Why the Zombie Genre needs to be Re-animated from Splatter-Chomp to Mysticism

I mentioned this earlier and want to examine it in more detail. As good as it was, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has done more to limit the zombie genre than any other movie or book I can think of.

Here’s why that’s not a good thing.

Prior to this zombies were never about eating people. And they sure as heck were never about eating brains.  But here’s the problem with Romero’s film. It took what was once a genre filled with mystique and made it into splatter-chomp. And now that it’s splatter-chomp there was nowhere else for it go go except over-hyped splatter-chomp cum Apocalypse. Served with brains on the side. And it wasn’t long before the genre slid into slapstick and parody. Now we have zombies no one can take seriously a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

That’s what faces us today.

It’s too bad, really, because zombies had so much going for them prior to Romero’s film. Take Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie which I reviewed. That was an awesome film. So was Val Lewton’s uber-supreme I Walked with a Zombie which uses Jane Eyre as source material.


Val Lewton’s take on Jane Eyre…with zombies, voodoo, pathos, and Gothic imagery

These movies and others like them portrayed zombies for what they were supposed to be: living people (and sometimes dead, you couldn’t always tell) transformed into the unliving. Usually to serve as slaves or to make them pay for some horrible crime. But there was always something poignant about the zombie and its plight in these movies. There’s nothing poignant about the modern flesh eating zombie. He’s one-dimensional.

Yes, yes, I’m a zombie snob. That’s already been established.

Now, zombies didn’t start off that way. I concede that. Romero’s film was both horrifying and artistic with a steady dose of nihilism. He was making a deep statement about the world he saw and he just happened to use zombies to get his artistic point across. But lesser filmmakers, and writers, only saw the cannibalism and ran with that single idea.

Now we’re left with zombies eating brains and there’s nowhere else for them to go. It’s a literary cul-de-sac in my opinion.

Hey, maybe I’m wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But isn’t it also cool to examine the deep mystery, the Gothic imagery combined with Caribbean mysticism of zombiedom, rather than turning zombies into simple-minded fast food consumers?

Zombies as they are now portrayed are no longer frightening or horrific. They’re gross. But they’re not scary.

So in my opinion the zombie genre is in bad straits. I hope someone comes along and reboots it with an eye toward reviving its mystical past. If they can reboot Star Trek and Spider-Man they should be able to reboot this. Anyway, I hope so, ‘cuz I kinda like zombies. The old time zombies. The mystical zombies. The scary zombies.

So. Until this happens, where can you go to read good, memorable zombie stories that are old school? Look no further than Marvel’s Tales of the Zombie. This was a black and white comic published in the Seventies and it still rocks. It’s what zombies used to be about. It’s sexy and violent and Simon Garth, the zombie in question, is definitely old school. The only carp I have is it’s written in second person, a forced literary affectation I have always despised because it calls too much attention to itself. But the stunning artwork and layered characterization overcomes that limitation.

If, like me, you like the old time zombies, then please check out this collection. I think you’ll like it a lot.

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6 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I have zombies in my book, but they’re not brainless-flesh eating creatues. They’re dead, but forced to do things against their will. I could never understand the logic behind having zombies eat people? What happens when everyone is a zombie? Then what?

    Reply
    • Yeah, there’s no logistical consistency to the current splatter-chomp zombies. They’re just cannibals with a big gross out factor and that’s all there is to it. I much prefer an actual story, but maybe that’s just me.

      Of course, part of the problem is zombies are hot right now so you have a big “let’s jump on that bandwagon” factor going on, which dilutes what little actual creativity is out there. That doesn’t help either.

      Reply
      • You hit the nail on the head. As soon as a genre heats up, everyone and their dog jumps in. Saturated and diluted, it’s going to end up like the angst-ridden vamp stories.

        Reply
        • The hand-wringing angst-ridden vampires that now populate the genre are a perfect example of what we are talking about. You see them all the time. It was new and fresh when Rice began to write about them. There’s nothing new and fresh about a vampire sobbing over his fate thirty years later.

          This is the problem with horror. All too often writers tend to see one specific element and concentrate on that alone rather than taking the time to create new scenarios and situations. It’s a literary dead end…pun intended. It’s also inherent laziness and, like you said, more like a gold rush than a deliberate attempt to write a story that is memorable.

          I currently write dark fantasy westerns. I can promise you if that genre ever got hot and more people started pouring in I would bail on it in a flash. I am not interested in bandwagons. That’s not how I write and that’s not how I think. Stampeding with the herd doesn’t interest me at all as a writer.

          Reply
  2. K.M., I am right there with you about the magical nature of the old-style zombies. Yes, I always thought in high school that Jane Eyre and her “encounters of the third kind” definitly were zombie-like. I also hope you will pursue this older idea of the zombie symbologies in connection with the zombie like responses from most of the 1%ers to us 99%ers these days. They hypnotize away their humanity with the love of pursuing more, more, more!

    Reply

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