For decades now, horror fans have delighted in tales of the undead, rising from the grave to menace the living, both on the big and small screen.
But what is it about the genre which makes these films so popular, and why, despite decades of reinvention, do people still enjoy watching them so much?
After all, most zombie stories use similar tropes – they often feature a desperate survivor, an attempt at seeking safety from the shambling hordes of undead, and a glimmer of salvation that’s revealed to be something sinister.
This is where the narrative usually diverges, depending on how cynical the screenwriter is. Either our brave hero/troupe will find relative peace in the milieu of the zombie apocalypse, or they’ll be eaten.
So if all zombie films follow my slightly (very) reductive formula, why has the genre had such a lasting popularity?
Well, when Martin Freeman came to town to promote his newest film, Cargo, a terrifying zombie film about a father desperately trying to get his daughter to safety before he succumbs to infection, we decided to ask him.
Martin told UNILAD:
Oh, well a) I guess we like being scared, especially in a safe environment, and I think that we unconsciously ask ourselves the question ‘what would I do in various situations’, you know? And I think part of the point of art is to put ourselves in other people’s shoes
Would I survive in a seemingly apocalyptic vision that these films portray? You know, we’re like ‘what would I do in that situation? And I think that’s what it is.
Because there are so many other ways of being scared, but for whatever reason, zombies tend to be very durable.
It’s an interesting notion, isn’t it? We enjoy zombie fiction because deep down, we’re simulating what we’d do in the apocalypse and it would explain why books such as The Zombie Survival Guide are so popular.
When you think about it, it makes sense. I know at least two people in the UNILAD office who have plans for what they’d do if the dead ever did start to rise.
One, who will remain nameless, actually told me their plan in excruciating detail and it’s shockingly well thought out, and can be used in both a Day of the Dead scenario or a 28 Days Later catastrophe.
They claim they’ll drive to a nearby walled school and fortify it’s ten foot high walls, before surviving off the provisions in the dry food store and fending off any peckish ghoul who makes it over the wall with weapons from the armoury which ‘the posh boys who go there’ train with.
Interestingly, the Center for Disease Control actually has plans for how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse and the Pentagon have a battle plan in case the dead rise, so clearly, walking cannibalistic corpses have occupied the minds of some pretty powerful people as well as UNILAD writers.
It’s also been argued zombie fiction is a form of twisted escapism, after all, what’s better than a zombie apocalypse for wiping the slate clean?
You don’t have to worry about your job, loans or anything when the dead rise, the only thing you have to worry about, is surviving.
So we’ve established why the living dead hold such sway over the minds of the public, it’s a safe and morbid escapist thought experiment about the end of civilisation and survival.
What we’ve not done though is work out why most zombie movies have one character, who uses the apocalypse to indulge the darker aspects of their character, or resorts to evil acts to survive.
In Cargo Martin meets such a man, Vic – a cruel hunter who catches living humans and uses them as bait to attract crowds of zombies, which he kills and loots.
Freeman thinks he knows why this character archetype is so common in zombie fiction, explaining:
Well I suppose because they’re among us, they’re also us. You know let’s be completely honest, to various degrees we all do things for our own benefit. You know everything we do in the course of today, will be because we want to do it.
Now hopefully that means that you don’t disregard others but some people do [laughs] and you know and I think that’s a recognisable trait and I think it’s an unfortunate thing in most of us, whether we want to admit it or not.
And like you say, when society collapses you have no idea how you’re going to react. It’s like when people say what would I have done in the war? Well, what you’d probably try to do is survive to an atomic degree, you know at the expense of everyone else, unfortunately.
And I think Andy sees that he’s trying to survive, it’s just that this isn’t a cool thing to be doing. But I think those characters appear in these renditions of society because we know they’re there and it’s partly us as well.
Martin’s answer links back to what was mentioned earlier – the idea of escapism – but this time, it’s taken to the extreme.
When you strip away society and the rule of law, you’re essentially free to indulge any compulsion you want, regardless how unpleasant it may be.
Even scarier, we know there are people now who break the law without the threat of being eaten by hundred ravenous ghouls.
Imagine how quick they’d be to commit crimes when your fighting for survival and there are no police about.
Finally, UNILAD asked Martin about the resurgence in zombie films over the last decade, as well as the wider horror genre, and he had some interesting thoughts on it.
He believes being frightened is a good thing and the need to be scared gives people meaning in their life, saying:
I think being scared in the cinema or at home is an instructive thing. I think it can be a really instructive thing and be thought-provoking for us as viewers, and I think sometimes you know the things that appeal to you in a horror situation, you know when it’s cheap.
You know when someone’s literally pushing buttons that are going to make you [mimes jumping], which again is a skill, but when something stays with you a little more, because it’s made you consider things, and at their best, scary films tell us something about the human condition and I think human beings need it.
Do you agree with Martin? Do zombie movies and horror films reveal something deeper about the human condition? Or are they just as mindless as the zombies that slump about desperate for human brains?
Cargo is available to stream on Netflix now.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
More of a concept than a journalist, Tom Percival was forged in the bowels of Salford University from which he emerged grasping a Masters in journalism.
Since then his rise has been described by himself as ‘meteoric’ rising to the esteemed rank of Social Editor at UNILAD as well as working at the BBC, Manchester Evening News, and ITV.
He credits his success to three core techniques, name repetition, personality mirroring, and never breaking off a handshake.