The zombie invasion is complete: Has Netflix's Santa Clarita Diet fired the last salvo?
The zombie is dead. Long live the zombie.
There was a time when zombies weren't quite the epitome of 'cool' they've come to embody in recent years. In fact, as a TIME magazine article once pointed out, in the pantheon of monsters in pop culture, they were sure to rank lower than their more photogenic counterparts — the vampires and werewolves. Sure, there were the iconic George Romero movies (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead et al) and the countless video games that had zombies (mainly their decimation) as a major selling point, but these did not enjoy what you might call mass popularity, of the kind enjoyed by vampires.
Vampires had, in their camp, teen heartthrob actors — everyone from Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp (as Dracula) and Tom Cruise, to David Boreanaz and James Marsters, followed by Robert Pattinson; they had the romance; the slick action (Blade Runner); the cultural cachet; they had Joss Whedon and Buffy.
Zombies, well not so much.
But, as their victims (meals?) have learned, you just can't keep a zombie down.
Scan through TV shows today and you'll find that there are at least four that are about zombies — The Walking Dead and its spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead, iZombie and the newest Netflix offering, Santa Clarita Diet (read our review of it here). The White Walkers on Game of Thrones may not be called 'zombies', but they do share some common features. In films, meanwhile, the sequels to World War Z and Train To Busan are in the news. The zombie invasion clearly isn't going to let up anytime soon.
Where did the zombies even come from?
While the spin around vampire franchises would make one believe that they have the older pedigree, harking all the way back to ancient Transylvania/Romania, zombies aren't new either. But where the original vampire (Count Dracula) might have been an oppressor, the zombies were the oppressed.
The origins of the zombie can be traced back to the slave plantations of Haiti. Life on the sugarcane plantations was brutal, harsh and often short. Several slaves preferred suicide to continuing working under their French masters. What prevented some of them from taking the step was the belief that only a natural death would ensure their souls an entry to lan guinee (Guinea, or West Africa), which was heaven. If they committed suicide, then their bodies and souls would be trapped in Haiti forever, a sort of walking dead.
Different cultures had different versions of these walking dead, and while zombies may have had some outings in films and books, it with with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, in the late 1960s, that they crash-landed into Western pop culture.
Night of the Living Dead didn't even call its zombies by that name. Instead, they were called 'ghouls'. However, the film set several precedents when it came to the depiction of zombies on screen. For one, it established the Romero Rules, regarding how zombies would behave (shuffle slowly, decay over time etc). Two, zombies exemplified whatever the anxiety of that age happened to be. Night of the Living Dead is seen as a commentary on racism, Dawn of the Dead on consumerist culture, Day of the Dead in 1985 was seen as a swipe at the US military. At the same time, Day also set the 'world in the grips of a zombie epidemic' mould for others to follow, chanelling our fears of biological warfare, widespread outbreaks of diseases, and the end of the world itself.
While most zombies on screen do follow the Romero precedent to some extent, each successful venture has also added some changes of its own. One major paradigm shift was seen in World War Z, where the zombies were terrifyingly fast and feral — not for them the slow, shuffling gait of their other cinematic counterparts. Another paradigm shift was effected by The Walking Dead comics (the ongoing series on which the AMC show is based) of Robert Kirkman. Kirkman's premise was simple — previous iterations of the zombie story had seen them as the minority, a 'contained' menace that could presumably be eradicated. What if the zombies were all there were, and the 'living' were the hunted few?
The Walking Dead (both the show and the comics) managed to ride not just the zombie wave, but also caught the 'apocalypse porn' tide. There have been several articulate examinations of why we seek out narratives about being survivors at the end of the world — how a fantasy apocalypse allows us to escape into a realm where real issues (divorce, loans, loss, illness) are 'reset' by a catastrophe that kills civilisation. Survival is all that matters. Even in the midst of dystopia, utopian principles govern us: a return to basics, to the primitive self, unfettered by the shackles of modern life. Zombies also offer a 'safe' outlet for our more bloodthirsty impulses: sure, you're bashing their heads in, but they're not humans, right? It's a premise that's been excellently explored in the 'Men Against Fire' episode of Black Mirror's season 3.
Still, there's only so far you can go in terms of narrative (and popular reach), as long as the zombie remains 'the other', for whom meeting a violent end or being 'cured' is the only conceivable end.
And that's why the zombie had to become one of us.
Humanising the zombie
Zombies were an object of fear, but two films that played the walking dead for laughs were Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. While Zombieland was no doubt fun, it was Edgar Wright's Shaun that presented the possibility of a new ending for a zombie story: [spoilers ahead] it showed Shaun (Simon Pegg) caring for, sort of like a pet, his closest friend Ed (Nick Frost) who had turned into zombie after being bitten by one.
Then came Warm Bodies, where Nicholas Hoult played a (pretty cute) zombie who falls in love with the girl whose boyfriend he has killed. Could zombies possibly be having an Edward Cullen moment?
And then followed iZombie and now, Santa Clarita Diet. In an odd way, they've brought the zombie full circle. The protagonists of both shows aren't fighting zombies — they are zombies, and very photogenic ones. They also have some other things in common: Liv in iZombie and Sheila (Drew Barrymore, could it get more mainstream than that?) in Santa Clarita are workaholics, with fairly staid lives, until they die. And come back as zombies. While Liv Moore in her newfound avatar takes to solving crimes, Sheila starts to actually live more. She's letting herself be ruled by her id, and finding somewhat ethical ways to satisfy her carving for human meat.
The light-hearted Santa Clarita Diet and iZombie seem a far way off from Romero's zombies. But maybe they too, are only a representation of the anxieties of our age — of life slipping by, of the mundane taking over. Until that is all there is. Until you die.