I’ve never been a huge fan of zombie stories (I’m more of a vampire girl), so I’m not entirely sure why I’ve had them on the brain so much lately (pun not entirely intended!). Maybe it’s from seeing books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at my local Barnes&Noble or watching the CW’s iZombie or catching a preview for Maggie, an upcoming zombie apocalypse thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin. But regardless of the reason, it struck me last weekend that the living dead seem to have the most varied portrayals of all the supernatural creatures out there.
To be sure, each zombie story starts off in a similar manner: There is something that is turning people into flesh-eating monsters (in the 1960s, it was radiation; today, it’s often a virus); if you are scratched or bitten by one of these creatures, you will turn into one yourself; and the only way you can kill a zombie is by destroying its brain. Yet outside of these general “rules,” most bets seem to be off. Or maybe it’s just that the depictions of reanimated corpses are becoming a little more sophisticated.
In 1968’s The Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero created the archetypal zombie. His “ghouls” were slow, shambling creatures focused only on eating live human flesh – something they did with great relish. And while that still seems to be most zombies’ end goal, though there is now a certain predilection for human brains, they have gotten faster in more recent portrayals.
The rage monsters in 2002’s 28 Days Later, for instance, moved insanely fast, which added to the horror of the story. Until then, it seemed that if you could simply outrun the undead horde, you would survive. Seven years later, Zombieland put a different spin on the living dead’s speed: they slowly shuffled along until they caught a whiff of fresh meat; then, they sprinted to the location of their next meal. And 2013’s Warm Bodies broke it down a little more. The regular zombies moved extremely slowly, but the Bonies – those who had completely given in to their cannibalistic ways – moved quickly towards anything with a heartbeat.
On television, the zombies of AMC’s The Walking Dead seem to be closer to Romero’s depiction when it comes to speed, but they are easily the most decayed walkers out there. In fact, the gruesome make-up is part of why I stopped watching the show. Of course, it makes sense that living corpses would show some sort of decomposition, but I just couldn’t get past the bared teeth and missing noses. Perhaps that’s why most other zombies – especially those in iZombie – are just really, really pale?
The thing I find most interesting though, is how some modern zombies are still somewhat sentient. Instead of just shuffling around looking for their next meals, they actually interact with normal humans on a daily basis. At the end of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, for example, Ed is still able to play video games with Shaun. And in iZombie, many of the undead are actually holding down jobs! True, they need to eat human brains (usually with a ton of hot sauce) to keep from turning into a rabid pack, but there they are, working hard for the money from 9 to 5, just like the rest of us.
In thinking about it, maybe this is why some of my friends like zombie stories so much. Though they each contain some familiar tropes, there are so many different takes on the undead that things don’t really get stale or overplayed. And since most of them involve some sort of apocalypse for the human race, they also enable us to ask the question, how we would fare against a man-eating, brain-craving zombie? I wouldn’t say I’m a complete convert, but I’m starting to see the appeal!