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Days of the Dead: The Resurrection of the Zombie in Fiction


Zombies and horror go together - it's a simple fact of life. It's a pairing as natural as bread and butter, crumble and custard, Finn and Jake. Zombie horror's been common on our screens and pages since the 1940's with a grounding in folklore and mythology lasting centuries longer. But what of the recent resurgence of the zombie in fiction? What has sparked this new-wave of zombie fiction - not all of it horror?


To many, the seminal zombie fiction is that of George A. Romero. His political-satire-meets-horror style was a staple of cinema screens in the 60's and 70's with the series continuing to the current decade and what struck audiences (other than the copious amounts of blood) was Romero's political commentary. In Night of the Living Dead we see a group pull together to defend the house they've taken refuge in. By the end of the onslaught only Ben is left alive as the local sheriff's department begin the clean-up operation. As he moves to greet them he is shot at long range by the racist sheriff; Romero leaving the audience with a bitter taste in their mouths - the true horror that of society's prejudices. Romero carried on with his socio-political lens in the films that followed. Dawn of the Dead explored the rampant consumerism of the capitalist system as the zombie hoard congregate on a shopping mall as it is what they remember. Day of the Dead explored the heavy-handedness of the military as a group of soldiers and scientists work together to find a cure for the outbreak. This is the real triumph of Romero's work - these films aren't really about zombies; the undead are present as a way of exploring humanity through higher stakes. It's impossible for the audience not to see the stupidity of certain characters pulling apart when the only way to survive is to work together. Romero, though unsubtle, deserves his place in zombie history with his work, even if he and zombie horror as a whole fell out of favour in the 80's and 90's.


However, the concept of zombies was brought to life long before Romero. In Haitian tradition and folklore zombies were believed to be souls under the control of a necromancer. As opposed to the modern day idea of vast mindless hoards devouring human flesh, these zombies - through loss of agency - were thought to be slaves to the necromancer. It should be noted that though this belief came from the vodou tradition it also had social ramifications. The vodou religion was brought to Haiti by African slaves and many scholars have suggested that perhaps these stories of zombies were actually an exploration of slavery. These folk tales of zombies were not ones of horror, but of sadness - of the theft of humanity and agency by another being. As June Michele Pulliam says in Encyclopedia of the Zombie: The Walking Dead in Popular Culture and Mythology, "the voodoo zombie was a result of fears of Haitians in the 19th century that they would be re-enslaved by powerful corporations who had set up plantations on the island." It must be said that many of the scholars exploring this theory were not Haitian and were looking at the religion from the outside, thusly there is a certain amount of cultural tourism at play; the idea they might entirely understand the experiences of the slaves of the nuances of their religion is both offensive and erroneous. However, to understand the modern zombie in fiction we must look at its roots and, whether these scholars are correct or not, it is interesting that tales of zombies may have had a social element from the very birth of the concept.


As said earlier, zombie fiction is now in a healthy state seemingly worldwide. The anime and manga Highschool of the Dead was massively popular, reaching the top 20 in the Oricon charts and even the New York Times best-selling manga list. There was nothing particularly new about Highschool of the Dead - it follows a group of teenagers as they try to survive a zombie outbreak. It wasn't political or social, or even post-modern; it was just a zombie horror. And maybe that's why it was so successful. It had all the usual conventions; hoards of zombies and a group trying to survive; but also all the conventions of an anime; intermittent comedy, sentiment, intense characterisation and extreme violence. In many ways, in combining these two genres it managed to transcend both of them, becoming a good anime and a good zombie horror, but also more than the sum of its parts. Instead of focusing on socio-political issues, the developers set their attention to characterisation, adding more empathy to the viewer experience. It has to be said, the gratuitous blood and gore of Romero's films did not allow for the audience to get particularly attached. His almost Brechtian style made the viewer very aware they were watching a film with a political message. This is a marked change in Highschool of the Dead. If we add to this the fact that the heroes are teenagers also combating the same impulses and new experiences of the teenage audience we can see why it was so popular. It feels more real, despite the hyper-violent anime environment. This is a series that tells a compelling story with characters the audience can care about. In short, it has all the hallmarks of good fiction.


It would be impossible to talk about the success of zombie fiction without mentioning the cultural phenomenon that is The Walking Dead. From its humble beginnings as a comic book by Robert Kirkman, the franchise has spawned a TV show, action figures, novels and video games. Another member of the new-wave of zombie fiction, The Walking Dead, in all its incarnations (or perhaps that should be re-incarnations?) is not a zombie horror, but a zombie drama. Far from using zombies as a backdrop for political statement, The Walking Dead uses zombies as a catalyst for human drama, taking even further steps than Highschool of the Dead. This is a story about human relationships - friendship, romance, animosity and adultery. It has all the drama and comfort of everyday life with the raised stakes of the undead. The friendships are that much more sincere. The love is that much sweeter. The alliances are that much uneasier. Again, the success of The Walking Dead is not in the zombies but everything else. The franchise's strength is that through characterisation and allowing us to explore humanity through a lens not filtered by society. We see the best of us in the bonds of the characters and the worst of us in their conflicts with other groups. The Walking Dead serves as a reminder of the importance of humanity's moral values and what can happen when we lose them This is zombie drama in which death is not the only way to lose one's humanity.


But it would appear not all zombie fiction is in such perfect health. The Resident Evil games were once a tour-de-force of the genre and medium, combining the constant threat of a zombie attack with puzzle-solving problems. Again, we see zombies used more as an outside threat rather than the main focus of the game. The first four in the series are worth playing just for the sense of atmosphere (along with some of the best/worst b-movie dialogue ever put on paper). Unfortunately, more recent titles have taken on a more third-person shooter approach, losing the survival horror feel that made the earlier titles such a success. The films, while still making huge profits with box office takings of $915.9 million, have unfortunately fallen into the same trap, focusing heavily on action and less on characterisation or atmosphere. Recently the series has become a zombie fiction about zombies, which is something the genre was never supposed to be.


It has to be said this is a brief outline and, for the sake of brevity, I've had to stick mostly to the mainstream of zombie fiction. In an ideal world I'd have the opportunity to talk about the sublime Spanish found-footage film Rec. or the seminal 1940's horror I Walked With a Zombie, and even some zombie comedy such as George: a Zombie Intervention or the wonderfully affectionate Shaun of the Dead. However, what we've hopefully been able to discover is that this new-wave of zombie fiction has been the huge success it has by being not about zombies or political statement, but about humanity and how to keep it in a tide of violence and death. That seems to be what has kept the genre shambling onto our screens and across our pages. Zombie fiction is very much alive... sort of.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

 
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