When a zombie outbreak interrupts the slacker existence of the eponymous main character in the 2004 British comedy Shaun of the Dead, he thinks he knows exactly what to do. With the help of his similarly lackadaisical friend Ed, he decides to find a car, pick up his mother and ex-girlfriend, and head over to the local pub. There, they can “have a nice cold pint and wait for this all to blow over.”
Just before Shaun and Ed head out to execute this plan, a television newscaster implores viewers to stay home, refrain from attempting to reach loved ones, and avoid all zombie contact. “Do you believe everything you hear on TV?” Ed asks, prompting Shaun to shut off the tube. The ensuing journey to the pub results in the death and/or zombification of Ed, Shaun’s mother, and several of his friends. And by the time they get there, the bartenders are already zombies.
COVID-19 is not a zombie plague, despite what one hopes are only the darkly humorous wishes of some on social media. But our reality has nonetheless supplied some parallels to Shaun of the Dead. A few days ago, after the governors of several states announced closures of bars (and restaurants) to minimize the risk of the pathogen’s spread, many revelers — mostly young — did not take this as a sign to avoid them even before their scheduled closure. Defeating the whole point of the measure, in the last few remaining hours they thronged the bars for one last drink. Likewise, some young spring-breakers in Florida had no intention of canceling or even altering their plans. “If I get corona, I get corona,” one of them said. “At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” So Shaun of the Dead may have captured something more recognizably human than we could have appreciated in our pre-pandemic time (as the actors who played Shaun and Ed humorously suggest in a version of that scene redone as a recent PSA).
Shaun of the Dead is far from the only zombie-themed work in pop culture. Zombies are an ever-popular trope, starting with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Even before COVID-19, audiences thrilled to these depictions of viral outbreaks turning our fellow humans into lumbering (or sometimes sprinting) hordes driven to consume our flesh, or spread their plague, or both. AMC’s The Walking Dead, an adaptation of a graphic-novel series about (though never saying the word) zombies, has been one of the most popular TV shows for years. And 2013’s World War Z, an adaptation of a best-selling Max Brooks novel starring Brad Pitt, made more than $500 million worldwide. The popularity of zombies inspires all sorts of armchair sociology, much of it baseless. Do they speak to fundamental human fears of conformity or civilizational collapse? Do they reflect our qualms about consumerism? Or do they actually represent a kind of wish fulfillment for those who secretly tire of civilization’s strictures and seek a return to the state of nature? The answers depend on the movie — and on the viewer.
And though COVID-19 has not zombified anyone (yet), there remain other aspects of zombie media with a heightened contemporary resonance — if not exactly the kind you’d expect. Take Shaun of the Dead again: Its opening scenes depict Shaun going listlessly through his daily routine, oblivious to ominous signs. The next day, as the zombie outbreak has already occurred, Shaun proceeds through his routine again, taking almost no notice of what has happened until a zombie appears in his backyard. In the movie, this is meant to emphasize the apparent banality of Shaun’s — and our own — everyday existence. Yet there’s something fundamentally human about seeking the status quo and returning to familiar forms. You can see it in the desire of many people to spend their days during this outbreak at home, with family. And it’s even apparent in the already tiresome debate over whether using the adjective “Chinese” to describe the novel coronavirus — which did originate in China — is somehow racist. This is one of the few aspects of the outbreak that map somewhat neatly onto the state of politics beforehand, perhaps explaining its endurance — and its banality.
Yet we must also deal with a different banality. Culturally and politically enforced “social distancing” has dramatically circumscribed the lives of many throughout the world, cutting us off from regular physical proximity both to the familiar and the unfamiliar faces that we had taken for granted. In such times we have doubled down on methods used much more sporadically before COVID-19 to remain entertained and connected; stocks of the videoconferencing software company Zoom have skyrocketed, and functionally employed twentysomethings are returning to — or doubling down on — online gaming to supply missing companionship.
In 2004’s Dawn of the Dead (a remake of the 1978 original, also by Romero), a demographically disparate bunch of people get stuck in a mall during a zombie outbreak. And they, too, seek camaraderie in unusual ways. Some among this mall contingent find their way to the roof with a dry-erase board and establish contact with a gun-store owner across the street; a zombie horde stands in between. Phone lines are down, and the gap is too wide for voices to carry. So the mall-goers make the most of what they’ve got, holding up handwritten messages and even deriving dark humor from the situation. They begin to write the names of celebrities they think certain members of the horde below resemble on their dry-erase board and then watch to see if their neighbor across the way can kill the same zombie they identified. It’s a pastime of questionable ethics, but in a zombie apocalypse, it beats doing nothing. At least they’re having fun with friends. Luckily our Zoom videoconferences don’t require as much violence.
The gun-store owner in Dawn of the Dead is the kind of person who often features in zombie media: the badass who’s been waiting, perhaps even preparing, for exactly that kind of world-ending situation. A return to the state of nature means that justice once again becomes the will of the stronger. The most famous such character is probably The Walking Dead’s Negan, who has ruthlessly established a semblance of order amid a zombie-induced civilizational breakdown. As Jonah Goldberg summed up Negan’s understanding of the world, “The new world order is this. . . . Give me your sh**, or I will kill you.” Many of us like to think that we would be Negan in that kind of world. But so far, civilization has rather stubbornly refused to break down. And so the best Negan impression most have managed is to depopulate grocery store shelves of hand sanitizer, spaghetti (though not lasagna), and . . . toilet paper. Some of the more enterprising among us have secured these and other goods in bulk to sell at higher prices to others. If that’s all we’ve got, most of us would probably just end up as zombies.
The specter of Negan raises another frequent argument of zombie media: that the real monsters are actually our fellow humans. This was shown rather pointedly in Night of the Living Dead, which came out just a few years after the end of Jim Crow and the same year as Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The main character, a black man, survives a nocturnal-undead onslaught, only to be shot by humans who mistake him for a zombie. Fortunately, rank cruelty of this nature has hardly been the order of the day thus far. Nevertheless, the Chinese government’s quashing of the efforts of Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan treating COVID-19 patients who was one of the first to warn the public about the dangers and who ultimately died of the disease, approaches the grim irony of Night of the Living Dead’s climax.
Without much of man’s inhumanity to man on display as yet — and let us hope it stays that way — what zombie entertainment provides the closest analogue to our current moment? I would submit 2009’s Zombieland. Midway through the movie, its roving band of survivors comes upon none other than Bill Murray, playing himself as one of the few humans to survive the zombie outbreak. Murray lives alone in a nice house, and occasionally ventures outside it disguised as a zombie . . . to play golf. With his idiosyncratic combination of prudence and aplomb — taking precautionary measures while seeking some normal enjoyment — Murray may be the most human character in any zombie movie. Though in our case, his eschewing of social distancing may not have been ideal. (Nor would we wish to emulate his untimely and ironic end, the result of someone’s mistaking him for one of the undead.)
There are plenty more zombie movies, TV shows, video games, etc. out there if you’ve already tired of Outbreak, Contagion, and The Andromeda Strain but are still up for some weirdly topical viewing. And there’ll undoubtedly be more, even after COVID-19 subsides. The zombie can represent anything, or nothing — and that may be the source of its pop-culture durability. Yet one last eerie parallel between zombie movies and real life deserves mentioning. Allegedly, World War Z originally depicted characters speculating that the zombie outbreak originated in China. But, because the studio feared the loss of the ever-lucrative Chinese market, these scenes were removed.
Maybe there is something to these zombie movies after all.