Zombies have the reputation of the epitome of baseness, the lowest common denominator in gore entertainment. This seems particularly true for movies: my interest in zombie literature (now doesn’t that make you snort out loud!) grew out of a tolerance of and eventual affection for the Resident Evil films staring Milla Jovovich, themselves somewhat a spoof on the genre. What I appreciate most about them is the convergence with the apocalypse novel, no doubt itself outgrown from an obsession with endangered species. As a generally serious, introspective and intelligent person who tends to shun all things faddish, my friends are surprised by my interest in zombies, assuming the field too silly for the serious or literary reader. But I beg to differ; if the novel is well done, zombie stores confront some of the eternal questions of humanism: what does it mean to be human? To survive? To be civilized? To be alive?
Some zombie books address the larger themes (The Walking Dead, The Reapers are the Angels) in context of survival of the few. The zombie threat forces together a small group of unlikely allies who usually learn humanity’s largest threat is each other. Some deal with the same themes, only with the survival of whole populations (The First Days), looking farther down the line at development and building a new society from ground up with people who already have ideas about what society means. Some authors use it as a backdrop for themes of individual identity and freedom (Rot and Ruin), some use zombies to enable questions of the individual’s life meaning (This is Not a Test). I haven’t yet read books that dealt seriously with the issue of zombies as people, although Rot & Ruin struggles with it. It is an area I remain uncomfortable with; I prefer my zombies as antagonists, whether active or passive, galvanizing the main characters towards crisis points.
Why zombies? Because it’s a completely fictional way to deal with some of our most essential, human questions.