar effect, as illustrated by the film, The Serpent and the Rainbow illustrated this quite graphically. In many ways the zombie was a victim rather than a typical villain.
Back in the 60s, though, George Romero had started to change things. The original Night of the Living Dead film didn't actually mention zombies, but it was clear from that point on that zombies were diverging from their original backstory...
Firstly, zombies could be zombified through means other than voodoo and drugs. Disease was a popular zombification process; sometimes deliberately infected as part of a military application or other. Gas might be another vector. Once infected, the zombie could infect others. How long they had been dead was not a problem - in some cases, the dead literally became reanimated rising from their graves as George Romero so graphically portrayed.
The other thing George helped with was their attitude. Zombies turned nasty.
Let’s qualify this slightly. One retained factor from the Mummy through to the voodoo zombie, through to present day (mostly) is that the zombie is basically mindless. They are driven either by some external factor (eg, the mind of their controller, the curse they are under), or by their own internal instinct. They aren’t demons, trying to summon you to hell a la The Evil Dead. A zombie doesn’t mean to be bad – he’s just drawn that way, like a somewhat pungent Jessica Rabbit. In many ways the modern-day zombie appears to have less reasoning power than an animal. They do not look after themselves in any way. They do not reason. They do not try to keep themselves alive. The only response they have is to feed. *BRAINS*
When a modern-day zombie attacks you, it’s not personal. They’re aren’t trying to take over the world, or to summon a demon. They are simply following their instincts. And that instinct is to consume.
That’s right folks. Back in the day, our prototype zombies were under the control of others – a reflection of the fear that weak minds might be overshadowed by evil, perhaps; possibly even reflecting concerns that people had about cultists or communists and their influence on society. But zombies are not evil in themselves. Today, zombies are simply the ultimate consumers. They exist only to consume. Even when they’re not hungry, they consume. Even when the attempt will damage them in some way, still they attempt to consume. As a reflection of today’s modern consumerist and self-damaging society, zombies aren’t subtle (and see Shaun of the Dead if you want the ultimate in unsubtle representations).
As a by-product, zombies can often infect you with their bite. You too can become one with the consuming horde, in a parallel to the original ‘weak minds’ trope of original zombie lines. Interestingly many zombie stories take this line – that there is no stopping the rampant consumerism, that it will just grow and grow until there is simply nothing left to consume. Given today’s warnings about resource shortages, this is perhaps not surprising.
Of course, given the zombie-lution we’ve been looking at, the question becomes what next? Is there anywhere else for the zombie, or will they consume themselves out? There is, of course, a bit of a zombie market saturation these days. We’ve had fast zombies in the 2008 remake of Dawn of the Dead, even picky zombies who won’t eat diseased flesh in World War Z. We’ve even had Martian ghost zombies (sort of). In some cases zombies are developing minds or even love interests. And sometimes, super-zombies of various types have emerged, including those in Resident Evil and more recently (and with a certain sense of style), Z Nation’s Murphy. Murphy, with his ability to manipulate the minds of lesser zombies, is taking us almost back full circle. He’s also injecting some sympathy for the afflicted. Perhaps zombies can learn. Perhaps they can change. Perhaps they too can aspire to rule the earth.
And what do we do to this new breed, this ever growing horde of hapless innocents, entirely undeserving of their fate? We destroy their brains! If they looked like kittens, there'd be outrage!
Maybe the next set of zombie films will depict a happy mindless family shambling about and looking for brains when they are set upon by a gang of armed, fast moving villains. Villains who are in full possession of their wits and their volition, and use it to attack our mindless innocents. Villains, who, although living, are most definitely evil.
History, they say, is written by the victors. Maybe the new zombie films will be, too.
Til next time, BRRRAAAAIIINNNSSSS...