The undead walk among us… but do we always notice them as zombies?
Zombies are commonly stereotyped as slow moving, unthinking undead. In recent decades, zombies went from “not us, dangerous at all times, kill on sight,” to tolerated yet often closeted functional members of society. Some plots have zombies living secretly amongst the living, undetected, while others show zombies living openly mixed with the general public. As zombies gain acceptance in society, there is a noticeable difference in both their cognitive abilities and outward appearance. They become more humanized and significantly less otherworldly and threatening.
The movie Warm Bodies (2013) is one of the first films to humanize zombies. R is a Corpse on a post-apocalyptic Earth. He has some vague remnants of awareness, minute cognition basically functioning around slowly walking towards food sources. R looks human but with the shadings of zombism obvious to his appearance. He somehow still finds music and collecting random crap comforting. He builds a home for himself inside an old airplane. R wants to make connections with others but is unable to do so, due to the limitations of being a zombie. After eating Juliet’s boyfriend’s brain, he begins to have intense memories from said snack’s past, causing him to save Juliet instead of eat her. As they work together to get Juliet back to safety, R begins to regain his humanity. He starts speaking and even driving. As they form a unique bond, he starts appearing more human as well, enough that the leader of the zombie annihilation squad (aka Juliet’s father) is forced to realize the cure to zombism is not an endless slaughter, but love and kindness. He has to come to terms that his hatred for something beyond his comprehension that could have been cured with understanding and compassion drove him to murder his wife. As more zombies wake up, they form an alliance with the humans to annihilate the Bonies, deemed “too far gone to save.” Nothing brings people together faster than a common enemy to destroy.
American Zombie (2008) takes an even more humanizing look at the life and struggles of a zombie. In this mockumentary, zombies are simply typical citizens with jobs, homes, friends, and refrigerators full of human foods. They have been infected with a virus that reactivates the brain after death. None of them remember their former lives or at most only in snippets. Many turn to art or take on hobbies like gardening. The documentary crew follow the zombies through their normal routines, to capture the true nature of the modern zombie. Some zombies have more limited mental capacities akin to a near catatonic machine-like repetitive functioning, who work in assembly lines. Others organize huge festivals and fight for zombie rights and acceptance. Most of the zombies look entirely human, covering up any rotting areas with concealer or sleeves. They are mostly mellow yet (like regular people) can have emotional, rage-fueled outbursts when provoked. They want the same rights as respect as anyone else, claiming they mean no harm, yet the filmmakers capture some events that suggest otherwise. One zombie rights leader makes an ominous threat about rising up, but honestly who oppressed among us has not had similar feelings towards their oppressors? Another zen-loving zombie murders her noisy neighbors and wants to die herself. Murder-suicides are not unheard of in human populations either. While American Zombie does not leave a lasting good spin on zombism, it does showcase how acceptable thinking zombies are still negatively compared to their unthinking counterparts.
Aaah! Zombies! (2007) shows an insider look to a stereotypical zombie. The infected group of friends does not realize they are now the undead committing atrocities. They believe they are the result of a toxic leak that has rendered them super soldiers and are now the chosen ones to rid the town of a zombie infestation. They do not realize they are the dead reanimated, that their appearance is that of a rotten corpse slowly shuffling and groaning as they approach others. They think everyone around them is infected, as others are viewed as moving and speaking at superhuman speeds. The group does not realize their own brains have slowed to a near stop, inhibiting their abilities to comprehend reality in its actual speed. The group thinks nothing of their bodies breaking down, attributing it all to being super soldiers. Only drunk people and continuous electricity make communication between the dead and undead possible. The group is just trying to survive as a team and help save the world. Their misguided attempts do not register to them as failures, due to their shared belief nothing is wrong with them… It’s everyone else.
These movies have similarities in that zombies are not quite like us but misunderstood due to their differences. They also show zombies often have memory problems and change their behavior when they consume brains. iZombie (2015) is a series that holds some of these qualities altered. Liv is a med student with no life who becomes infected the one night she was convinced to go have some fun. She wakes up in a body bag on the beach, unharmed and undead. Liv does what any undead with a medical degree and a taste for brains would do. She becomes a coroner, so she can both have a job that suits her skill-set and allows her access to an endless supply of free range, cruelty free, organic human brains. Her cover is quickly blown when her astute coworker Ravi notices brains going missing and her behavioral changes. Every brain she eats gives her the fragmented memories and persona of the dead person. They use her new skill to solve the murders of the bodies who enter their morgue.
Liv has to stay in the closet about her condition, as society has no knowledge of zombies and it would cause mass hysteria. The government would want specimens to study. The pair solve countless murders, while trying to stop an underground brain black market. The only noticeable zombie traits Liv displays is being deathly pale with darkened eyes and bleach white hair, giving her an emo aesthetic while still allowing her to pass for living. If she goes too long without eating she risks going feral. Zombies are amongst the living and go to great lengths to remain undetected, safe, and fed. The only difference is a lack of heartbeat and a taste for human brains. iZombie shows zombies can be treated while the search for a cure is found. They do not have to be euthanized and most have no more desire to harm than when they were human.
Another series that has functional zombies is the Santa Clarita Diet (2017). A shy, passive woman named Sheila reclaims her life when she contracts a zombie virus. After a sudden, violent illness she transforms into an uninhibited version of herself, a Jekyll and Hyde type zombie plot. Sheila becomes a strong, calculating, opinionated person who craves human flesh. Her husband is initially horrified but quickly grows to accept the new Sheila. Their daughter and her best friend figure out the truth and vow to help protect Sheila’s secret. Her new diet causes a lot of strife for her family who are trying to protect each other while causing as little harm as possible to others, which proves to be impossible. Sheila turns to vigilantism when she learns she cannot control her appetite with substitutions. She picks people who are criminals and racists, slaughters them, and stores their remains in a freezer so she can subtly eat while appearing to be a normal realtor.
These plots show us not every zombie is to be judged on outward appearances or diagnosis only. They can become contributing members of society, under the right circumstances and an accepting community. As people begin to find ways to connect personally with zombies, the zombies appear less of a threat and more of a person in need of understanding. They are not always the dangerous creatures we perceive them to be. Most are the victims of an infectious disease or a government experiment gone wrong. Zombies can learn to adapt to human standards again, relying less on scavenging on the outskirts of society and more on providing for themselves. The most functional zombies go unnoticed as different, even by their loved ones. People would not even think of them as dangerous until they stumbled upon the truth, though nothing changed but a label.
Take a look at the trailer for “American Zombie!”