These days, two major scifi moneymakers are zombies and aliens. In books, TV shows, and movies, zombies are clawing at people's faces and aliens are perpetually jumping out of the shadows. Both types of movies have found popularity before, and now they're big again. But why?
We're in the midst of an invasion of alien invasion media. Battle: Los Angeles, Attack the Block, District 9, Monsters, Falling Skies, The Invasion, V, and countless others. Everywhere you look, aliens are trying to bump us off or knock us up so they can inhabit our sweet, sweet planet. This kind of thing has been done before.
During the Cold War, alien invasion pictures were everywhere. We all remember the black-and-white scenes of men in army uniforms shooting at the sky because They Were Coming. Some saw the aliens as invading Russians, or Chinese, or Cubans, or the organized forces of any other communist country. Other filmmakers — particularly in later films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers — interpreted these films more as us ending our own way of life. Rampant paranoia about who was and was not an alien and an evil collective gaining strength behind the scenes of our own country; these could well be applied to those who said they would fight communists in our own country.
Meanwhile, zombie media is also making a huge return. Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, Pontypool, and the smash AMC hit The Walking Dead are following up classics like Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead. In early years, zombie movies were about the terror of having everyone you trust in your life turn on you. Later they added a little social satire; Dawn of the Dead had long scenes of idiot zombies wandering through a mall because, well, what else were they going to do that day?
Early zombie and alien pictures were tapping into social anxiety. Current ones are doing the same. In fact, present movies are showing us flip sides of the same fear. The human population on Earth is hitting 7 billion and will hit 8 billion soon enough. The economy is in the can. The world is overheating. Everywhere people look, they are seeing competition: for jobs, oil, water, land, and just about any precious resource. There is not a lot of elbow room.
Especially not in alien movies. Whether it's District 9, Falling Skies, or Attack the Block, every current alien movie has scenes of many people in small spaces. In District 9, the creatures are packed into a shanty city. In Monsters, people are squeezed into trucks as they try to get past sentinels in hostile territory. In previews for Attack the Block and Falling Skies people crowd together as they try to fight off an invading force. Again, alien films can be seen from two angles. They're about the righteous struggle to fight off hostile and immoral invaders or they're about how cruelly power is wielded by those who want to selfishly hoard necessary resources. Either way, they're an apocalyptic view of the future we face. There are just too many entities wanting too few resources, and things are going to get very ugly, very soon. Starvation, suffering, deprivation, and everywhere more and more sentient beings in too little space. This is what hell looks like.
Of course, some might say the same for zombie stories. In every story, loved ones are dead. People are on their own in a sometimes terrifying new world. Sometimes it seems like everyone is out together. And don't forget those swarms of zombies. Strangely, though, zombie movies don't really offer a view of hell so much as the promise of heaven.
Look at the poster for The Walking Dead. A lone man rides a horse down a completely deserted highway into a completely deserted city. Sure, cars are piled up going the other direction, but nothing is in his way. And there's no scarcity of resources. Zombies are interested in devouring your still-living flesh, sure, but they are not going to be trying to grab the last pint of your favorite ice cream. They are not standing in front of you in line to that opening movie. And if you're not a fan of horses, well, just take one of the cars from the side of the road.
Zombies pose a lot of problems, but they eliminate overcrowding, environmental destruction, and pesky, unfaithful exes. They eliminate all your competition. This is why so many zombie movies contain light-hearted scenes. Yes, the main character in Zombieland lost his parents, but that happens in practically every animated Disney movie as well. He got the girl of his dreams, a cool family, the freedom to move, exciting adventures, and the chance to meet Bill Murray (briefly). Sure, the guy in 28 Days Later went through a lot, but the end of the movie shows him living with a woman who likes him in a big house in the middle of idyllic green countryside.
Zombie and alien stories are horror stories. They're about mysterious forces out to attack people. They both incorporate tragic, scary, and violent events in their storylines. But in the end, zombie films present the viewer with a vision of an unspoiled world in which the protagonists get to enjoy at least some of the benefits of civilization combined with plenty of breathing space. Alien films show us a crowded, hostile, desperate struggle for a smoking hole of a planet...heaven and hell both growing from the same initial concept.