Cultural Relativity: Why We Love Zombies

Zombies are everywhere. RUN!

Ok, not really. But they’re everywhere in popular media. Since the 1970s, a significant niche in popular cinema has been the post-apocalyptic intersection of shit and fan. Whether it’s a major natural disaster or some infectious disease or just plain old dead people on a murderous rampage, we can’t get enough of the gritty anarchy and life-altering trauma that permeate the genre. I can’t help but wonder if that is inspired by a deep cultural anxiety, an inevitable post-partum depression. We gave birth to so much technology – cars, aircraft, the internet. And until we started detaining and assaulting the civil liberties of everyday citizens who use those technologies, America was the moral authority of the free world. But the world changed.┬áSure, we saved everyone from the Nazis, but that just paved the way for other forms of intolerance. The gritty reality is that wars are no longer fought only by countries. Fifty years ago, one country declared war on another, and it was ugly, but simple. Now, extremist factions, armed by secret government actions disavowed on the international stage, threaten civilian and commercial well-being all over the world.

Neither superhero nor superpower can fight and win a war against an idea. The wars on drugs, poverty, and terrorism have bled the country dry of whatever good standing we had left in the world. The misguided policies of past administrations have corrupted our core essence, manifest in all the fear and doubt brought on by nearly a decade of rhetoric telling the people every day they should be more afraid than they were yesterday. At its core, this is merely a control mechanism, aimed to distract the voting public, so they don’t notice the subtle legal crumblings that ultimately lead to total system failure, just after the rich cash out.

It’s no surprise that post-apocalyptica is at an all-time high in popularity. As a culture, we are fascinated by all the ways we might fail. We wait for that moment when the rug will be pulled from beneath us. We have been brainwashed from a young age to believe the world will be paved with gold, and if we do our best, we’ll be rich and famous. In reality, we feel it all around us, a sense of imminent doom. We think to ourselves, subconsciously,

“It happened to the Ottomans. It happened to the Romans. It happened to the British. It’ll happen to us, too. Our empire will fall.”

So, to cope with the unrelenting, soul-crushing despair, we invent radical scenarios where our current notion of morality falls out of favor. We envision a world where the rules are much simpler. There are no police. There is no jury, no court of public opinion. You live or die by a split decision. If you fail to act, the zombies eat your family. Sometimes, that happens anyway, and you’re forced to kill your now zombie family members to protect the remaining living members. It is the essence of cognitive dissonance.

By living these moments vicariously through cinema, we can achieve the cathartic release we seek. In that world, we can feel completely justified smiting the neighbor’s annoying dog with a claymore. We can completely appreciate the need to protect ourselves, and the formality of moral implications takes a back seat to the immediacy of action. Ironically, this is strikingly similar to life on the frontier and the early years of American culture. Of course, as with any work of fiction, the audience is meant to empathize with the characters in the story and to feel relief that their problems seem less significant in comparison.

As bad days go, zombies set the bar pretty high. Your IRS audit, federal law suit, and custody battle can wait. For now, you need to find a blade and a crossbow and get to high ground. The dead are restless.