Holding Up a (Grubby, Blood-Stained) Mirror

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Today is the last in a series of columns by David Moody to mark the release of Autumn: Exodus, the final book in his acclaimed Autumn series. Moody has been writing about the end of the world for almost thirty years. His novel, Hater, was optioned for film by Guillermo del Toro.

Thanks again to Michael and the gang for letting me talk zombies here on This is Horror. In my previous columns, I’ve looked at how the zombie genre has changed over the last couple of decades, and why some zombie stories are memorable while others are swallowed up as part of the rotting crowd. I’ve been pretty dismissive of some aspects of the genre at times, and yet here I am, still writing novels about the undead after more than twenty years. Despite the fact that a lot of people have had more than enough of our decaying friends, and despite zombie stories all too frequently descending into cliché, I keep coming back for more. I think that’s because zombies still scare the hell out of me, and I think they should scare you too. In this, my last column, I’m going to try and explain why. I wrote last time about how I approach writing zombie stories, but I appreciate other folks do things very differently. There’s a lot of escapism and cartoon violence associated with the genre, but I try and take a more serious approach. The ramblings which follow, therefore, will take that same grim tack.

“They’re us. We’re them and they’re us.”

So spoke Barbara in George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and I think she hit the nail on the head. But for a pulse, the living and the undead are (initially) pretty much the same.

Last time I wrote about how I imagine the appearance and condition of zombies changing over time. Back in the days of Romero’s movies, you could always spot a few ‘hero’ zombies in the crowd. The Hare Krishna zombie from Dawn of the Dead, for example, or the clown zombie shambling through the caverns of the subterranean military base in Day of the Dead. Those specific examples apart, as a zombie decays, all the distinguishing features that combined to once make it a unique human being would be lost amongst the putrefaction. Remember when you used to play with plasticine as a kid? You’d start with a pack of strips of different colours but, before long, all you’d end up with was a huge lump of brown clay. I think the dead would go the same way, all colouration disappearing in the rot—skin decaying, and clothing becoming increasingly stained as a result. The dead would all start to look the same, and isn’t that a frightening thought? Imagine if we were each stripped of our individuality, and all reduced to a uniform blandness. I don’t know about you, but the thought of being indistinguishable from everyone else terrifies me.

But it’s not just the visual appearance of the undead that changes, is it? Accepting that there are a minority of zombie stories where the dead retain some semblance of personality and character, for the most part, they’re portrayed as dumb, shambling creatures that literally follow the crowd. It makes sense (as much as any of this does, anyway) to think that if they’ve all been affected by the same condition, they’d likely all be left in a broadly similar state post-death. For this reason, they’re often portrayed in books and films as mindless creatures that herd. Whatever grabs the limited attention of one of them, will likely have the same effect on all of them. That too is a terrifying prospect, don’t you think? Being reduced to such a state that the only thing you can do is what everyone else is doing; becoming a mindless drone, devoid of emotion, driven by instinct to keep moving until you physically no longer can …

It sounds like an unbearable existence to me, the ultimate nightmare scenario. And I can’t help wondering how much the dead would be able to remember. To my mind, the absolute worst situation (as is the case in my Autumn novels) would be to have become a zombie that remembers. Imagine that … restricted physically, but still able to remember, perhaps still able to feel … Just the thought of it makes me go as cold as dead flesh.

Autumn by David Moody - coverI know many people joke about how they’d love to survive the zombie apocalypse, but I can’t help thinking it wouldn’t be as much fun as you’d think. Apologies if I’m sucking all the enjoyment out of your favourite zombie movies here, but I don’t reckon the survivors would fare much better than the dead. Sure, you could set yourself up in a fancy pad, but what happens when the food runs out? What happens when all the fuel is gone? What happens when you’re the only one left alive and you’ve become the sole focus of a few hundred thousand mobile cadavers? Again, apologies for the cheap plug, but you can find all these answers and more in my Autumn books!

It’s a sobering prospect though, don’t you think?

So, I’ve given you a couple good reasons why zombies are the ultimate horror foe, but there are more. Here’s another—have you ever stopped to think that the dead are basically the Terminators of the horror genre? Okay, so they can’t match the strength or durability of any killer robot sent from the future, but there is one level on which they do match the Terminators’ threat: they never, ever, ever give up. Reduce a zombie to just a severed head, and it’ll still try to bite you. You might be exhausted, you might be terrified, you might be broken, BUT THE ZOMBIE COMING AFTER YOU WILL FEEL NONE OF THESE THINGS.

In these columns, I hope I’ve gone some way to persuade you to give the living dead another chance, or that I’ve been able to tempt those of you considering writing zombie fiction or making a zombie film to take the plunge. All too often the undead are written off as low-budget comedy horror stooges, as the enemy in lazy knock-off books and films. Fact is, when done right, I don’t think there’s anything more frightening than a horde of reanimated corpses. To wrap up, I just want to highlight a couple more aspects of them that I think will seal the deal.

I’ve been talking about what zombies are, but the horror gets ramped up to a whole other level when you think about what they were.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times in these posts how death deindividualizes the zombies and gives them an unnatural, uncomfortable uniformity, but that’s not always the case. What if the zombie that’s about to attack you was a child when they died? I think even the toughest, coldest, most callous of us would struggle if we had to hack down a pint-sized monster that very clearly used to be a kid. Or, worse than that, that used to be your kid. The fact they all look largely the same and act the same might help in some situations, but what if you knew the person that the creature coming for you used to be? Could you kill (or re-kill) the thing that used to be your partner, or your parent, or your neighbour or friend? You might well think you’ll be able to do it, but I’m pretty sure it’ll give you cause to pause first.

And that pause might be the difference between you surviving, and you joining the endless ranks of the undead; the difference between you retaining your personality and hopes and fears and emotions and dreams, and you being reduced to an empty shell, destined to walk the wastelands until you’ve rotted down to nothing or been battered into oblivion by someone who turned out to be better at surviving than you.

Told you I spend too long thinking about this stuff, didn’t I!

One final thought to leave you with. I talked previously about the adaptability of zombies, and how they can be dropped into pretty much any situation—any time, any place, anywhere. From a writer’s perspective, that’s a gift, but to everyone else, it could prove to be a nightmare. I don’t know if you’ve thought about it this way, but we’re all surrounded by potential zombies pretty much all the time. I’ll bet you’ve crossed paths with more than enough of them already today. All it would take is a germ or a radiation leak or something similar, and they might all be coming for you …


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1 comment

    • Richard McCrohan on June 21, 2023 at 4:42 pm
    • Reply

    I enjoyed reading your columns (and your books) on zombies. You have succinctly brought to light the beauty and the horror of this genre. I have written a series of six books featuring zombies as the main adversary. Each book starts at the beginning of the apocalypse as I always found that to be the most interesting time of any zombie novel. You have put into words completely my feelings and fascination of this subject. Thank you.

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