Projecting our fears: Climate anxiety and Americans’ zombie obsession

15 years of zombie dominance at the U.S. box office may reveal a lot about the real threats that keep us up at night.

For the last 15 years, Americans have been on a real zombie kick. We’ve had I Am Legend, World War Z, the Resident Evil franchise, and comedy-horrors like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, to name a few. And of course there’s the unkillable “The Walking Dead,” limping along into its 11th season, which must violate some law of nature by now.

Even if you don’t love horror movies, paying attention to what kinds of horror are popular — and when — can provide a view into what a culture shares as its greatest anxiety at any particular moment. It’s the field loosely called “horror theory.”

Consider the 1950s, a decade when the U.S. was coming to terms with the aftermath of the atom bomb and the arrival of the even more destructive H-bomb. In that decade, Japan’s film industry made Godzilla – a creature accidentally created by nuclear weaponry; and Hollywood gave us victims of radiation in films such as I Was A Teenage Werewolf, and scientists watching unintended consequences run amok, as in Beginning of the End, a fab B-movie where giant locusts escape from a USDA lab testing radioactive fertilizers and destroy a nearby town. Other decades provide us more ways to engage with America’s subconscious. (Buy me a drink for a detailed timeline of U.S. collective psychoanalysis through horror).

So, why zombies? Why now?

There are many things about zombies that make them convenient metaphors. Zombies look like us, but have been drained of the things that make us human – they’re unthinking and unfeeling, have no capacity for language, shuffle around without a sense of self, place or belonging. In essence, they’ve been reduced to something with no faculties and only one purpose: consume.

That’s right: Our thing for zombies is all about our fear of losing ourselves to overconsumption. (Sort of. Just keep reading.)

Zombies as a metaphor for mindless consumption largely got its start in the 1970s with George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead. Most of the action takes place in an abandoned suburban shopping mall, where the film shows zombies bumping into clothing racks that resemble browsing shoppers. When they find their next human victims and press against store glass in an effort to reach them, you can’t help but think about a Target on Black Friday.

When there’s a sale at Sears.

I can’t say I wholly recommend watching Dawn of the Dead unless you have a stomach for campy gore, but Romero did lay the groundwork for other zombie/consumer critiques, such as Bill Murray’s new HBO comedy, The Dead Don’t Die, which I do recommend to anyone, even non-horror fans. In Murray’s film, zombies are a little more blatant about their material desires. They wander around a gas station, muttering for Skittles, Snapple and toys, while those shuffling towards the neon of a hardware store drool over drills and sanders. One zombie strikes ridiculous poses, only able to say the word “fashion” over and over. Another, quite relatably, would just like her wine.

Our lives in the 2020s lend themselves to even more zombie parallels. Other scenes in The Dead Don’t Die include zombies stopping while eating a corpse the moment they realize there’s coffee nearby; a zombie wandering around a motel muttering for “wifi” while another, phone in hand, repeats “Siri”; and in the scene that’s stayed with me the most, zombies circling a pharmacy uselessly muttering “oxy” and “Ambien” to themselves.

A culture in crisis

It’s quite possible that the reason zombie films have experienced a renaissance for the last 15 years is not just because we think zombies are neat, or even purely that we’re afraid of becoming mindless/thoughtless/soulless consumers (though I would like to submit that as a possibility). Rather, I think the biggest reason is because these stories give us an opportunity to explore survival during the unthinkable.

Think about the last zombie movie you saw: While zombies certainly feature in it, I can almost promise that whatever movie you’re thinking about probably spent more time with the humans in the face of societal breakdown trying to live another day than actual pure zombie footage. “How to survive a zombie apocalypse” can easily translate into surviving any number of disasters that could disrupt modern life on a broad scale. Zombies are really just the headline to draw you into a world where you can watch others navigate apocalyptic circumstances and imagine yourself doing the same, all from the comfort of your own couch. Last March, when COVID-19 seemed to threaten supply chain stability, I had a hard time blocking out flashbacks of old zombie plans made in jest with college friends that included answers to questions like “ok, what do you do when grocery stores are no longer an option?”

(You think I’m joking about the usefulness of all this – try this recent University of Chicago study that found “fans of horror movies are more psychologically resilient during frightening world events like the pandemic.”)

When you look at the last 15 years, roughly the time since Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” zombie movies become a particularly useful tool for us to look a super inconvenient truth in the face: modern life as we know it (and I mean in The Normal TimesTM) is not an inevitable and permanent thing. Society is a delicate ecosystem that can be derailed. Climate change is one of the more likely candidates of large-scale societal breakdown (ignoring the COVID elephant in the room for a sec, not to mention the recent almost-coup), and what’s worse, we can see it coming — slowly, steadily and assuredly, the longer we take to do something about it. The visibility of its approach is the thing I find most existentially frightening about global warming, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our larger cultural anxiety were to stem from that. Zombies might not be all about climate change or all about consumption, but they are about apocalypse brought on by something bigger than us. And for the last 15 years, we haven’t quite been able to let that thought go.

Though it only mentions it in passing, The Dead Don’t Die is the first zombie narrative I’ve seen that forces zombies into an explicit climate context. This particular uprising is caused by “polar fracking,” which has knocked the tilt of the earth’s access out of line enough to stop people’s watches, make it almost always daylight, and yes, raise the dead. In combination with the rather blatant consumer critique, Murray’s flick gets at an underlying, overriding truth of our time: that our enslavement to stuff and escapist hobbies are both bringing about our own demise and robbing us of our humanity in the meantime.

Unfortunately, in most zombie movies, humans hasten their own demise by ignoring the crisis, retreating to material comforts, blaming each other or shrugging their shoulders in resignation. But it doesn’t have to be like that. As we face the dual-apocalypses of material consumerism and climate change, we have the opportunity to choose the only appropriate response to a crisis: do something about it.