The State of the Zombie Apocalypse
by John Hayward
Zombies have come a long way since their humble beginnings as shambling meat puppets, resurrected to serve the whims of some voodoo master. They’re not taking orders from anyone these days. For my money, the last great appearance of the old-school zombie came way back in the 1970s series The Night Stalker - grandpappy to supernatural procedurals such as The X-Files and Fringe - when gonzo reporter Carl Kolchak found himself nose-to-nose with a slumbering zombie, trying to fill its mouth with salt and destroy it before it awakened to kill again.
You’ll need more than a salt shaker to take down the modern zombie, because he’s a global menace now, an extinction-level event. Actually, at the end of Night of the Living Dead – the film that reinvented zombies – it seemed as though humanity had gained the upper hand over the cannibal corpse menace. That’s one reason the final moments are so bitterly ironic, as the lone survivor of a night of horror is mistakenly gunned down by a mop-up operation.
Humanity hasn’t had it so good since. George Romero’s later films discarded the notion of mankind defeating the undead menace, whittling the human population down to a few paranoid bands holed up in remote fortresses.. When his “Dead” series got a reboot from director Zack Snyder, the zombies were the ones conducting mop-up operations. It’s now an accepted element of the genre that we’re not going to win the war against Zed; we’ll be lucky if a few of us survive to hide in secure compounds, struggling to remember the basics of agriculture and animal husbandry once the scavenged rations run out.
Such is the case in the premier zombie tale of the modern age, The Walking Dead, which grew into one of the most amazing success stories on television. It’s so popular that it spawned a talk show dedicated to discussing each episode immediately after it airs, and that usually trounces all comers in the ratings. The “walkers” are definitely winning in The Walking Dead – they defeated the combined arms of at least the United States, and probably the entire world, in the time it took series protagonist Rick Grimes to awaken from a coma. Most of the human population is dead, and many of the survivors have turned feral. (“Welcome to Terminus! Let us fix up a plate of barbecue for ya!”)
That’s impressive work, considering that the walkers – it’s a curious trope of modern zombie fiction that they are almost never referred to as “zombies” – are slow, not particularly strong, aren’t always aggressive, and can be bested in hand-to-hand combat by petite women and determined children. Sure, you’re in a world of hurt if they surround you… but there simply aren’t enough intact, recently-deceased corpses at any given time to provide The Walking Dead’s zombies with the numbers they should have needed to overwhelm the military, police forces, and armed civilians. A simple and effective tweak to this story would have been a prelude that involved the zombie contagion causing a large portion of the populace to grow sick, die, and rise as walkers, but there has thus far been no indication on the show (or the comic book upon which it’s based) that it went down like that.
Still, we are told the walkers have the upper hand, at least for the moment, although there have been sporadic observations that they appear to be decaying. If they’re not immortal, mankind should be able to squeak out a win by digging in and waiting for them to rot away. (It has been established that everyone on Earth is infected with the virus that causes reanimation after death, but once the big zombie hordes have crumbled, that’s a problem survivors should be able to manage over the long term, even if a cure is never found.)
The next logical step for The Walking Dead, especially if it makes some effort to follow the storyline in the comics, would be to chronicle the resurgence of civilization and its attendant problems, including banditry and tribal warfare among the humans. The appeal of a fresh start, a gruesome reset button for civilization, is one reason zombie-apocalypse stories are popular… but the fresh start might actually be the scariest part of the whole saga. Creating a civilization is a daunting task, especially for those haunted by memories of the world that was lost. It’s even harder when grouping a large number of people together in close quarters is a recipe for a fresh zombie outbreak. People die in their sleep sometimes, you know.
Another hugely popular zombie saga is the film adaptation of World War Z, which became something quite different from the book it was based on. The movie was remarkably successful, particularly given its troubled production history, so we’re likely to see another installment.
At the end of the first film, we left humanity in a fairly hopeful position, with an effective tactic for anti-zombie stealth having been discovered. Such a turning of the tide was crucial, because the zombies of World War Z are quite believable as a genocidal menace. They don’t waste time chowing down on their prey; they are the ambulatory delivery systems for an incredibly potent virus that overcomes victims of their bite in a matter of seconds. They also have a disturbingly insectoid tactic for boiling over barriers and sweeping away armored vehicles like a swarm of ants. They can outrun the living, they shrug off injuries that would drop a human in his tracks, and they’re instantly, devastatingly hostile to everyone they encounter.
The World War Z film saga is unique among zombie-apocalypse tales because it’s very much an active war, with the outcome still hanging in doubt. Cities have fallen, but fighting rages on, and the humans have developed an effective means of fighting back. (Something tells me Zed will find a way around the humans’ stealth tactics by the end of Act One in the sequel.) We don’t usually get to see the actual war against the undead, not in any detail, due to the understandable budget constraints facing most such films, but Zombie Ragnarok is still under way in WWZ.
Another continuing zombie series, less familiar to American audiences, supposes that humanity won its war against the undead, by actually curing the z-plague. In the Flesh, heading into a second season on the BBC, follows a recovered zombie (christened “Premature Death Syndrome” or “PDS” sufferers by the fastidious British government) as he tries to re-enter small town life. He has to deal with both his own faint memories of terrible deeds committed when he was a flesh-eating monster, and the prejudice of his human neighbors, who remember the undead attack all too well.
The notion of exploring the zombie aftermath is fairly unique to In the Flesh, which indulges in a bit of sly humor here and there, but mostly takes its core concept seriously, striving to deliver a realistic look at a nation recovering from gruesome horrors. The recovering zombies are used as metaphors in a meditation on bigotry and resentment, with the added twist that the feelings of the hostile humans are not entirely irrational. They barely survived a terrible event that would leave any society traumatized… and is everyone completely certain this cure for the zombie virus is going to hold up…?
The SyFy Channel flirted with zombie action in its inscrutable series Helix, which appears to be coming back for another season. Helix Season 1 was set almost entirely inside a huge Arctic research base, where confusing and rather poorly-explained biological research produced a plague spread by feral human “Vectors” – a variety of “fast zombie” that likes to grapple with victims and vomit bio-hazards into their faces. A cure was developed toward the end of the show, but since the next season has been teased as moving into the larger world, a Vector outbreak in a populated area might be in the offing. The Vectors sporadically displayed more intelligence and self-awareness than most other flavors of zombie, so they’d make for an interesting threat on a large scale.
Finally, France is dealing with a more subdued, but decidedly eerie, zombie outbreak in the TV series Les Revenants (“The Returned”). A quiet little town nestled among some gorgeous mountain scenery finds itself dealing with several people who have mysteriously returned from the dead, years after they passed away. If this sounds familiar to American TV viewers, ABC is currently airing an entirely unrelated show called Resurrection that uses the same concept, but it’s more of a soap opera/mystery program with a little fantasy twist.
Les Revenants is a very different beast: moody, unsettling, and filled with a sense of mounting dread, even though very little physical violence occurs until the last episode of the first season. The returned dead don’t eat people (although, in one of those little unnerving touches the show excels at, they’re always hungry) and they’re not mindless killers – they generally seem unaware of how or why they were returned to life. The secrets of the town’s past are slowly revealed as the characters’ backstories are explored, with a creepy undercurrent of mounting doom that abruptly becomes overt at the end of Season 1. The people of that charming mountain town have learned, the hard way, that the French version of the walking dead is willing to negotiate… but they do not take “no” for an answer.
American TV networks are racing to cash in on the success of The Walking Dead. It’s a bit surprising it has taken so long to get more zombies on the air – it’s a notoriously cost-effective genre of horror, after all – but they’re coming. What twists on the tried-and-true formula could these new shows offer?
The most obvious unexplored territory would be the return of the supernatural zombie. It’s not clear exactly what is going on in Les Revenants, but in every other popular modern zombie story, the situation was caused by some sort of virus, perhaps the result of medical or bio-weapons research. Before The Walking Dead came to comic-book shops, an older series called Deadworld told of a zombie apocalypse that was explicitly magical in origin. That sort of story could be a breath of fresh air for the genre, and would also dispense with the mental gymnastics required to believe that a virus or Science Gone Wrong could turn people into walking corpses. Pinning blame for the zompocalypse on a magic spell would get a lot of hand-waving out of the way, and perhaps open the door to some menaces other than zombies, such as the even more formidable demons that began appearing in Deadworld.
The Resident Evil film series also mixes things up with twisted undead mutations lunging to the forefront of the zombie army – a bit tough to do on a TV budget, without looking ridiculous, but one trope of modern zombie fiction that could stand a little busting up is the humans-only rule. Resident Evil has zombie dogs. Zombie animals would be a horrible threat, especially since they’d jeopardize the survivors’ food supply (triumph of the vegans!) and make it harder to find safety. I’ll see your chain-link anti-walker fence and raise you a flock of undead birds.
And to take a page from Les Revenants and run with it, what if the shock troops of the undead apocalypse were not mindless killbots whose speech is limited to a greedy cry for brains to eat? We’ve got slow zombies and fast zombies; bring on the smart zombies. Comic books once again provide an inspiration – a series from several years back called Crossed, so-named because its disturbingly cunning virus-infested lunatic killers developed a telltale facial scar resembling a cross.
The Crossed weren’t actually undead – technically, neither are the zombies in the film version of World War Z - but were victims of a plague that unleashed the darkest, most sadistic evil from the depths of the victim’s mind. This plague made for a very plausible apocalyptic threat. It spread through bodily fluids, which the Crossed were sickeningly clever about distributing. The infected became both hideously tough and deliriously malevolent. You’re lucky if they merely decide to eat you. A faithful adaptation might be too twisted for even pay-cable networks to stomach, but the idea of the clever zombie remains intriguing.
Stay in the fight, people. Humanity endures… but the zombie menace clearly isn’t going away, anytime soon.
“John Hayward is the senior writer at Human Events magazine, and a contributor on and technology issues to various websites. He is the author of ‘Persistent Dread,’ a collection of short horror fiction available in ebook format from Amazon.com.”
“Persistent Dread” on Amazon: Get it HERE!