I just read Mat Elfring's ' Overused Comic Book Gimmicks: Zombies' and really enjoyed it. I'm a zombie fan and (despite Mat's previous explicit bigotry and hatred towards Irish people) this actually articulated a lot of my frustration of the increased quantity rather than quality of all things undead. There was one sentence that stuck out though, something which has followed me around when talking about zombies with friends.
28 Days Later, which technically isn't a zombie comic
I have to be completely honest and admit that I came down on this line of 'they're not really zombies but it's good stuff nonetheless' initially but through exploring this sub genre of horror, I've actually come around to the idea that the 28DL monster does deserve it's place amongst its brainphillic peers. But rather than leaving it at 'take my word for it' here's my reasoning behind it.
'It's rabies, not a zombie virus'
Firstly it was explained as an aggressive mutation of the rabies virus, so there's that. Secondly this 'zombie virus' people like to talk about? Doesn't really exist in fiction. Most writers like to neatly explain where the zombies came from. Night of the Living Dead used radiation as an origin, Resident Evil used both the biological T-Virus and the parasitical Las Plagas, Some writers go for the 'it's magic, just go with it' angle as well. Hell, the Marvel Zombies used 'extra-terrestrial' after Sentry touched a funky asteroid. So there's no discrete boundary which can be laid down to define a 'proper' zombie origin. Personally, I prefer it when it's not explained (here's looking at you, Kirkman).
'They run, zombies don't run'The fact that they run is important but I'll touch on that in a bit. The addition of the ability to run seems to be a deal breaker for a lot of people but lets go back to the 'classic zombie' in Night of the Living Dead. When that came out, Romero basically took the idea of the zombi or nzambi and updated it. Bear in mind the traditional zombie was one person, raised from the dead and controlled by one person. No plague-like spreading through bites or bodily fluids. 'You gotta shoot 'em in the head!' ? Nope, nothing so exciting. All you had to do to beat Z was use salt.
Romero changed that and several artists have put their own spin on the formula years since. And if we look at the plethora of variations of zombies today, their characteristics all lend and borrow from the same pool but there's no 'this is what zombies do, this is what zombies don't do'. And the same thing goes for 'but they're never technically dead' argument. But in the end, the attributes of Z doesn't matter much when you get down to brass tacks and this brings me onto my last point.
'Pfft, whatever. They just don't feel right, you know?'I love zombies because of it's appeal to darker things. But zombies aren't just the brain biting bad boys of horror. They are walking representations of death, your death, your deepest fear of dying. They are often slow moving and in the distance but deaths slow march is constant. You can run but not forever and there is no cure (expect in the lower end movies that positively require a happy ending). Pure and simple, zombies focus our fear of death. Here we go full circle and go back to the 'it's rabies' thing... and 1968. 1960s: Cuban Missile Crisis, assassination of JFK, Gulf of Tonkin. Knees deep in the Cold War. How did the dead rise? Why was death coming for us all in Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968? Radiation.
Well what about the Return of the Living Dead (1985)? Surely being inspired by NOTLD, it'd keep the same or similar origin? Nope. It changed because popular fears shifted. The advent of binary chemical weapons, reports of 'yellow rain' application by the Soviets, President Carter changing his stance in funding for such chemicals. How were the dead rising this time? You guessed it, toxic chemicals.
Now lets look at 28 Days later. This is post 'Anthrax attacks' and 9/11. Suddenly our capitals aren't so safe any more. The fear is that death can come through a disease and in this globalised world we live in, it can come out of nowhere. And fast. The fear shifted to terrorism and bioterror. Still don't believe me? Well it's not like the posters left a giant biohazard sign on them. Ahem.
If you really wanted to go further you could argue that The Walking Dead is less of a zombie romp than 28 Days. Why? Because Kirkman brilliantly uses the idea of zombies more of a tool to put his characters under tremendous amount of stress (I mean stress in the psychological sense, not the 'since Arrested Development was cancelled, there's nothing good on' stress) Take for example, Carl Grimes, symbolising innocence and how children lose their innocence in the face of a large traumatic event (death, family divorce etc) The zombie survival is playing second fiddle to the real topic of human survival. You could argue that the zombies could be interchanged with alien invasion, dragons, super aggressive Mormons (doubt it'd be as good). Whereas 28 Days is a more traditional approach, staying within the tropes and motifs of the sub genre. But I think that might be a different debate.
I can concede one area though and that is with those who view Zombies as purely a 'Horror Movie Monster'. Much like Frankenstein's monster, Dracula or werewolves that populated early 'B' movies. There, continuity of attributes helped establish these characters in popular culture and letting zombies run might look like giving Dracula rainbow powers or werewolves the ability to fly. It seems to that crowd that breaking continuity of the trope is the same as 'breaking' the very fabric of the character. But with the growth of transmedia interpretations of not just zombies but more or less everything those guys are gonna have to let go of little Zed.
You should come away with these two things:
- No two zombies are the same but what they represent tend to be thus and 28DL zombies meet the criteria.
- Mat 'Inferiorego' Elfring may harbour bigoted sentiments.