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.
And therein lies the allure of the zombie apocalypse for so many of people of my generation. We grew up watching our dad’s Westerns, so by the time we hit theater-age, we weren’t interested in watching an overweight, middle-aged man suck in his stomach and talk about grit from the saddle of a horse. We wanted to see folks that looked more like us as they left their lives full of obligation and compromise in favor of a new, brutal world in which problems all have simple solutions — if you’re just tough enough to see them through. Like the hero’s journey of old Westerns, most zombie movies start with our protagonist leading a normal, if not disappointing, life only to be thrust into circumstances that demand greatness. The idea behind these stories is as old as storytelling itself: the reluctant everyman is forced into a journey that proves his greatness in a world bereft of the structure that had suppressed it. Like Neo discovering the truth about the Matrix or Harry Potter learning he’s a wizard — these stories offer us a reasonable excuse for our overall lameness, and the dream of being whisked away from it.
Zombie stories, in particular, tend to draw the minds of those with a strong interest in things like self-reliance and self-defense, as in many ways, a world full of zombies is really a world without people and the infrastructure that comes with them. A zombie apocalypse would mean a tragic end for most folks that live in urban city centers, but for those that live out in the woods and already know it would take the police a half hour to find their home, a zombie plague would only exacerbate existing concerns about safety and security. In a post-zombie world, those who live far away from people would live, more or less, a lot like they did in the Old West.
As I’ve often said to my wife, what I like about living in the woods is knowing that a man I see in my yard at 3 a.m. is a bad guy I can shoot. When you live in a neighborhood, you run the risk of it being some poor dad searching for his daughter’s lost poodle.
Of course, this isn’t to say that those of us who enjoy zombie movies actually want to live in a post-Zombacalypse world. Unlike a lot of folks of my generation, I also have a real love for Western movies, but I’m no more interested in dying of dysentery on an 19th century cattle ranch than I am having my insides chewed up by undead Girl Scouts. Because I have a great deal of experience in the wilderness, I’m handy with a rifle, and I love the idea of waging war against mindless monsters I can put down without regret or ethical conundrum, a world where I can replace my concerns about car payments with setting zombie-mashing boobie traps sounds like a lot of fun. It wouldn’t be, of course, but that’s what we go to movies for: an unrealistic escape from the world as it is. If what we really wanted to see was realism and the human condition, we’d be content to people watch at the DMV.
The first “Zombieland” movie did an excellent job of capturing both the joy and the desperation of isolation in a world without laws, while hitting on all the requisite action-comedy plot points. It showed how much fun a world without humans can really be — and for a guy like me that really appreciates having as much space between my family and the world at large as possible — that’s a fun place to spend an afternoon. Now, with “Zombieland: Double Tap” inbound to theaters later this year, I’m hoping for a resurgence in that specific kind of wish fulfillment. I don’t want to see Brad Pitt traveling the world to make handsome faces at lab equipment (I’m looking at you, “World War Z”) — I want to see a guy that looks like Woody Harrelson racking up the latest “zombie kill of the week.”
Is it realistic? Nah. Does it seem better than the world we live in? As long as you don’t think too hard about it, absolutely.
Do I really want a zombie apocalypse to happen? The right answer is no… but my opinion changes every time I have to drive into Atlanta for something.
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