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.

I am so taking the easy way out on this one. I wonder how many A to Z entries posted today will be about this very trope? But, what can I say? I do like zombies.

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.

Some more recent depictions of the zombie apocalypse have attempted to distance themselves from the traditional undead nature of zombies in favor a more "realistic" approach, such as rabies-esque viruses that cause otherwise normal human beings to exhibit mindless psychosis.

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?

Recommended Reading:
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft
World War Z by Max Brooks

Recommended Viewing:
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
28 Days Later
Shaun of the Dead

Recommended Gaming:
Dead Rising
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.

Comments

  1. Zombies have indeed evolved tremendously, from the brain slurping, trudging retards they were, to the agile, fierce and freakin scary beasts of today.

    Calling these new-age infectious zombies, that hunt in packs and shred everything in their way, a force of human nature, the ultimate enemy man must face -- that's just f*ing brilliant!

    You've gone through every single speculative fiction trope out there (and a handful I hadn't even considered before), and you've done a brilliant job at it. Explanatory, concise and interesting, and spiced up with mentions of your own work --> both thumbs up!

    And hell yeah I'll stick around! Can't wait to read more from you, when you're not constrained by alphabetized topics! ;)

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    1. Great way to cap off a delightful series, JW! Love the whole zombie apocalypse idea-- and, coincidentally enough, it comes at the perfect time! Tomorrow starts the beginning of the May 2012 blog chain over at AW. This month's theme? You guessed it! Zombie Apocalypse!!!

      Will defintely be back to continue to support your blog. It has become one of my favorite reads!

      Congrats on the successfull completion of you A-Z challenge!

      R

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    2. Thanks so much, Vero! Your kind words are much appreciated. :)

      And you're right, it'll be much easier to continue the series without having to correspond with a new letter every day! There were a few times where I had to wrack my brain there. I'm glad you enjoyed it; it was great having you along for the ride!

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    3. Thanks, Randi! Wow, if only that would have been April's theme, I wouldn't have had to skip this month! I'll head over and check out this month's thread. Maybe I'll get to write a fun zombie apocalypse story after all. I think if I end up doing a flash piece for the chain like last time, I will wholly embrace every zombie cliche I can think of!

      Thanks so much for following along! You rock!

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  2. Of course I find your blog on the last day of the challenge! Congrats on completing the a to z! I also wrote about Zombies, but mine was a poem.
    -MJ http://creativelyspiltink.blogspot.com/

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    1. Better late than never, MJ! I'll head over and check your post out. Zombie poetry? Say no more!

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  3. Plants vs. Zombies - funny! (And good game.)
    Fast moving zombies are scarier. As stated in Zombieland, cardio is necessary to survive.

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    1. I love Plants vs Zombies. Never gets old! And Zombieland was pretty great, too. One of the greatest cameos of all time in that movie!

      Thanks for stopping by, Alex.

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  4. I like zombie posts - doesn't matter how many other people are doing them. I am in love with Matheson's work but didn't know where the word zombie came from. Interesting.

    Jessica
    A to Z Blogger & SF/Fantasy Writer @ Visions of Other Worlds

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    1. Richard Matheson is a fantastic author. So many classics! It's a real shame his name doesn't always get put on the various lists with the other all-time greats in speculative fiction.

      Thanks for reading, Jessica!

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  5. Great finish! I love zombies! I think there is huge potential in the genre that hasn't been tapped. I consider zombies to be a symbol of humans in their most extreme nature.

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    1. Thanks, magic mint! I agree, there's probably great potential there. The trouble is that zombie stories have become a little formulaic. But if a writer is willing to break formula and the reader is willing to let him, there's certainly still room to break new ground there.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  6. I enjoy a good zombie story, too (books and movies)! I'm from AW by the way and enjoyed reading your post. I have joined the AW blog chain for May so maybe I can come up with something cool for the zombie apocalypse theme. I'm eager to see what you (and everyone else) comes up with. Good luck with your writing.

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    1. Thanks, Poppy! I look forward to seeing what you come up with for the blog chain.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  7. Hey J.W.! I’m pretty clueless about the zombie genre overall, but this caught my eye: “…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…”

    There was an episode of The X-Files in which a bug-like monster was turning his telemarketer employees into zombies. It was interesting.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folie_a_Deux_%28The_X-Files%29

    Kind of makes you wonder how much of life is imitating art these days, eh? ;)

    Thanks for stopping by my “Z” blog too. Your Hulk moment found me laughing at 6:30am this morning. :D

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    1. Glad I could be of service! I need to have an X-Files marathon one of these days. I miss that show!

      Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  8. J.W. I Am Legend is a phenomenal story and the movies have never come close to it. Zombies are becoming a well-used trope, but you brought a fresh face to it. Nice post and new follower!

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    1. I agree, the movies have yet to capture that certain something that made I Am Legend special. The Will Smith version was alright, but they completely ruined the spirit of the story by changing the ending. What a shame!

      Thanks and welcome aboard, Maurice!

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  9. A lot of good points here and I wish I'd read this before my own recent post on this topic :) If you are ever up for a guest post, look me up...

    As for the Draugyr... Rachel Caine uses those in her latest Morganville books though she portrays them more as vampires then zombies. Or rather, metamorphic water which takes on a vague human form and drains life from those it touches and the only thing that Vampires in her world fear.

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    1. Thanks so much! I've yet to do any guest posts, but I'm certainly not opposed to the idea. I'll definitely keep you in mind!

      I haven't read any of the Morganville books, but that sounds interesting! Draugrs have always been one of my favorite mythological creatures. It sounds like Caine's version are "name only" but still sound pretty cool.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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