An exploration of the pop culture genre of Zombie Films reveals an increasingly complex social commentary that in many cases appears to be so deeply rooted in our collective fears and expectations that the authors themselves are unaware of the themes they are presenting on film. Oddly enough, the inclusion of actual zombies1 in these films isn't necessary for them to either fall into the categorization of a Zombie Film, or present the familiar themes that have become associated with the genre. This may seem like a paradox, Zombie Films without zombies, but as we dig deeper into the themes of the films it becomes clear that the emphasis, whether the author intended so or not, is on the social message and the zombies themselves are little more than a plot device to support a moral message that is a reflection of the audience’s paranoia and fears. Furthermore, in the strictest of technical senses, the zombie typically featured in a Zombie Film isn’t even a zombie.
What is a Mortuxenomorph?
It would seem to be reasonable that any film featuring a zombie would, by definition, be a Zombie Film, but unfortunately this is not the case. Many well known films of the early Hollywood era that featured zombies as plot points (White Zombie, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Voodoo Man) are not typically considered to be Zombie Movies. Although Justice Potter Stewart was speaking of the difference between erotic art and obscene pornography when he said "I know it when I see it" it could just as easily apply here as he was speaking of a matter largely quantified by personal taste and subjective opinion.
Despite some ambiguity, the Zombie Film has several basic elements that set it apart from films that simply feature zombies. The Zombie Film features a small group of increasingly paranoid survivors fighting off, or attempting to escape from, increasingly large hordes of an enemy comprised of former peers and companions, turned against the survivors by largely unknown means and incapable of relenting their attack. The classic example is George Romero's 1968 genre defining "Night of the Living Dead." “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” featured antagonists that were extra terrestrial and the enemy in “28 Days Later” was the result of a blood born pathogen that turned its victims into unreasoning psychopaths, not reanimated corpses. Neither were technically zombies, but the creatures and the films both had elements of the classic Zombie Film that make their inclusion warranted.
I've already established that a Zombie Film doesn't require actual zombies and so I have devised the term 'mortuxenomorph'2 as 'zombie' is clearly inadequate in many ways, despite being the accepted term for this type of fiction. The mortuxenomorph is a creature that will destroy or assimilate you, with no regard for your accustomed social or familial boundaries. It can influence you to a degree that it is not possible to resist indoctrination. It is not mortal in the sense that you are familiar, and requires extreme effort to terminate its threat. Most importantly, the mortuxenomorph can be anyone.
There is, as one might suspect, an exceptional amount of diversity among the Zombie Films in regards to plot, motivations, and mortuxenomorph physiology. Some films feature creatures that are literally animated corpses that can only be ‘killed’ by destroying the brain or spinal column and go into excruciating detail on the biology of the creatures and the methods by which they can be destroyed. Others are quite vague on the nature of the creatures and how to defeat them, while some feature antagonists that are the product of sorcery or industrial accidents and require special arcane or technological methods of destruction. Despite this diversity of plot, there are a number of common elements that are relevant to this discussion and their reflection of our society's anxiety.
The enemy can be anyone
In a Zombie Film, whether the immediate danger is from being bitten by a zombie, or captured by one of the pod people, the sociological fear is that foreign agents are poisoning all of us. Any one person could unwittingly become an agent of evil and his comrades wouldn’t be aware of the danger until it was too late, until the newly created fifth columnist attacked his friends and loved ones. In “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” Dr. Bennell is on the run from the pod people with his girlfriend Becky. They successfully evade the mob hunting for them by hiding under some boarding in a cave. During a brief moment of weakness Becky falls asleep and the aliens are able to transfer her consciousness out and replace it with that of an invader. She is thus transformed from a loving and loyal companion into the enemy in the very brief amount of time that Dr. Bennell leaves her alone in the cave. She maintains the charade of Becky until Dr. Bennell discovers her true nature and she calls out to the mob “He’s in here!” This is a very realistic mirror of the paranoia levied by the mob mentality of a nation under threat of foreign attack, against itself. Is Johnny speaking German? He could be a kraut spy! Has your husband spoken in favor of labor unions? He could be a dirty Red! Does your neighbor pray to Allah? He could be in league with terrorists!
Based on the 1955 novel “Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney, the film is a reflection of the paranoia of its time. Although Sam Peckinpah, who was responsible for most of the screenplay adaptation (uncredited) of the book, has frequently claimed that he had no political message when writing the script it is clear that Finney did. Written and produced at the cusp of the Red Scare, the story is a very clear warning against the loss of individuality that communism was alleged to produce as well as a warning to suspect every friend and neighbor as a potential collaborator and enemy.
Destruction of social rules and the nuclear family
Although the method of attack and the means to destroy the mortuxenomorph differ from treatment to treatment, what remains a constant threat is the attack on the social rules of the audience and the nuclear family. More than the danger of physical assault, the Zombie Film represents a terrifying external threat that can easily infect individuals against their wills and turn mother against daughter and wife against husband. The implied message is that when the enemy comes, they will come not from the sky or in tanks, but from your living room. The enemy will wear the shell of your loved ones and destroy every facet of your way of life.
At the climax of "Night of the Living Dead" Ben sequesters Helen Cooper and her daughter Karen in the basement. Karen had been wounded and was not feeling well. When Ben returns to the basement he finds Karen feasting on the recently murdered corpse of her mother. Karen attacks Ben with a gardening trowel and he quickly and passionlessly dispatches her. She is no longer the scared young girl of earlier in the film, but a ruthless killer with no thought other than the destruction of the individual. Killing Karen leaves Ben as the only survivor of the night and he morosely welcomes the dawn by stepping out onto the sunlight porch. In this assault on the nuclear family we see a reflection of the base fear that propelled unreasonable paranoia during both the cold war and the after math of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.
Preference of self-destruction over conversion
With a prevalent theme of loss of individuality it's perhaps no wonder that many of the survivors choose suicide to potential conversion into the enemy. The enemy has broken down the social rules to the point where wanton murder is permissible and lethal distrust of peers is commonplace. The family group has been rebuilt around a core of mostly strangers, thrown together at random by circumstance and a mutual desire to survive. When faced with the potential of losing this new family group as the first was lost, the individual's desire to protect that group increases to the point that self sacrifice is preferential to conversion. Oddly enough, the survivor most likely to sacrifice him or her self is one who initially resisted inclusion in the group the most.
During the climatic escape scene near the end of the 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead" we see Terry, who began the film as a hostile mall security guard attempting to prevent the survivors from entering the temporary consumer fortress, sacrifice himself to allow the others time to escape. Disabled, and surrounded by grasping mortuxenomorph, Terry bear hugs a propane tank, and with a lit flare in one hand, fires his pistol into the tank causing an enormous explosion. His motivation is both to prevent himself becoming one of the mindless mortuxenomorph but also serves as a means to protect his new family unit. Terry's example proves to the audience that it's possible for anyone to be redeemed as long as they don't succumb to the hold of the enemy.
The battle and all hope is lost
Throughout the film the survivors battle the enemy relentlessly. They push themselves to the limits of endurance and beyond, constantly fighting for survival and watching their backs for warning signs that one of their peers has been converted. In the end though, they almost always fail against the relentless tide of the enemy and their conversion of the fallen. This is a relatively unique way for any film to end, let alone a horror film. The draw of the horror film is to engage in a suspended fantasy that eventually ends in a cathartic release with a victory over insurmountable odds. We are rarely granted that release in Zombie Films though, as the survivors almost always, well, don't survive. The Zombie Film almost always ends on a sour note of hopeless defeat. In "Night of the Living Dead" the lone survivor, Ben, steps onto a porch lit by the rising sun, only to be gunned down by a Sheriff's deputy that mistook his quiet and weary gait to be the shambling step of a mortuxenomorph. In the 2004 version of "Dawn of the Dead" the small group that escapes successfully navigate a sail boat to a supposed island refuge, only to discover that it too is overrun with mortuxenomorph that rush the docks. At the conclusion of "Resident Evil" Alice and Matt find the cure for the bio engineered disease responsible for the mortuxenomorph outbreak and before they can successfully apply it, they are set upon by scientists who whisk them away with nefarious intent. Alice wakes up in an abandoned hospital to discover that the mortuxenomorph have escaped from the underground laboratory and have overrun the city, possibly the world.
Embracing the emotional release of fright
The entertainment potential of the tragedy is well known. Although they aren't terribly popular these days, the tragedy was very popular in ancient and medieval literature. Indulging in a fantasy of hopeless battle against a world altering force seems overly depressing though, even for a contemporary audience fascinated with dark heroes and overt violence. There is, however, a connection between the emotional release of victory over insurmountable odds and the indulgent despair of loss in a fantasy setting. By taking part in the fantasy of hopeless loss, the anxiety of doubt and paranoia is purged in a safe environment instead of becoming a hostile emotional trap that prevents inclusion in the very social network the film destroys in its fictional setting.
The horror film is an interesting reflection of contemporary social situations and mores. The Zombie Film in particular is interesting because the themes and situations presented contrasts what the average person expects or desires in their lifetime. Indulging in the horror film is an exercise in cathartic release of triumph over evil. In the end the hero or heroes triumph over a clearly evil entity and win both the day and the girl. Zombie Films differ in that the heroes, more often than not, do not win and do not survive and yet at times these films are still very popular. At other times they are not though and this pattern is predictable.
During periods of relative domestic and foreign tranquility the popularity of the Zombie Film wanes as audiences are unwilling to patronize the contemporary tragedy. During periods of great national distress and threat of foreign subversion of the domestic population, the popularity of the Zombie Film increases as the audience uses this fictional outlet to indulge in the safe release of anxiety about a problem they can't hope to confront in their everyday life, but fear nonetheless.
1The word ‘zombie’ doesn’t appear to have a single definite source, but rather multiple origins that were most likely combined in the Creole dialects of African American Slaves. Zumbi from the West African Kikongo means ‘fetish’ and nzambi in Kimbundu from the same region, means ‘god’ and were the root words for the name of a serpent god. Imported to Haiti with the slaves and worked into the practices of Voodoo, it was likely blended with the Spanish word sombra meaning ‘shade’ or ‘ghost’ to form the Creole word zombie. The zombie itself is believed by the practitioners of Voodoo to be a corpse, raised from the dead by sorcery to perform mindless labor under the control of the sorcerer.
2The term is derived from the Latin root mortuus (dead) and morph (form), as well as the New Latin root xeno (stranger).