In the 85 years that zombies have been appearing in American media, they’ve taken on many different forms — so many that it’s easy to feel fatigued when another wave of undead hits pop culture. But we’re actually in an entirely new cycle of zombie stories that are dramatically different from what came before them, even if the monsters themselves look the same.
A cornerstone of horror is that it reflects the crises of the culture it’s made in: The more cultural anxiety people experience, the more horror media is produced and consumed. But horror movies rarely deal with crises head-on. Instead, cinema relies on structuring absences, a concept pioneered by sociologist and film theorist Annette Kuhn in her book Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema. Horror movies often skirt around the historical events that give them meaning, so a film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which is reacting to American fears about Cold War communist infiltration, doesn’t mention the Cold War at all. Instead it’s about alien pod-people with sinister intentions. Society’s fear is projected onto a metaphor.
This is why a zombie story told in 1932 will differ from a zombie story told in 1968 or 2018. The set dressing stays roughly the same — gape-mawed flesh-eaters lurching along — but the differences are a reflection of society at that time, like a snapshot of somebody’s nightmare.
If you look at the trend in movie (and video game) plots over the last eight years or so, you’ll see a move away from the society-is-over apocalyptic media that rose to prominence post-9/11. Instead, stories about families, communities and rebuilding have become more popular. Part of this is due to the so-called “daddifcation” of the games, referring to how many developers and the perceived audience of the games have grown up and are reaching a child-rearing age. So the stories they want to tell involve growing up and starting to have children.
More importantly, you have stories about father-daughter-style relationships in zombie apocalypses, like The Last of Us and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. These aren’t stories about survivors just trying to make it to the next checkpoint; they’re about finding a community to keep each other safe.
The State of Decay franchise is a great example of this narrative shift. Just the title clues you into the fact that this isn’t like other zombie games. There’s a state — a location-based, organized community. Both State of Decay and State of Decay 2 allow you to play not as just one character, but as anyone in the community. You are not a survivor; you are a community of survivors, and your goal is to strengthen that community. A part of the overarching plot of State of Decay 2 involves finding a cure for zombie bites, a mechanic that shifts the idea of infection from “the inevitable end-point of all survivors” to “a bad situation that is not a hindrance to our longevity as a species.” These games are a natural evolution of the zombie story.
This shift is also probably part of the reason building is a mechanic we’re seeing more and more in video games, even in genres that don’t normally feature them. You want to build things and have children because you have hope for the future.
That’s all good news. It means that we — or the people who make our media — are optimistic, or at least they were when they made those movies and video games. Watch the FiendZone video above to learn more about why zombie stories are still relevant!