It’s hard to believe now, but zombies used to be scary. Before finding mainstream acceptance in video games and horror-comedies, these now-lovable walking corpses once served as a potent allegory for a society that has lost its soul, devolving into hordes of brain-dead flesh munchers.
In the original “Dead Trilogy” by George A. Romero — especially 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” — a zombie plague created a world so bleak that your only options were getting eaten, getting killed by one of your fellow survivors or suicide. These films simultaneously captured the paranoia of the times and confronted the moral question of whether humanity is worth saving.
But in 2010, the undead elicit more cheers of joy than gasps of terror. Somewhere along the way zombies went from being nightmarish abominations to objects of delightful humor, beginning with 2003’s “Shaun of the Dead.”
Admittedly, it is a funny concept — in a tastelessly slapstick kind of way. Take a human and remove every element that makes them human — language, reason, the ability not to snack on other peoples’ brains — then line them up in a shooting gallery. For those who enjoy seeing endless crowds of other people massacred with impunity, zombies became an ingenious way to indulge that desire.
But more ingenious still is the end-of-the-world scenario that accompanies zombie infection. The best parts of films like “I Am Legend” and “Zombieland” are not the monsters, they’re the fact that every other person on earth is dead.
Complete solitude, once thought to be an unspeakable horror, has become an unthinkable fantasy. In these films, the world has changed from an overpopulated hellhole headed toward certain disaster to a giant piece of open land where everything is free from the tyranny of other humans.
If everyone on earth is dead, all we’re left with is unlimited freedom. Bothersome social norms and customs are finally extinct, and the world is ours for the taking. We’re finally free to raid shopping malls and fire automatic weapons in the street. The only drawback is the billions of lurching monsters who want to eat us, who we can simply shoot, bludgeon or set on fire. No wonder we love the mindless bastards so much.