Earlier this year, research showed that fans of zombie films were possibly better prepared to deal with the psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A paper titled "Pandemic Practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic," published in the peer-reviewed Personality and Individual Differences Journal, claimed: "Intentionally exposing oneself to fearful situations is, on its face, a peculiar phenomenon. An empirically supported explanation for why people engage in frightening fictional experiences is that these experiences can act as simulations of actual experiences from which individuals can gather information and model possible worlds."
With a sample size of about 300 people, the writers of the paper empirically proved their hypothesis: "Although zombies do not exist, and thus represent no real threat to humans, situations that occur in zombie movies may be analogous to situations that would occur in real-world events. The widespread chaos that occurs in zombie films is in many ways similar to the widespread chaos that can occur during real-world disasters. Thus, the information we obtain vicariously from an imagined zombie apocalypse may serve us in analogous situations in the real world."
Zombies have their origin in the occult traditions of Haiti. The myth of the undead was exploited by the brutal dictator FranÃ§ois Duvalier, who claimed that he had an army of zombies to terrorise the poverty-stricken population of the Caribbean nation. In Hollywood, zombies made their debut with the 1932 film White Zombie, but the undead really came into their own with the 1968 independent film Night of the Living Dead, directed by George A Romero. The film became a huge box office success, leading to sequels Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985).
Despite its popularity, however, the genre remained in the realm of B-grade films till the first decade of this century, when there was a sudden boom in zombie films. "Whether this was the result of a reinvigorated interest in the boundary line between life and death due to advancements in medical technology, or was the fallout of apocalyptic panic brought on by the turn of the millennium, or whether it was, more simply, due to a capitalising by the entertainment industry upon the success of the zombie video games that became popular in the late '90s, one cannot say for certain. Nonetheless, the cinematic zombie experienced a 'renaissance' in the new millennium," claim some scholars. My interest in zombie films was possibly an influence of this reanimating of the cinematic undead.
The genre gained mainstream credibility with the 2002 release 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle. This film is credited with transforming the zombies from slow, lumbering, and unintelligent creatures to fast, vicious, and cunning. In the recent Army of the Dead (2021), director Zack Snyder even creates a hierarchy. Snyder explained it in an interview: "The way it works is that Zeus (one of the more menacing zombies in the film) is the Alpha who comes from Area 51, he's sort of a patient zero. If he bites you directly, you become an Alpha. Alphas are fast. They can think, they can take orders, they're organised. But if an Alpha other than Zeus bites you, you become a Shambler. And if another Shambler bites you, you become a Shambler."
Zombies have inspired comedies such as Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), and Warm Bodies (2013). Zombies have also found a home outside Hollywood, especially in South Korea, with films like Train to Busan (2016), Alone (2020), and the two-season Netflix series Kingdom (2019, 2020).
Zombie films have been a favourite for me, but it was only during the disastrous second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic did I turn to them for solace. On insomniac nights, kept awake by the constant sirens of ambulances, doomscrolling or amplifying calls for assistance on social media, I binged on several of the films mentioned above.
The zombie films, I feel, satisfy two important desires of the viewers. First, the films are a huge reaffirmation of the survival instinct. One of the most important characteristic of the genre is a group of uninfected or immune survivors. In the face of overwhelming odds and a world full of death and infection " sounds familiar? " these survivors band together, themselves becoming an archive of the destroyed human civilization. If the zombies are brain-dead, and therefore devoid of reason, the humans and their desire for survival are the repository of reason. It is not merely their desire to survive, but also their responsibility.
For instance, in The Dead Don't Die (2019), Jim Jarmusch's parodic apocalyptic film that dropped on Netflix India earlier this month, police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) are stuck in their patrol car in the middle of a cemetery, surrounded by a hoard of zombies. "You have been saying that this is all gonna end badly," says Cliff. "So what made you so fucking sure of that? How did you know everything in advance?" "I know because I have read the script," replies Ronnie. This is a typical breaking-the-fourth-wall narrative device, but what drew my attention was that despite knowing how it was going to end " badly " Ronnie does not for a moment hesitate from performing the actions that ensure the survival of his community.
The other is that while a world infected by zombies is an almost ubiquitous hellscape, it is a sort of utopia for staunch individualists. Uncompromising individualism has been defined by some as a sort of hardware that powers late capitalism. Perhaps, this is a reason why the giant leaps in information technology in the first decade of this century coincided with a resurgence and soaring popularity of zombie films. In Zombieland, the narrator Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a survivor in the US overrun by a zombie epidemic, claims: "I avoided people like they were zombies even before they were zombies." His fifth rule of survival is: "No attachments." And, in I Am Legend (2007), virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is in fact the lone human survivor in the deserted ruins of Manhattan.
But as both Columbus and Neville realize in the course of the films, surviving alone is no fun at all. In fact, one is more a zombie than a human without one's family or community. This is perhaps a lesson that the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially the second wave in India, have also taught us. In the face of unprecedented loss and heart-breaking challenges, individuals have risen to the task of serving the community because the pleasures of survival will be limited if the entire global community is not protected against the virus. In a zombie epidemic or this pandemic, solidarity is key.
The writer's novel, Ritual, was published in 2020; he teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat.