Enter the word ‘Zombie’ on Wikipedia – the university student’s best friend; infallible fount of knowledge for humankind in the 21st century – and this is the description that greets you: “A zombie is a fictional undead being created through the reanimation of a human corpse… The term comes from Haitian folklore, where a zombie is a dead body reanimated through various methods, most commonly magic (although) modern depictions of the reanimation of the dead do not necessarily involve magic but often invoke science fictional methods such as carriers, radiation, mental diseases, vectors, pathogens, scientific accidents, etc.”
Now consider some of the most popular video games, television series, and films that revolve around the concept. Chances are, you’ll find the long-established z-word replaced with a raft of pseudonyms ranging from the reasonably sensible ‘Infected’ to the downright awful ‘Freakers’ – I can’t even begin to explain how much I hate the latter (sorry).
Okay, so it’s not a massive issue and it has absolutely zero effect on the stories these game developers and screenwriters are trying to tell. But, at the risk of sounding like a pedantic old man who fears any kind of change no matter how small, is it really necessary? Why is it such a bad thing to call a zombie, a zombie?
I mean, how is it the denizens of The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, and The Last of Us are completely unfamiliar with the term?
The only logical conclusion is that the concept of a ‘zombie’ doesn’t exist in their worlds. So, when Rick Grimes, Joel, Deacon, etc. first see something clearly resembling a zombie shambling (or, as is increasingly common these days, sprinting towards them with the grace and instinctive coordination of a parkour master), they simply don’t recognize them for what they are and are forced to wrack their brains looking for a suitable name to describe them.
Otherwise, their initial reaction to news of the civilization-ending outbreak would have been something like “oh shit, the zombie apocalypse everyone’s been banging on about for years has finally come to pass. Best look at investing in some padded, bite-proof clothing options from the nearest Primark” not “have you heard about that new disease that’s reanimating dead people? It turns them into insensate, rotting monstrosities with an insatiable hunger for human flesh – they’re calling them Walkers”. Because the whole undead cannibalism thing isn’t as remarkable as their gait, apparently.
Obviously I don’t actually believe this is the case. Clearly, the real cause of this widespread disregard for the humble zombie in popular media has nothing to do with the lore of the individual IP or a tacit unwillingness on the part of its characters to use such a common term for these voodoo-inspired parables for profligacy and the fragility of human morality. Rather, the problem originates with the developers, screenwriters, and authors of these worlds who seem to feel the word zombie is a bit too passé and childish in 2018.
It’s like they’re concerned that, if they stuck to the universally recognized terminology when referring to their own variations on the traditional zombie, only people under the age of fourteen would be able to take the unremittingly bleak stories surrounding them – in which we inevitably discover human beings are the real threat, not the flesh-eating monsters – seriously. And that makes no sense to me whatsoever.
Is it really edgier or ‘cooler’ to refer to them as ‘Freakers’ or ‘The Infected’? And anyway, I don’t know about you, but the idea that living, breathing characters can walk through a horde of zombies undetected so long as they take the straightforward if gruesome expedient of covering themselves in semi-decomposed human viscera has a far more detrimental effect on the overall quality of The Walking Dead than the word zombie ever could.
Ignoring the real issue
This obsession with nomenclature is more than a little frustrating to someone like myself who has a soft spot for zombies, despite the saturated market and steadily declining standards of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Especially when, as I touched on a couple of sentences ago, the real issue plaguing new and existing IPs in the zombie sub-genre is the formulaic scenarios, cookie-cutter characters, and derivative storylines.
Barely an episode of The Walking Dead goes by these days without someone bitterly intoning words to the effect of “that’s who we are now” or “people have always been evil”: fleeting moments of existential introspection and social commentary that were genuinely thought-provoking… the first time we heard them; encouraging audiences to consider how they’d cope if such a terrible situation were to occur in real life. But, I think it’s safe to say, this kind of philisophical subtext loses some of its impetus the 28,376th time around.
Even Telltale’s superb collection of graphic adventures, that are themselves based on Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s original Walking Dead comic books, whilst consistently brilliant in terms of characters, art style, atmosphere, pacing, etc. have essentially told the same story multiple times by this point. Whether we view the apocalypse from the point of view of soft-spoken ex-convict Lee or are put in the diminutive shoes of unlikely heroine Clementine, each new season, broadly speaking, follows the same group of average citizens-now grizzled survivors as they fight to preserve their humanity and find safety in an inhumane environment; surrounded on all sides by a combination of mindless zombies and antithetical communities of fellow survivors who’ve sacrificed their humanity in order to make their lives easier and feel the end of the world permits them to indulge their crueler instincts.
For this very reason, when Fear the Walking Dead was first announced, I was really hoping AMC would take this golden opportunity of a fresh start to try a slightly different approach to the zombie-infested post apocalypse: specifically, treating each new series as a separate entity so as to tell a range of different stories, set at different periods of the outbreak, from the perspective of different characters from across the globe. But it wasn’t to be and, though it’s a decent enough show in its own right, the story of Maddison, Alicia, Nick and co. offers nothing new or exciting to the already overpopulated genre.
By contrast, what makes The Last of Us so special is that the story focuses on the relationship between Joel and Ellie and their place in a bleak new world. One in which the moral boundaries that separate Naughty Dog’s wonderful cast of characters are only vaguely defined and survivors aren’t neatly divided between those who are mostly good and those who are mostly bad; concepts perfectly embodied in the game’s final scene. The fact these characters inhabit a world filled with zombies is almost incidental which, consequently, makes it easy for The Last of Us to provide the kind of complex human drama The Walking Dead set out to all those years ago.
So, the next time a game dev or screenwriter is plumbing the depths of their imagination in search of a catchy, unique term to describe a reanimated corpse, hopefully they’ll cross out anything that sounds even remotely like it might have been conceived by a 13-year-old author of Waking Dead fan-fiction and instead come to the long-overdue realization that the word zombie is just fine; dedicating the time and energy this will save into creating original plot lines and three-dimensional characters.
I, for one, would be extremely happy.