The Problem with Zombies

Put the shotguns and the crowbars down, zombie lovers. Like you, I love the genre, and have spent many a beer-fueled evening arguing over the plausibility of retrofitting a bus with chain-saw slots and snow plows in order to escape a press of rotting, stinking, writhing undead. My problem is not with the zombies or those brave souls who battle them. It’s not even with the writers of zombie stories and movies, who produce some of my favorite entertainment. It’s with those writers who occasionally mistake the narrative purpose and utility of their brain-dead creations.

Before we get going, a clarification: I’m going to be using the term “zombie” in its broadest possible sense. (This will irritate the purists, to whom I say: too bad, it’s my blog.) In this post, “zombie” will indicate any creature that is both mindless and malevolent. In this sense, we loop in the “forged” of Robin Hobb, the Vord and the “taken” of Jim Butcher, the Others of George R.R. Martin, and the generic storm troopers from Star Wars. We can debate until the cows come home about whether these various groups are actually as mindless as literal zombies, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to point out that they are 1) pretty bad and 2) entirely monochromatic in terms of their motivations and emotional range.

So what’s the trouble? Well, in the hands of skilled writers, nothing. Zombies can be tremendously useful and unsettling. I love Star Wars and Dawn of the Dead, Assassin’s Apprentice and Game of Thrones. It’s vital, however, to understand what zombies are good for, and to do that, we need to take a look at the main instance in which they are useless.

To wit: zombies make shitty principal villains. Any movie or book in which a zombie is the main bad guy is in serious trouble from the get-go. Consider this simple thought experiment: replace Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine with anonymous storm troopers and see what happens to Star Wars. Replace Joffrey and Cersei Lanniser with “Others.” Either revision would geld the story. Good villains have to be able to think and feel. If it can’t think and feel, it can’t win or lose, and if it can’t win or lose, there’s no real satisfaction in hacking off its head and mounting it on a pitchfork over the mailbox, no matter how much ichor drips onto the junk mailings from Publisher’s Weekly.

Yes, smallpox was “defeated,” but as far as I know, the World Health Organization didn’t stand over the final virus, fists clenched, teeth bared, like Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston.

“Aha!” the zombie-fanatic exclaims. “But what about zombie movies, asshole? You know – the ones with actual shambling, brain-eating zombies? Zombies are the antagonists in those movies, and those movies ROCK!”

Yes and no. Yes, Dawn of the Dead rocks, but no, zombies are not the antagonists. The zombies are not characters at all. They are the weather.

They are the weather in exactly the same way the storm in The Perfect Storm is the weather, and they serve an identical function: they make life harder for the cast of human characters, and in so doing they force all manner of interesting conflicts and compromises, fuck-ups and epiphanies to the surface. This is the first good use to which zombies can be put.

And we need not limit ourselves to storms and zombies. The weather could be comprised of deadly trees (The Happening, Day of the Triffids), deadly blobs (The Blob), deadly birds (The Birds), deadly trans-dimensional insects (The Mist), deadly dinosaurs (Jurassic Park), deadly cold (The Day after Tomorrow), deadly freaky underground worm things (Tremors), deadly water pressure (all submarine movies ever made), deadly viruses (Contagion, et. al.), deadly genetically-modified hyper-intelligent sharks (that movie where Samuel Jackson gets chomped in half).

I could go on, but I think the theme is clear: it’s the “deadly” that matters, not the noun that follows it. Yes, of course, the strategy and tactics differ; you don’t use the same tricks to survive a vengeful fungus that you might when trying to endure the precipitous onset of an ice age. When I say that the type of adversity doesn’t matter, what I really mean is that the sort of drama that ensues in this type of plot is fundamentally the same: people struggle with each other and themselves in order to overcome or survive “the weather.” This type of story (when told well) generally doesn’t culminate with the defeat of the tree/worm thing/hyper-intelligent shark but with human endurance (or, in the case of several of these stories) the failure to endure. In Twenty-Eight Days Later, the point isn’t to beat the zombies – you can’t defeat them any more than you could defeat The Perfect Storm – it is to weather them. The struggle happens between the human beings.

The second use of zombies (again, in my broad sense) is as a weapon. This is what happens in Star Wars, where the Emperor wields his imperial minions, or The Lord of the Rings, where Sauron and Saruman wield their orcs. In this case, we don’t need intelligence or emotional range out of the zombies any more than we need intellectual subtlety out of the Kurgan’s sword (although the Kurgan’s sword does kick some serious ass) or Voldemort’s wand. What matters is the villain wielding the weapon and the way in which he/she/it wields it.

To come full circle, a story runs into trouble when a zombie or group of zombies is treated as the antagonist. “Good Guys and Gals Versus Zombies” tends to fail, plot-wise, because it’s the equivalent of “Good Guys and Gals Versus Lightning.” If the guys and gals are all truly good, if they have no psychological demons or bad eggs mixed into the group, then there’s not much to write about. They do their best and either the lightning gets them or it doesn’t.

Almost all writers understand this at some level, and so it’s rare to see a story without a viable antagonist at the outset. In zombie stories, there’s always a megalomaniac or sociopath mixed into the group, a petty tyrant or at least a garden-variety asshole (Garden-Variety Asshole would be a good name for something. Not, like, a child, but a band or an album.) against whom the protagonists must struggle while they’re trying to endure the zombies. So far, so good.

What often happens, however, is that the writer mistakes the zombies for the true antagonist. As a result, the humans start out with their real and interesting problems, problems that emotionally animate the story, that keep us reading, but then those problems are resolved prematurely. For the final pages/minutes we’re left with what can only be a cooking-cutter climax between good and zombie. The special effects people will do their damndest to keep us engaged, and I like seeing a field of zombies decimated by a helicopter blade as much as the next guy, but if that’s the final conflict, it’s just a matter of hacking up meat – and there’s a reason we don’t have a thriving market for stories about people in the chicken plants chopping up the dead birds.