A long while back, I was having a conversation with famed Delta operator (and legendary writer) George Hand when he asked me a question he couldn’t have possibly known I was so uniquely suited to answer: Why does this generation of young people seem to love zombie crap so much? He couldn’t have known that I’d spent the better portion of my high school years studying zombie films (even occasionally trying to make our own), that I had audited a course on zombies in popular culture at UGA, or that I was the originator of a mailing list back in my active duty days in which a group of Marines and I discussed ways to fight a zombie scourge. What can I say — the early 2000s were a crazy time, and everybody needs a hobby.
So when George asked what the deal was, I was ready and willing to provide a 30,000-word thesis paper complete with proper APA citations, but opted instead to go with the far more abbreviated answer of, “it’s our generation’s version of Westerns.”
Now, when you watch a movie like the original “Zombieland,” the remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” or Will Smith’s oddly engaging “I am Legend,” the first thing that comes to mind for you likely isn’t “Western,” but in a very real way, this genre captures some of the same themes viewers once came to Clint Eastwood for. Concepts like self-reliance, isolation, and a world free from social expectation or obligation aren’t just present, they’re the tent-pole concepts for both genres. In the lawless Wild West, grizzled men with self-established moral codes and no ties to society at large roam vast expanses of territory occupied only by empty space and potential threats. In their lonesome isolation comes a form of freedom — with no concerns about social standing, credit scores, or having an address for bills to be sent to.
For decades, Americans piled into theaters to watch Western movies because, in that fictionalized representation of America’s old West, they saw freedom in a form that’s simply never existed in our real lives. Sure, that freedom came with hardship, but that hardship added to the fantasy: as we all watched and imagined ourselves being so hard, so strong, and so unrelenting that we would be the hero of our own stories… if we ever happened to find ourselves in such a fantastical setting.