What Does Killing Zombies Teach Us About Being Human?

Editor's Note: This installment from Walter Hudson's Video Games, Villains, and Values series was first published on May 9. We republish it today with the release of World War Z today. See also John Boot's review this morning. - DMS


Zombies are all the rage these days. AMC’s The Walking Dead reigns as the top-watched drama on basic cable. Films like Warm Bodies, Zombieland, and I Am Legend stand out among recent entries in an enduring horror subgenre. None other than Brad Pitt will headline this year’s World War Z, which looks to amp up its action well beyond the shuffling flesh-eaters of yesteryear.

That’s to say nothing of video games, where the undead continue to suck cash from willing gamers anxious to live out an apocalyptic fantasy. Whether its Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, or downloadable add-ons to Call of Duty, zombie hoards batter down the doors of our collective consciousness. What exactly makes them so popular?

Like the Nazis we considered last week, zombies provide guilt-free slaughter. No one feels bad about shooting something that’s already dead. Plus, because zombies were once living human beings, they provide a cathartic release for that deeply suppressed homicidal impulse none of us wants to admit to harboring.

Zombies are amoral. They have no agenda, no emotional motivation, no plan. They simply menace. So putting them down presents no moral dilemma. What would be murder were they living becomes a wholly defensible act of survival. The very nature of a zombie marks it for destruction. Since it has no feelings and endures no torment, the acceptable methods for disposing of a zombie are bound only by the imagination of the killer. So zombies enable creative guilt-free violence on a scale limited only by their numbers.

Zombies also serve an adaptive narrative purpose in storytelling. While they more often than not simply lurk around the corner as boogeymen, the nature of a zombie can be tweaked to represent certain themes. In George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, the film which birthed the modern undead flesh-eater, zombies were implied to be the fulfillment of biblical revelation. Writing for the Washington Post, commentator Christopher Moreman expounds:

The zombie apocalypse is often equated with the wrath of God and biblical end times. Though the origins of zombie outbreaks usually remain indeterminate in the genre, most zombie narratives indicate that we brought this upon ourselves. Whether corporations, the government, or the military are to blame, the average person also bears fault for participating in a corrupt system, just as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were collectively responsible for God’s wrath.

Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead took the theme a step further, assigning a decisively anti-capitalist overtone to the narrative. The undead converged upon a shopping mall, retracing the routines of their former lives.