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Zombie Stories Are Going to Have to Change

One of the posters for the upcoming zombie film Train to Busan: Peninsula.
One of the posters for the upcoming zombie film Train to Busan: Peninsula.
Image: Next Entertainment World

At the core of every book, video game, television series, or movie involving a zombie apocalypse is an idea about humanity’s drive to consume, or how easy it would be for civilizations to crumble in the midst of an unforeseen disaster. Like, for instance, the sudden spread of a deadly virus that swept its way across the entire globe within a matter of weeks.

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The novel coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly going to have a lasting impact on pop culture in the coming years as the world adjusts to its new reality in which covid-19 exists in the wild, and people die after contracting it. Even if and when there’s a viable, widely available, and affordable vaccine, the way that we live will still have changed significantly in order to combat subsequent outbreaks and deaths. As we deal with the realities of having to push back against the recurrence of a literal plague, the way that we fictionalize those same realities in narratives about zombies should similarly evolve, if only because in a post-covid-19 era, stories about the undead ravaging the Earth hit quite differently.

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In the first weeks of the coronavirus, when stay at home orders first went into place and people were hunkering down with hope (misguided, in some cases) that the pandemic would soon die down, many people found comfort in revisiting Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, the 2011 movie in which a novel virus originating from a pig infected by a bat-borne virus successfully spills over into the human population.

Morbid as it might seem, Contagion’s appeal in the time of covid-19 is easy enough to understand when you look at the film as a dramatized exploration of how the world would successfully combat a lethal epidemic, thanks to the quick thinking of level-headed scientific researchers and heads of state. Zombie movies have a similar, albeit darker appeal. Typically, they’re oriented toward the gruesomeness of how the world falls apart and what people are willing to do to survive in apocalyptic times. The current pandemic is a testament to the idea that many countries simply aren’t prepared to properly deal with the spread of virulent new diseases, and that fact gives storytellers the opportunity to approach the zombie apocalypse differently (though Hollywood is working on covid-19-specific projects already).

Regardless of the specific reason why the dead reanimate, the public’s cluelessness about the rise of zombies plays a key role in essentially every story about how they come to overwhelm us. What’s scary about the idea of the world suddenly becoming engulfed in a zombie plague is that in such a scenario, there’s effectively zero chance humans would be able to mobilize an effective response. It’s on you before you can properly combat it.

Even in stories like the Resident Evil franchise—where zombies are the unfortunate byproduct of biological weapons—you’re meant to root for the living because the dead’s insatiable hunger is the danger at hand. It’s morbidly fun to consume these stories because, on some level, they absolve humans of any responsibility in their own demise and give us an easily identifiable villain to rally against. But a zombie movie purposefully trying to tap into the public’s current fears about killer viruses would do well to draw on the real world’s uneven response to the spread of covid-19, a dark part of our reality that isn’t likely to come to an end anytime soon.

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What’s been maddening about the United States’ response to covid-19 is the way it illustrates how gross incompetence from a country’s leadership can have cascading negative effects and exacerbate a pandemic’s impact on the world. Beyond killing and hurting people, the pandemic’s also led to a historic slump in the economy, the loss of millions of jobs, and left countless people—the vast majority of them poor and working-class—feeling infinitely less secure in their lives than they did pre-covid-19. That’s not something we typically see play out in zombie stories considering the swiftness with which the plagues spreads tends to throw established class inequalities in sharp relief. Take, for example, Bill Murray hunkering down in his mansion in Zombieland or how the survivors in George Romero’s Land of the Dead live in a feudal-like society where the wealthy wield all of the power.

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But another way to tackle that idea in a story influenced by current events would be to imagine a world where the plague’s spread, though fast, was still slow enough to create an environment in which the rich and powerful knowingly push the less economically empowered to get back to work and do their part to get things back to “normal” even though the world’s anything but. That’s the new reality.

Where zombie narratives often feature a handful of destructive, treacherous humans who see the plague as an opportunity, it’s rare that they feature those characters in positions of power which they use to actively keep the public from believing in a plague for months on end as millions of people across globe the are infected. It’s comforting to imagine that public health officials, governmental bodies, and news organizations would all do the responsible thing in the face of a pandemic and immediately get to the important work of launching coordinated initiatives to keep the public informed and largely unharmed (see: other apocalypse scenarios). But the unfortunate reality is that when faced with an actual plague, countries like the U.S. have botched their early opportunities to keep the death rate down, a very real kind of horror that would benefit from fictional examination in the future (real-world examination should, of course, be a high priority).

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As the pandemic rages on, it’s becoming increasingly difficult not to recognize that while covid-19 itself is an unthinking, tireless enemy with an endless appetite for human life, the true monsters of our specific story are those who’ve politicized the pandemic and the few measures we have to face it (wearing masks and social distancing). The zombie movies of the future won’t necessarily need to spotlight protracted battles in Congress over whether or not the dead are rising up to eat people and whether the government should do something about it. But injecting some of the banal, yet still incredibly devastating nonsense associated with our real-world pandemic—like a refusal to believe in its existence despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or the rush to take drugs that aren’t proven—could be precisely what the zombie genre needs to become even scarier in the 21st century.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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DISCUSSION

So.. a new adaptation of World War Z that does a little more than skim the source material?

That book’s early chapters have not just a few similarities to the global response to covid 19, and government incompetence and corruption has a lot to do with how it plays out.