As yet another season of The Walking Dead shambles on with insanely high ratings, the zombie bubble that has been steadily expanding in popular culture over the last five years is getting close to bursting. When a TV show based on a comic book series is beating out Sunday Night Football, it can only mean the genre is beginning to hit the top of the popularity parabola and will begin its inevitable decline shortly. We’ve hit the top, there’s nowhere to go but down, hopefully.
The cannibalistic corpse sub-class of the post-apocalyptic survival genre is so pervasive in pop culture that other, more interesting, takes on the end-of-the-world tale have been kicked to the curb and ignored. It might just be that the Romero-style allegories and implications of zombies are more fitting to today’s society than fear of nuclear war was several decades ago, hence the rise of the undead’s popularity. Mass consumerism, obsessive and ethically unrestricted capitalism, the faceless horde nature of global internet presence and even the rise of viruses like Ebola and Swine Flu all make the zombie genre fitting for the socio-political climate of the day. No longer do we fear mass nuclear conflict, the cold war has been over longer than many people writing and creating popular works of fiction have been alive. Other settings are also taking a hit, a topic like climate change has become too polarizing a political issue to poke fun at anymore, and the flood (get it?) of early 2000s natural disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow seems to have people a bit exhausted on that front. Alien Invasion will always be a popular category, but recent flops like Battle of LA and Skyline have studios afraid to go near the idea.
Then you have a book like The Road, where the actual cause of the apocalypse is never discussed, and makes a point of hammering home the theme of “Does it really matter what happened? We’re here now.” Which makes a good point, after all, the reason for the genre’s popularity isn’t the details of the disaster, but how humanity picks up the pieces. Even if picking up the pieces involves plenty of cannibalism and never, ever trusting anybody-especially the cute old couple that “just needs a bit of help.”
A major slam against the zombie genre is the lack of interesting landscapes and attire. What helped make the Mad Max movies such cult classics was the motley body armour and weapons. You had the muscle bound Lord Humungus rocking a sweet metal goalie mask and studded leather codpiece, Max with his badass shoulder armour, and bad guys clad in everything from football pads to rat fur. When the world ending scenario involves aliens or robots, there are all sorts of cool weapons and buildings to play around in. Take a look at The Walking Dead however, and we see everyone wearing…normal clothes. Snooze. That’s only half of it. In a post-nuclear setting there are endless opportunities to showcase vast, destroyed landscapes and natural vistas. With the zombie genre you get one of three backdrops for the story:
- The farmhouse or small-town church where everyone is holding up because the city is filled with zombies.
- The large public building such as an office, school or mall, where all the city dwellers are packed in trying to fortify and defend.
- The fenced in, well lit “survivor camp” that everyone ends up at after finally breaking out of one of the above.
That’s pretty much it. Hard to spend much time outside because of the throngs of undead shuffling around.
It’s difficult to make a compelling zombie movie or game that takes place in the wilderness because there would be no zombies there. With this massive restriction in mind, it’s easy to see why the genre must be getting tired. The industry sure has milked the zombie thing for all it’s worth. We keep seeing the same locations, the same villains (both undead and alive) and the same plot over and over again, let’s change it up.
Fear not, there is hope on the horizon. With a new Mad Max on the horizon, a Planet of the Apes revival that is somehow awesome despite ridiculous subject matter, and the inevitable new Fallout game, it’s only a matter of time before the zombie market collapses and people move on.
Of course, having said that, be sure to check back next year for an article about how the post-nuclear setting for survivalist apocalyptic tales is played out and over exposed.