Monday, June 17, 2013

Endless undead: Why we’re so obsessed with zombies 

You’re walking down a dark and dusty hallway. Lightning flashes, illuminating your surroundings for a few brief seconds before your vision fades.

And then you hear a lowly groan coming from down the hall. From the outline, the figure looks familiar. It’s your Aunt Sally, but there’s something strange about her. Her decaying, rotting flesh and urge to feed should clue you in.

Zombies. Undead. “Walkers.”

Those shambling little suckers have almost become an archetype within popular culture. Their appearances from Call of Duty to The Walking Dead have made them the antagonist of choice in many games and media. But why is this? Zombies Ate My Neighbors (for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis) was my first encounter with these undead.  There was something intriguing about it. The box art scared the shit out of me. Even the title gave me bad juju. For years, I couldn’t bear to play the game. This was my first taste of survival horror.

I was, like, 5-years-old when I saw this. Give me a break.

You play alone (or with a friend) in areas populated with never-ending waves of the undead — and you’re armed with a Super Soaker. Not only that, but caricatures of Jason from Friday the 13th and other miscellaneous ghoulies of the night made appearances in the game and terrified me for years.

That is, until Capcom released Resident Evil in 1996. I’m sure most of us are familiar with this title. The B-level dialogue, tank controls, photorealistic backdrops, and jump-scares — oh God, the jump-scares.

For the first time, I was legitimately afraid to turn on my PlayStation. I got overwhelmed and had to turn off the console and hide the box. I had to detox my brain. I endured sleepless nights, thinking about Umbrella and its plot to take over the world one shuffling zombie at a time. Resident Evil coined the phrase “survival horror.”

HA! Saw that comi — OH MY GOD!!

But as I became older (and desensitized), zombies stopped being a threat to my psyche. The “-of the dead” movies started to become cliché. Zombies instead became the bottom-barrel movie monster. Is it our way of dealing with mob mentality that makes us so obsessed with the undead? Are we fascinated by the general nature of an apocalyptic society? Do we just want a reason to shoot our boss in the face with a sawed-off shotgun?

Comic-turned-TV-show The Walking Dead tries to emulate the drama of a post-apocalyptic world by using trust and survival as a platform for conflict — the zombies take the wings rather than center stage.

Dead Island tries to re-create this drama with its melancholic soundtrack and “reality” of infection. Left 4 Dead examines teamwork and how we manage blowing through whole city populations’ worth of undead. DayZ presents the imminent threat of death and teaches you not to trust anyone.
In a world where everyone you know has turned into hungry, shambling avatars of themselves, we realize the importance of our relationships with others. 

Nowadays, we are more interested in our own human nature than the zombies themselves. Are you the type to barricade yourself? Are you willing to explore the infected-populated areas? Does the thought of a zombie apocalypse make your trigger finger itchy with excitement?

Maybe it’s not the zombies we’re obsessed with; it’s what we do as humans that intrigue us.


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