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Poster art for ‘World War Z’ (© Paramount Pictures)

The truth is people really don’t love the idea of a zombie apocalypse.  They only think they do, and largely because of the way the Zombie Scenario is presented to us.  In this post, I’ll talk about the things that make the Zombie Apocalypse Scenario so attractive and more appealing than other apocalyptic scenarios. I’ll also compare  two types of zombies and why one type is more popular than the other. These are by no means hard and fast rules but simply observations of the nature of Zombiism and why it has gained such a foothold in popular culture.

For the sake of argument, I’m also going to ignore the fact that we all know (or maybe not all of us, but one can hope) that zombies aren’t really going to walk the earth.  I’m going to try to explain what first attracted me and my friends to the zombie subgenre and what I have gathered from many nerdy conversations with other fans and even writing some zombie fiction myself along the way.

The Survivable Storm

First, we’re going to look at why the Zombie Apocalypse Scenario, in general,  has greater appeal than other end-of-the-world scenarios. The main factor of any apocalypse scenario’s appeal is: Can I survive it? And then what will I be looking forward to in this new future?

People love the Zombie Scenario because they believe they can survive it.  It has been presented to us in such a way that anyone can survive if they use their head, and when necessary their fire axes and hunting rifles.  It takes no lucky genetics, no special previous skill set, no preparation, just an awareness of the indisputable fact that you are facing zombies and the willingness to start smacking them in the skull with crowbars.

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The wrecking crew from ‘The Walking Dead’ (© AMC)

Other end-of-world scenarios don’t provide the opportunity for anyone, old or young, of any race or creed, gender or hairstyle to survive the way slouching, moaning zombies allow us to.  Let’s take a look at a couple of other apocalyptic scenarios as examples.

Take the Plague Scenario for instance.  We see this in Stephen King’s The StandCarriers and any number of other variations. Some ultra-super bug spreads across the planet, and only some genetic trait that .0025 of the population has can survive it.  It does not require a statistician to tell you that you will most likely end up choking to death on mucus whilst your organs turn into soup.  Prospects: Not Good.  Even if you do survive you face the next scenario…

The Post Oil Depression/Ecological Wasteland Scenario  à la Mad Max (or, God help us, Waterworld).  Frankly, it is just not as fun to imagine hiding from roaming bands of leather-bound  S&M aficionados armed to the teeth and dining on dog food, or living on a boat and drinking your pee with your nasty gill neck.  Prospects: Not Good.

Now, let’s consider the Nuclear War Scenario.  F**king forget it. Even if you survive you will wish you hadn’t. It’s as bleak as it gets with no hope for mankind and it is not even any fun to talk about (see On the Beach, The Road and, for non-fiction fans, the most terrifying picture of the world after nuclear war, The Cold and The DarkProspects: Super Not Good.

How about the waddya-call-it, the Rapture Scenario?  Again, and not unlike The Plague, it’s too selective.  If you’re a Buddhist, for instance, you might feel a little left out (but during a Zombie Apocalypse, on the other hand, a wandering Buddhist monk just might be a survivor group’s best asset, especially if he’s a Shaolin monk). Prospects: Too Discriminatory (i.e. Not Good).

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The 50-meter Zombie Dash from Zack Snyder’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake (© Universal Pictures)

However, here we have to distinguish between slow, shuffling zombies and fast zombies.  This is the key to the consumable nature (pun intended) of the zombie scenario presented.  No one wants to fight zombies they can’t beat.  Slowness, poor coordination and terrible reflexes on the part of zombies is key to human survival in the most popular and long running zombie franchises such as The Walking Dead, the George Romero film series and Max Brooks’ World War Z books.

If the zombies are overwhelmingly fast and agile, as in the movie version of World War Z, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and 28 Days/Weeks Later, it’s harder to outrun or outwit them, hence harder to survive and hence less attractive as an apocalyptic fantasy.

The point is, the Zombie Scenario makes room for everybody to play. Zombies are color-blind, bear no religious or gender intolerance, are LGBT friendly and make no class distinctions for all are equally delicious to the walking dead.  And the other side of the coin implies the same: anyone and everyone can survive the rise of the undead hordes, regardless of their background, beliefs, checking account or current social status as a delivery driver for a fast food chain.  Prospects: Awesome!

Hell, Yeah, I Get to Put My Wicked Skills to Use

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George Romero’s seminal ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (© Walter Reade Organization)

Plotting escape routes, prepping Go-Bags, planning booby traps, performing mental triage on the furniture to decide what will get broken up to nail over the windows.  Do any of these things sound familiar?  Then you already understand why this particular notion has a grip on our collective conscious.  It appeals to the same part of us, the part of us that wants to be more than a bit player in the story.  The part that says, “It doesn’t matter that I’m an insurance adjustor.  I’m really, actually, a ninja.” Or, “So what if I got a D in Chemistry? I learned how to use mercury fulmate as a badass explosive from Breaking Bad.”   I can be a hero.  A leader.  A survivor!

The part of us that gets excited by this fantasy isn’t an intelligent or well-informed part of us.  It is an exceedingly stupid part of us, with poor long-term vision.  It is the thing that makes us think we could be race car drivers or Green Berets, without considering what it would feel like to make high-G left turns for five hours in a row, or breaking your legs falling out of a helicopter in the middle of a firefight on a fast rope descent gone bad.

This fantasy does not care that most of us do not actually posses the aptitude, physical and mental strength and discipline that it would take to survive, long-term, against hordes of the undead.  It only thinks about the first couple of days or a week at most.  It doesn’t consider how sh**ty and stinking the world would become after the fires raged out of control, the dead piled up in the streets, the plumbing failed, the nuclear rods went uncared for, and big pharma stopped making aspirin.  How you could maybe never properly wipe your ass again.  HOW YOU MIGHT NEVER HAVE ANOTHER CUP OF COFFEE!

That’s the problem with our interior city-escaping, barricade building, skull-splitting super ninjas. They ignore the ugly truth that any zombie apocalypse scenario, even the immediately survivable type, means long-term Dark Ages-style living for the foreseeable future.

 Woohoo! Free Stuff!

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‘World War Z’ shopping spree (© Paramount Pictures)

As they are often presented, Zombie Apocalypse Scenarios leave the survivors a fairly pristine environment with the occasional pile-up of crashed cars, smashed store front windows, and burnt down houses.  The majority of the infrastructure survives, the availability of commodities remains at acceptable levels. Sure, there’s no electricity, heat, medical care, or sense of personal safety, but holy s**t look at all this free stuff!

Cars, boats, mansions, land, state prisons, can goods, bottled water and guns, guns, guns! Screw keeping up with the Jonses, just crush their rotting reanimated heads in and take their junk!  The first aid supplies are there when needed, the vast majority of people are too busy eating each other to remember the canned peas they hoarded, and thanks to the abandoned police station/National Guard Armory/average American household, more guns than the Punisher could ever dream of.

This idea appeals so heavily to the current culture of Stuff we live in that it is almost ubiquitous in the Zombie genre.  From shopping montages in Night of the Comet and Dawn of the Dead (both versions), to the sporty new hybrids they drive in The Walking Dead.  At this point, you might be thinking about those films where scarcity is the watch word, but the characters rarely face such hardship for very long.  Because it would be boring to watch an hour long episode of The Walking Dead where Rick and the gang all lay around and do nothing because they are too weak with hunger.  Or get scurvy and beriberi because of nutritional deficiency.

I Finally Get to Crush That A**hole’s Skull

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A famous shot from the original ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (© United Film Distribution Co.)

In thinking about the Zombie Scenario one cannot gloss over the ugly truth that a lot of people out there relish the idea of bashing someone on the head and getting away with it.  The righteous killing of a despotic psychopath leading a tribe of survivors on a spree of destruction.  This might, possibly, be a projection of every petty middle manager we’ve ever had to deal with.  Or simply that killing zombies is like killing people, without the guilt.

I saved this one for last because it’s not as nice to think about, but human nature clearly shows a propensity toward splitting peoples’ heads open with pick axes and rocks and bullets and etc. etc.  It appeals to the Dark Side of the Force in us.  We are a species prone toward violence living in a highly militarized media culture that is saturated with the ideals of kicking ass, blowing s**t up, and maximizing our K/D ratio.  Of course, zombies appeal to us.

The most popular part of one of the most popular first-person-shooter  games on the market is a zombie fighting scenario (Call of Duty: Black Ops).  And, sadly, we can’t seem to stop shooting each other all the time in real-life, either.  It stands to reason that a huge part of the popularity of zombie stories is just, well, the all-out mayhem of the end of the world and being one of the super bad-ass skull crushers that can make it out there.

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‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’ (© Activision)

Everything I’ve talked about in this post suggests that Zombie Scenarios mainly appeal to the lesser parts of human nature. And, in fact, I do think that they’re so popular partly because they excite our egotistical, greedy and violent sides.  That having been said, zombies stories also leave room for our heroic, compassionate, and valiant sides to shine forth.  They give us a way to carve out a new space from a world we see as damaged, and a system that many of us view as broken and in need of a serious reboot.  In their most popular forms, Zombie Apocalypse stories do just that. Besides, they’re just a whole lot of fun to watch and think about.

But the Zombie Apocalypse fantasy also presents an opportunity to be more honest with ourselves and recognize our own inanity. There’s nothing wrong with a little harmless fantasy, but when we start to actually wish the Zombie Apocalypse would really happen so that we don’t have to go back to our boring, humdrum lives, it’s time for a little reality check.

Jonathan Edward Brown was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, and has been studying the Zombie Phenomenon for over 20 years.

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  1. From reading this, I'm amazed at how accepting our mainstream culture has become about zombies since they're all about death. Sure, you can say they're about a fictional apocalypse but they are synonymous with death in a way. It wasn't too long ago that death was an unpleasant topic related to the wars of the 20th century (namely the Holocaust), drunk driving, AIDS, and other diseases we have no cure for. Death was about loss, the unknown, heaven and hell. It was something you didn't really talk about to others unless this was done in private ... like it was a taboo. But now, somehow, we've found a way to make death a form of entertainment thanks to zombies. It's why it's okay now (rather than 5 or 10 years ago) for 6-year olds to take turns pretending to be zombie and chase each other.
  2. Jess Kroll
    Jess Kroll on June 30, 2013
    Really good piece Johnathan. In my opinion, in modern American society at least, the majority of the appeal is in that last item mentioned. Skipping the gory details I recently learned that the majority of purchasers at a regular gun show in Denver and other places do believe that either society will break down or a government overthrow will be necessary. The former shows that a lot of people really just want to live in a world where they can inflict harm on others with no consequence. Thus the zombie wasteland scenario appeals to them. The latter illustrates one item you didn't mention though, the idea that many people have a fundamental distrust of government or corporate science. In almost all, admittedly limited, zombie media I've seen the beginning of the outbreak is from some evil corporate-sponsored scientist (ie: Monsanto) or from a government agency experiment (ie: MKUltra, Tuskegee Experiment, etc.). The zombie apocalypse playground reenforces the American paranoia that some big, powerful entity is out to get everyone in the world and the only way to fight back is to take up arms and kill everything. Of course, it could also be a classic xenophobic allegory - fear of the other. It's sad but I guess as long as people are getting their kicks from fake zombie heads and not real life ones. Good piece.
    • Jonathan Edward Brown on July 3, 2013
      @Jess, While I agree there is a growing distrust of government among many, I have to respectfully disagree that this is much of a factor in Zombie scenarios. The only Zombie scenario I can think of that was corporate sponsored is The Resident Evil series, and Return of the Living Dead is the result of chemical warfare . In almost every other major piece I can think of, the source of the outbreak is an unknown, often left deliberately in the dark. The Zombie scenario might be pleasing to those who already have a survivor/militia mentality, but the mystery of patient zero/cause of outbreak is often left to our imagination. Thanks for the read and the comments!
  3. Thomas Alexander Peyton on June 30, 2013
    JB - I'm gonna' be drinking Nescafe for years. It ought to have a pretty decent shelf life.
  4. To me, the chaos of the inner city is a real life zombie apocalypse! Random violence, prevailing vulgarity, World War Z reflect this reality on gamma rays!
  5. Captain Sunshine on June 30, 2013
    Great piece! I think you nailed it with the fantasy of committing violent acts on "people" without feeling bad about it.
  6. Jonathan Edward Brown
    Jonathan Edward Brown on July 1, 2013
    I'm really pleased that you all enjoyed the piece. I am planning to respond to your comments, however I beg a small time extension, as I just finished a 12 hour shift at work, and feel pretty well zombified myself at the moment. I will respond to Thomas however, with this question. How will you enjoy Nescafé without milk and sugar!?! Thank you again everyone for reading, and for your patience in waiting responses. I just want to give them the effort they are due.
  7. Lee Robinson
    Lee on July 1, 2013
    The conclusion to this piece made me very happy, and George would be proud. But, I have to beg the question, What about body snatchers?
    • Jonathan Edward Brown on July 3, 2013
      @Lee,I feel that Body Snatchers, although terrifying, fall more into the category of Alien Invasion. They are definitely a horde, and they have no love for human beings, but it's important to remember that once converted to snatched form, they are not even ex-human. Their bodies turn to dust and have been replaced by Aliens who appear human but are not.
  8. Dennis on July 1, 2013
    JB - good, fun read. As an unabashed fan of the slow zombies, I agree with your battling against them scenario but still stick to my guns on the terror factor. WWZ (the movie) could have been any apocalypse. The fast zombies just sowed confusion and the mass populace didn’t really know what was going on. A shambling, disheveled zombie horde, one that everyone knows is a zombie horde, slowly approaching and just keeps coming and coming is just plain oppressively terrifying. You may have a chance to rest and strategize but they just still keep coming. (Slow zombie favoritism rant over.) Although I never wished myself entangled in a zombie apocalypse, I do enjoy watching and being the Monday Morning QB; screaming my outrage at the silly decisions of the characters unfortunate enough to be living through it. While I enjoy "The Walking Dead", sometimes it is dumb people making dumb decisions with zombies lurking in the background. Almost a what-not-to do manual of surviving a world full of zombies. One questions for you: How could you mention the appeal to our Dark Side and not include the best example - BART: Dad! You killed the zombie Flanders. HOMER: He was a zombie?
  9. Anonymous on August 1, 2013
    Love this article. Great overview of the various apocalypse scenarios. Would like to see more on fast vs slow zombies.