When Brad Pitt jumps on the zombie band-wagon, I suppose it’s time to say the genre is played-out. By lending his name to the film adaptation of World War Z, Mr. Pitt is letting us know that zombies are now legitimate. Or he’s cashing-in on a trend just like he did with vampires, old men turning into babies, and underground street-fighting.
Whether you believe that zombies are a pop-culture social barometer (spoiler alert: they are) or a cheap thrills, gore-fest, it is important to at least consider why zombies have made a resurgence in the last few years.
The 2000s, if you recall, have looked a little like this:
Y2K, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Wall Street.
While it is difficult to understand one’s place in history, I think it is fair to assume that these events changed the way people in our country view the world. We learned (or remembered) that technology could fail us, people could bomb us, levees can break, and our homes/jobs are fictions. All of these events seemed to happen, by the way, instantaneously, without anticipation.
The conventional zombie plot-line isn’t too far removed from what we’ve experienced in the last decade. Lulled into a false sense of security, people go about their daily business believing that all is well in the world. Sure, there may be a few signs of distress: odd attacks reported in the news. The next-door neighbor sure doesn’t look so well. And then boom! Suddenly Mom is cannibalizing Dad over the breakfast table.
Isn’t that what the last decade has felt like? We’ve ignored the signs of distress and have been walloped by disasters that feel like The End Times are just around the corner. George A. Romero, the father of modern zombie horror, knew what he was doing, when he exploited Cold War anxieties in “Night of the Living Dead.” Is there a better embodiment of humans turning on each other, fearing their neighbor, than that film?
Perhaps what we are looking for in speculative fiction is not escape, but a preview of things to come; confirmation that this anxiety and dread we feel has purpose and will prepare us for the next unexpected disaster. Zombies aren’t real, but human catastrophe is. It isn’t so surprising that we’ve created a genre to play out our worst fears about each other.