Funny how the most recognizable thing about zombies actually comes from a comedy rather than an actual horror (Return of the Living Dead). But it also points out just how wide and varied the genre can be. Once upon a time you just had slow shuffling Romero zombies. Now you have insanely fast zombies, plague zombies, zombies infected by cellphone signals, zombies developed as bio-weapons, we just seem to love the living dead. But of course what makes a zombie story work has little to do with the creatures themselves (with some exceptions, like Warm Bodies).
They say there are three basic types of story from which all others spring forth: Man against Man, Man against Nature, and Man against Himself.
The zombie apocalypse contains all three.
Zombies are effectively a force of nature. They are not a sentient life form that can be reasoned with in any way, they are a plague of mindless human sized carnivorous locust, and you pretty much have to go Leiningen vs the Ants on them. But soon enough you find that your fellow survivor can be a bigger threat than the zombie hoards, and in the end the struggle isn’t whether or not you can survive. It’s whether you can hold onto your own humanity.
But as the popularity of a genre increases, it becomes harder and harder to find something new to say about it. So I’m going to look at a few unique ways it’s been done.
Max Brooks’ excellent novel World War Z (2006) takes a couple of unique approaches to the zombie genre: a) treat it as a documentary and b) explain how we win. The latter is especially surprising since until recently zombie stories always tended to end on a bleak note.
The documentary approach takes on the form of transcribed interviews. A man from the UN visits various key people in different countries, chronicling the origins of the outbreak, how it spread, failed attempts at containment, humanity being brought to the brink, and how things turned around. While you can argue that it’s not as scary since you know the interviewees lived to tell their tales, that’s like saying war stories from soldiers who survived D-Day aren’t exciting.
He also does a surprising amount of research to make his events feel plausible to the reader—everything from the politics and cultures of different countries, corporate opportunism, military tactics, right down to the pseudo-science of how the zombies work. Experts in these fields can no doubt nitpick accuracy, but for the average reader, it works well.
Another approach is a classic story that technically isn’t about zombies at all: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954). While technically the infection makes people more akin to vampires, the ramifications are largely the same as a zombie outbreak. For most of the book the infected are mindless or insane, spreading the infections like rabies, and it isn’t until towards the end that we see something else evolve.
In fact, it can be argued that this book is single handily responsible for the zombie apocalypse theme as we know it. George Romero cited it as an influence on his own zombie films. And the recent trend of plague based zombie films like 28 Days Later borrows even more from it.
But in this day and age it must be difficult to find a fresh way to reach the end-of-days, or for an outbreak to break through all of our contingencies. I mean, if the real CDC has a zombie strategy on the books, you need to come up with something they’re not expecting, right?
In this case the infection was unleashed intentionally as part of a sinister plot. To start off with the infected are blissfully happy and seeking out pleasure anywhere they can find it. What others want doesn’t matter, only their own desires, and they are oblivious to pain, lost in their euphoric haze. The end of the earth comes not with a bang, but the biggest gang bang in history.
Unfortunately for those who released the plague, the dead don’t stay dead.
If the focus of your story is on isolation and survival (like I Am Legend) then having a single character focus is okay. But if your story tries to take the larger world into account (like World War Z) you should probably have several.
Euphoria-Z does the latter, providing different perspectives to this world gone mad and how they cope not just with the undead, but also the violent survivors, the prejudiced, and even cultists taking advantage of the new free world. Like a Romero movie, the story picks a wide range of survivors to follow, ranging from naive to sociopathic, in order to convey different parts of humanity, or what’s left of it.
Though the nature and themes might change, it’s likely the zombie genre will always be around. Even if it falls out of favor in our lifetimes, you can be sure it will someday rise from the dead, hunting for a new generation of readers.
Originally Published in KODT #213