Why do zombie movies remain popular?

MAY 24 — Warning: There are no spoilers ahead. 

Last week, director Zach Snyder released Army of the Dead. This movie sees a motley crew of generalist shooters, a helicopter pilot and a safe-cracker take on, well, an “army” of the undead in an abandoned Las Vegas torn to shreds. 

The plot borrows a tad bit from last year’s Peninsula where a team also infiltrates zombie-infested territory to recover something, but you know with Snyder nothing quite looks the same as elsewhere (see note 1).

Although every zombie movie usually offers something unique — I Am Legend had Will Smith as the solitary individual wandering around in an apocalyptic metropolis, Dawn of the Dead was a hold-out and hold-on for dear life affair in a mall, World War Z was a round-the-world quest for patient zero (with an added twist that the zombies stayed away from terminally ill people), Zombieland was a family story with zombies as a backdrop and Resident Evil was the same, except instead of family it was the evil corporation, etc. — the zombie “element” remains the same.

This is the constant in all great zombie movies: the mob of blood-thirsty dead-yet-wildly-alive former human beings chasing and clawing away at the world and society to satiate their desire for, well, blood and meat.

Pure craving, sheer obsession, mad lunging towards a goal. Bullets, saws and bombs may get in the way but who cares: If a zombie sees a meal, they go right for it.

Slovenian psychoanalyst and philosopher Slavoj Žižek has suggested that the popularity of zombies lies in the appeal of the concept of this pure desire even in death. 

If only a zombie had half the motivation towards their careers when they weren’t zombies yet. But that’s it, isn’t it? There’s something about stark raving bloody single-minded yearning which attracts us.

Zombies are “alive whilst dead” — they are clinically dead whilst behaving with such yearning which bursts the confines of life as we know it — whereas, sigh, maybe many of us are “dead whilst alive” i.e. even though we’re clinically still among the living, our existence often feels lifeless.

Thus, some of us secretly want to be “captured” by an objective which renders us blind to the world. 

Snyder's ‘Army of the Dead’  sees a motley crew of generalist shooters, a helicopter pilot and a safe-cracker take on, well, an 'army' of the undead in an abandoned Las Vegas. —  Picture courtesy of Netflix
Snyder's ‘Army of the Dead’ sees a motley crew of generalist shooters, a helicopter pilot and a safe-cracker take on, well, an 'army' of the undead in an abandoned Las Vegas. — Picture courtesy of Netflix

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Maybe we all wish we could be so “caught up” in a drive, in a target, that our lives are both invigorated and given meaning at the same time?

Yes, yes, of course we understand it’s not always “practical” or healthy (imagine a kid whose only concern in life is getting straight As in SPM and nothing else, or a wife so devoted to her husband she willingly suffers abuse) but we have to admit we can’t help being fascinated by these people.

This is also why we love quest or adventure documentaries in which a team risks life and limb to get to the top of some mountain or cross some island. 

Not unlike “snake master” Austin Stevens risking his life to get a photo of some dangerous snake. Or free soloist mountain climber Alex Honnold risking a fall from hundreds of feet just so he can conquer some magnificent cliff. Or, well, Jesus undergoing torture and death out of love for humankind.

Our capitalist society is also implicated somehow. Look at all the ads bombarding us 24/7. On one hand, these spur more and more kinds of desire within society, on  the other hand we are often numbed by the sheer number of options available for consumption.

So much so that finding something “real” to desire, as opposed to yet another T-shirt or phone or car accessory, becomes priceless. 

And make no mistake, we humans desire to desire. 

There’s something about the single-minded pursuit of something, even to the point of irrationality, which draws us in. Maybe we love zombie movies because these creatures, despite all the gore and horror, demonstrate an intensity we wish we had?

Note 1: Army of the Dead has plenty of gore and firepower and, as is interestingly common with many zombie movies, a fair amount of personal anguish. It’s 2.5 hours of mayhem which, to Synder’s credit, remains generally unpredictable.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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