Speculative Fiction Tropes: Zombie Apocalypse
Today marks the end of the April A-Z Challenge, where I've been blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. The final entry is on the Zombie Apocalypse.
Richard Matheson's post-apocalyptic novel I Am Legend paved the way for what has become an iconic part of the horror genre. He called the creatures in his story "vampires," but his unique take on the undead had a heavy influence on one George A. Romero, whose 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead would become the blueprint for modern zombie tales. The seminal film depicted a frightened group of strangers trying to stay alive as the dead inexplicably rose from the grave.
Of course, neither Matheson nor Romero actually used the word "zombie" in their work. The word itself has an older meaning, rooted in the religious practices of Haiti and certain parts of Africa. In this sense of the word, a zombi is said to be a living corpse, brought back to life by a sorcerer for the purposes of servitude. William Seabrook is often given credit with introducing the term into Western vernacular with his 1929 novel, The Magic Island. After the wide success of Romero's film, fans applied the word and it stuck.
And while Night of the Living Dead and I Am Legend certainly can be pointed to as the progenitors of the modern zombie sub-genre, the concept of undead creatures feeding on the flesh of the living can be found in many ancient mythologies. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar threatens to open the gates of the netherworld, allowing the dead to escape and "eat the living." Arabian folklore has the ghoul, a devilish djinn that dwells in graveyards and sometimes eats human flesh. Norse mythology speaks of the Draugr, reanimated corpses that guard the tombs of vikings. In some tales, a person slain by a Draugr becomes one, a depiction very similar to the modern zombie's contagious bite.
My favorite example is probably Danny Boyle's 2002 film, 28 Days Later. This version of the zombie apocalypse is a result of the highly contagious "rage" virus. The story follows a small group of survivors as they attempt to stay alive in quarantined Britain following the pandemic outbreak and resulting societal collapse.
There's been times where I've wanted to write my own zombie apocalypse for fun, to the extent that I even sat down and wrote a chapter once. But I think if I ever did, it likely would never see the light of day. This trope's popularity has shambled so far into cliche territory that it might be difficult to produce anything particularly original. Most of the recent works embracing the trope acknowledge this, presenting stories that are largely character driven. The zombies are portrayed in such a way that they almost become "man against nature" stories.
And perhaps that's just what they are. Only it might just be human nature that zombies represent. A lot has been said in various places about the symbolism of a shambling zombie horde, only progressing for the sake of mindless consumption. George Romero famously set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall to reinforce a satirical poke at American consumerism.
And anyone who's ever done Christmas shopping in late November must admit there is a certain . . . resemblance. No?
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft
World War Z by Max Brooks
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
28 Days Later
Shaun of the Dead
Stubbs the Zombie
Plants Vs Zombies
And so comes to a close the A to Z Challenge. It was tough at times, but great fun. I met a lot of great people and discovered some awesome blogs along the way. Stay tuned for my A to Z "reflections" post next Monday, where I'll talk a bit more about that in greater detail. Huge thanks to everyone who followed along!
And if you liked the speculative fiction tropes series that I used as my A to Z theme, stay tuned for that as well. It's going to become a monthly feature here. I'll nail down the specifics in the reflections entry.