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You barely make it out of the city, scratch marks from the fingernails of walking dead scoring the paint of the abandoned car you found. There are dents on the bumper and a big crack in the windshield. You prefer not to recall how those got there. You’re fairly certain that the woman waving her arms in the highway was a zombie, though her scream sounded a little too human. Night is falling, you’re running out of gas, and you spot a big house on the hill. Lights flicker in the windows.
You’ve seen so many zombie movies — almost all 50 of the “Best Zombie Movies of All Time” list your friend sent you last year — so you know that it’s best to take the high ground because zombies don’t naturally walk uphill. It’s hard to believe that all those wasted hours watching horror movies are finally paying off.
You hop out of the car and disassemble the crude wooden barricade blocking the driveway leading to the house on the hill. You’re checking over your shoulder the whole time. There are groans in the distance behind you. No time to put the barricade back up. You drive toward the house. You frantically knock on the door. There are arguing voices inside. You hear the door unlock.
You are in a zombie movie.
Are your troubles over?
Since zombie movies intersect with the horror genre, the answer is clearly ‘no.’
Are you more worried about the undead outside the house or the living people inside the house?
Because of your knowledge of the genre, you know from its founding film, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), that trouble comes from both directions at once. The dead may have lost their humanity, but the people in zombie movies are all-too-human. The monster may be the manifestation of evil, but evil also hides in every human heart. It’s a theme no Christian should despise.
The Worst Enemy
In Romero’s low-budget classic, zombies corner a handful of terrified survivors in a remote farmhouse, where the level-headed protagonist Ben does his best to keep the carnivorous corpses at bay, while also battling the cowardice, selfishness, and fragile sanity of his fellow humans. Against the odds, Ben alone survives. As night turns to day, a mob of townsmen, led by the local sheriff, clear the countryside of living dead. They arrive at the farmhouse. Spotting Ben inside crouching at one of the windows, one of the posse shoots Ben in the head, “right between the eyes,” as instructed.
The final shots of the film are grainy stills of the “victorious” posse, meat hooks in hand, preparing to drag Ben’s lifeless body to the bonfire. The bitter narrative irony of the final scene is fitting for the pessimism of the genre but is compounded by the ambiguity of the shooting itself. In the film, Ben can clearly be seen holding his rifle at the ready. If the sheriff’s man could see him well enough to shoot him “between the eyes,” he should have been able to see that those eyes had life in them.1
It’s striking when a film spawns a new subgenre and also crystalizes its essential metaphor. Those who have followed in Romero’s shambling footsteps have likewise identified the twin dangers of zombie survival as the impersonal swarms of living dead, and the interpersonal conflicts that arise among the living. In zombie horror, we are, metaphorically and literally, our own worst enemies.
In this regard, the zombie is a quintessentially modern monster. There are no intrinsic religious or supernatural associations with zombies. They’re normally caused by some sci-fi event or a virus. Zombies also don’t play on environmental fears. They don’t come from the woods or the sea, manifesting vulnerable humanity’s fear of threats coming from the wilderness as in Jaws (1975). Zombies are comfortably nestled within the modern, secularized “immanent frame” Charles Taylor talks about.2
The Last Enemy
While the vampire or the werewolf may represent an amplification of evil attributes within us, or Frankenstein’s monster may embody a certain kind of Enlightenment hubris, they are still singular creatures. They may be fought with crosses or silver bullets, and may even take down a few victims, but they are unique entities. The zombie is rarely fearsome as an isolated creature. It’s the zombie horde that we have to watch out for. While the werewolf may attack on a lonely country road, or the giant shark may take out an isolated swimmer, the zombie is most dangerous in typical places of security and safety: civilization. The zombie is the kind of monster that emerges when all the rest of the monsters have been conquered. The last enemy is us.
I’ve often thought that the rise in popularity of zombie movies must be at least partly attributable to the rise of city living and our ambivalence about dwelling among so many other people, many of whom are complete strangers. We’ve all known the feeling of finding ourselves in a strange part of the city, looking over our shoulder for unfriendly humans. We’ve all known the feeling of wondering what exactly our neighbors are up to behind closed doors. We’ve all felt utterly alone in a sea of people. To quote Nigel Tufnel talking about his amp, the zombie movie amplifies modern anxieties “to eleven.”3
But there’s more to our fascination with zombie stories than fear. The zombie genre also offers a strange sort of fantasy of escape from civilized life, returning to a state of simple survival, unhindered by tax forms and timesheets. In place of having to get along with the horde of people around us, zombie movies explore what happens when we strip off the veneer of politeness. The effects on human life, like the attributes of any good zombie movie, are nasty, brutish, and short.
In some sense, of course, conflict between humans is inevitable in any tense, survival scenario. But it has become the hallmark of the zombie film in particular. Partly this is due to the global and catastrophic nature of a zombie outbreak. People tend to get a little testy when the world is ending. It’s easy to share when food is plentiful. It’s harder to share when food is scarce, everyone dying for a bite, and you are the food.
We see the simple tension between selflessness and self-protection in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Fleeing fast zombies, a small band of heroes arrives at a shopping mall ruled by cautious mall cops, reluctant to let anyone enter, they begrudgingly let in our heroes after they have surrendered their firearms. The calloused mall cop, CJ, and the compassionate nurse, Ana, frequently butt heads. CJ’s motto is, “I’ll kill each and every one of you to stay alive. You hear me?”4 When Ana and her friends eventually gain control, however, their sympathy for others seeking help quickly backfires, as they let wounded survivors into the mall. CJ may not be the film’s hero, but his ethics seem to align better with the world they inhabit.
The tension between altruism and self-protection, however, seems to be resolved positively in the movie’s final scene. Ana’s teammate and love interest, Michael, has been infected. Though they are on the verge of escaping by boat, Michael knows that if he comes with them, he will eventually turn into a zombie. Combining the harsh practicality of CJ with the generosity of Ana, Michael watched the boat leave without him. A single gunshot over a black screen marks a kind of inversion of CJ’s dictum. Michael kills himself so they can stay alive. The credits sequence, however, spoils any positive meaning from this final act of selflessness. Ana’s boat arrives at its destination to be greeted with more zombies. In the world of Dawn of the Dead, the good and the bad all suffer the same fate, it all turns out ugly.
Identification and Cure
But not all zombie films are quite as nihilistic as Snyder’s Dawn remake or as bleak as Romero’s Night. Often they have a point to make in the midst of the zombie pandemic. Zombie movies can be apocalyptic in the biblical sense of “revelatory.” Just as John the Revelator offers us a glimpse “behind the scenes” of the spiritual reality behind the visible, zombie movies often home in on a specific problem with our humanity. And identifying the problem at least offers hope of a cure.
In 28 Days Later (2002), the film opens inside a British research laboratory, where an experiment chimpanzee is strapped to a table and forced to watch real-world footage of riots, warfare, and mayhem. More chimps are trapped in plexiglass cages, violently banging on their enclosures. Animal-liberation activists break in to release the chimps, only to discover that the animals are infected with “rage,” which the scientists who experiment on them are attempting to “cure.” Angry and violent themselves, the activists defy the scientist’s warning and are bitten by the chimps, sparking an outbreak that will soon destroy the world. As the scene closes, we cut to our main character, splayed on a hospital bed, naked, looking much like the experiment chimp. The edit is powerful and clear, like Kubrick’s smash cut from Moon-Watcher’s thrown bone-club to the floating space station. The similarity between rage-infected chimps and Homo sapiens is closer than we might wish, as the film clearly demonstrates.
Danny Boyle’s zombies in 28 Days Later fittingly differ from Romero’s slowpoke undead. Boyle’s zombies are alive: humans infected with the rage virus who sprint like receivers at a scouting combine. The main character, Jim, and a small band of survivors retreat from London, heading toward a military signal. They do not fail in their quest to find the remains of England’s military. Much worse, they find it, and discover a cult-like group of soldiers who aim to kill Jim in order to claim the group’s women for themselves. In order to defend them, Jim resorts to an animalistic rage so intense that he is mistaken for a zombie by his friends. Our inner rage, it seems, is incurable, though it is useful, as Jim is able to lead his group toward a (temporarily) happy ending.
As a tonal counterpoint, Edgar Wright’s clever romantic zombie comedy (rom-zom-com), Shaun of the Dead (2004), offers a milder satire of human wickedness. The Working Title-produced film follows the titular Shaun, a working class schlub with few goals beyond getting drunk every night in the local pub. Shaun’s brain-dead condition isn’t unique to him, as the opening sequence crawls across Shaun’s neighborhood, where nearly all the residents are sleepwalking through life, work, and even play. The spiritual apocalypse has already arrived, it seems, and no one noticed.
When the metaphorical apocalypse begins to take over London, Shaun is nearly as oblivious to the proliferation of zombies as he is to the pleading of his girlfriend to get his life together. Surprisingly, the zombie outbreak gives Shaun a fresh sense of purpose and direction in life. He is far more alive battling the dead than ever before.
Thus, Shaun of the Dead, as much as any zombie movie, brings home the truth that such stories often tell. They often portray civilized life as damning and even deadening.5 (It’s notable that Night of the Living Dead begins in a graveyard. It’s notable that the zombies in both versions of Dawn of the Dead shamble to the shopping mall.) The civilization zombies destroy is already infected. The stories we tell about them offer a dark fantasy of escape, a return to a simpler, if more brutal, existence.
One of the beautiful features of revolting horror movies is their liberation from the need to offer any positive resolution or benign anthropology. Though comedies tell a deep truth about eschatological hope, horror movies speak a prophetic, if unwelcome, word about our predilection toward evil. In this way, the horror genre may be closer to the Christian worldview than we may like to admit. Instead of vain trust in the kindness of strangers, zombie movies are often more honest about our unredeemed spiritual state. There’s something deeply wrong with humanity that civilization cannot eradicate. The most dangerous villain we will ever face is ourselves.
Phil Tallon is an associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University. He’s the author of The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (Oxford, 2011).
- The further fact that Ben is black, shot by a mob of white men, makes it very hard for modern audiences not to read the ending as a commentary on racially charged police brutality, despite Romero’s insistence that “nothing in the film points to race.” Aaron Couch, “George A. Romero on Brad Pitt Killing the Zombie Genre, Why He Avoids Studio Films,” Heat Vision, October 31, 2016, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/george-a-romero-says-brad-pitt-killed-zombie-genre-942559/.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).
- This Is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner, written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner Harry Shearer (Los Angeles: Embassy Pictures, 1984).
- Dawn of the Dead, directed by Zack Snyder, screenplay by James Gunn (Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 2004).
- An interesting example here of the civilizational theme in zombie horror is Max Brooks’ novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (New York: Broadway Books, 2006). Though Brooks shows the liberating and even invigorating effect of societal breakdown, he also paints a charming picture of the topsy-turvy rebuilding process, where manual laborers and blue-collar workers suddenly become the most valued members of a re-forming society.