This month Life After Beth, the latest entry in a long line of movies riding on the continuously relentless zombie craze, hit theaters in a limited release. This time the popular flesh eater comes in the form of a pretty young woman who doesn’t understand she’s dead and wants to keep her warm blooded boyfriend all to herself. And with the release of this film, zombies have officially infiltrated the romantic comedy genre. Sure, we’ve made zombies funny, but now that we’ve started to romanticize them, can we ever look back? It begs the question: were zombies ever really scary, or have they always been just plain fun?
Beth (Aubrey Plaza) and Zach (Dane DeHaan) aren’t the first pair to face the struggles of a zombie/human relationship. The zombie virus infected YA movie landscape last year with Warm Bodies, based on the novel about a teenage girl who falls for, you got it, a zombie. Why would anyone think it’s endearing to watch a love story that surrounds a creature who likes to eat human flesh? The zombies are earning a bad rep and losing scare points in spades for their attempt at crossing genres to compete with the appeal of their creature nemesis, the vampire. Take heed zombies, you can’t win this battle. You just don’t have the sex appeal or the charming personality (neither does Edward Cullen, but that’s a different story). Vampires have been sharpening their romance skills since Sheridan Le Fanu penned Carmilla in 1871, and they’re still at the top of their game (just watch this year’s Only Lovers Left Alive). A monster who drinks blood from your veins and radiates sex makes for a much more enticing love story than one that just really wants to chow down on your face. So let’s face it, humanized zombies are not sexy, and they’re definitely not scary.
But before you begin to assign blame to zombies for their competitive experiment in the world of romance, let’s remember one thing: they aren’t the first in the competition to be copycats. The lust-filled, blood sucking vampires have been kept scary within their own stale genre by recently channeling their inner zombie. Just take a look at movies like Stake Land, Daybreakers, and I Am Legend. These films blatantly rip a page straight out of the zombie playbook, using a pandemic to create creatures from the human population that threaten to wipe out mankind. The central conceit of these types of movies, be they vampire or zombie, draws scares from the idea of being alone and fighting a losing battle against an outbreak. Who isn’t scared of a zombie/vampire apocalypse that brings about the end of the human race? It’s the concept of facing complete isolation and watching humanity turning against itself that keeps us up at night. The dread of having to kill a mindless monster doesn’t hold a candle to the dread of having to kill a mindless monster that’s wearing the face of a loved one.
At their best, zombie movies are the best needle for tapping into that innate sense of panic, that baseline understanding that we’ve already lost. Night of the Living Dead is still scary, because most of us wouldn’t be out there trying to kick zombie ass, we’d be cowering inside the closest farmhouse we could find, praying the dead stay outside and those inside stay alive.
So we’ve established that dabbling in matters of the heart detracts from the cringe-worthiness of zombies. But we’ve also confirmed that zombies have historically had success in the realm of scary. The question is, do they have their original fear potential, or have we ruined them not only by romanticizing them, but also by making them funny? One could argue that if you can make something laughable, the fear dissipates as a result. But aren’t comical homages sometimes the best confirmations of the genres we love? The best satires are nothing short of love letters to our favorites. Scream plays with breaking down tropes of slasher flicks, but does it make the original Halloween or Texas Chainsaw Massacre any less scary? Cabin In The Woods plays with just about every horror stereotype out there, but did it keep the unease at bay the next you sat in the theater watching a scary movie with through your fingers? Similarly, the zombies have witty, but still cringe-worthy tributes like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. Both of these movies pile on the satire and the laughs, while still maintaining the excitement and the gore that draws us to every screen-realized zombie apocalypse. Zombieland even goes as far as giving us a tongue-in-cheek rundown on the rules for surviving said apocalypse (and you better believe I’ve written down every one of them). Just because I know to beware of bathrooms doesn’t mean I’m not going to scream like hell when a zombie crawls under that stall. I just might chuckle a bit about the movie after my escape.
So, after all we’ve done to zombies in movies over the last ten years, can they really ever be scary again? I’d like to think the zombie subgenre hasn’t officially lost its touch. But don’t take my word for it. Go watch The Battery and let me know what you think. In the meantime, I’ll be over here studying the rules of the apocalypse and stockpiling Twinkies.