Tim Cavanaugh recently noted the tradition of grafting highbrow socio-political subtexts onto lowbrow zombie films, often regardless of the film makers’ intentions. As, for instance, when the film historian Sumiko Higashi saw the Vietnam War lurking somewhere among the zombies and wrote that although “there are no Vietnamese in Night of the Living Dead... they constitute an absent presence whose significance can be understood if narrative is construed.” Or when cineaste Robin Wood informed readers that the zombies’ cannibalistic tendency “represents the ultimate in possessiveness, hence the logical end of human relations under capitalism.”
I’m not a great fan of the zombie genre and a little flesh-eating goes an awfully long way. But it seems to me that with a couple of exceptions, most notably Homecoming, such lofty critiques are misplaced and say more about the critics and their politics than the films being discussed or the audience that watches them. Even the more, er, distinguished zombie films, including George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, are at best a kind of coarse nihilistic satire, in which all values are upturned with adolescent glee.
Shannon Love offers a less grandiose explanation for the lingering appeal of the walking dead:
I think most modern literary criticism seeks to exploit the analysis for political purposes instead of seeking to understand why and how the artist chose to tell the story as he did. The critics avoid trivial but true explanations and instead grasp at exotic but false ones solely to gain attention for themselves and their pet causes. Why would anyone need to presume that people find zombies scary out of some broader contemporary social or political phenomenon? The modern zombie created in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead encapsulates many core human fears. Fear of the dead. Fear of a painful death. Fear of decaying flesh. Fear of contagious disease. Fear of betrayal. Fear of a loss of social order and support. Is there any social or political milieu or even any culture ever in which masses of nigh-indestructible ambulatory dead people trying to eat people alive is not a frightening thought? Even cultures that mummify the dead and keep them around would find the idea that grandpa’s corpse could come alive and eat the family disturbing…
Zombie stories (and most survival horror or science fiction) also appeal to us as parables about cooperation. Beyond the physical excitement of the zombies themselves, a zombie story’s main drama evolves out of the conflicts between the survivors. The beleaguered survivors must organize themselves and cooperate to escape the zombie menace and all zombie stories spend most of their time examining that process.[…]
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a zombie is just a zombie. People like zombie movies because zombies and the apocalyptic you’re-all-on-your-own setting they come with is genuinely horrifying. You can easily write interesting variations around the basic theme. Financially, zombies are cheap monsters and isolated farm houses are cheap places to film. Cheap, horrifying monsters explains the appeal of zombies for both film makers and their audiences, not tortuous allegories or appeals to zeitgeist.
As if to prove the point about shoestrings, British director Marc Price has apparently been turning heads at Cannes with his ultra-low budget zombie film, Colin. Price’s production company, Nowhere Fast, recruited aspiring zombies via Facebook and assembled the film over 18 months and for a mere $70. If you’ve a taste for lumbering reanimated flesh, by all means watch the trailer.