New life for the undead: why are we fascinated by zombies?

Saturday 28 October, 17:3018:45, Garden RoomContemporary Controversies

Since 2011, the US military has been preparing for the zombie apocalypse. Document ‘(U) CONPLAN888’ details the joint Command Warfare School’s ‘living dead’ survival guide. Pentagon sources have claimed, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that the plan has real substance and was in no way ‘developed as a joke’. Is the US military getting all ironically cute? Or do they know something we don’t?

Since George A Romero’s 1968 genre busting movie, Night of the Living Dead, the zombie has been used to highlight the perceived ills of modern society: racism, ecological disaster, scientific excess, and rampant consumerism, to name but a few. In recent years, however, the zombie has lurched from the relative obscurity of B-movie cultdom to the mainstream of popular culture and the social imagination more broadly.

Over the past decade or so, films such as 28 Days Later, Zombieland and World War Z have brought the zombie centre stage. So familiar are we with the concept, that the comedic homage, Shaun of the Dead, became a box-office hit, playing upon the fact that we are now so familar with the genre that we get the joke. AMC’s hugely popular zombie reboot, The Walking Dead, based upon the critically acclaimed comic book series of the same name, has been heralded as one of the most important TV events ever. Plaudits have pointed to the show’s sophisticated problematisation of the relationship between the philosophical ideals of humanism and the forces of dehumanisation that give shape to our contemporary social reality.

Moreover, the idea of the zombie has become a part of everyday discussion. Zombie computers are controlled remotely, but without the user’s knowledge. Zombie banks and companies are alive, but effectively insolvent.

Is our contemporary fascination with the living dead just a faddish frippery of an overly anxious age? Or does is say something fundamental about what it is to be human, the choices we make, and how we live (and die)? Should we fear, or simply ignore the walking dead?