Death is the underlying basic theme of every zombie film and reflects the attitude and beliefs of society towards mortality.

There is little explanation of what happening after death and the livings, though liberated from the stigma of religion, are still haunted by this existential issue, either feeling that they are responsible for the dead or waiting for the last call. Halperin’s voodoo zombies, Romero’s living dead, Jackson’s blood-splattered travesties, all show us the downside of immortality.

The first vision of death is physical. Therefore, to confront a zombie is to be reminded of our own mortality. We, as humans, go to great lengths to obscure the remains of our dead, especially our loved ones. 

It is no mistake that we bury our corpses “six feet under” so as to eradicate the ugliness of decomposition. Being that our mortality is also something that we try put on a symbolical if not religious ritual with tidy rituals and outright denial, zombies serve as a painfully striking reminder that we will all eventually return to the same stinking earthly essence from which we are born.

The movie Pet Cemetary clearly articulates an aspect of death that is important in all zombie films, the role of acceptance. Perhaps it is when death is not accepted (either through grief or the desire for vengeance) that the dead are most likely to walk again or, taken metaphorically, the events of the past will sour life in the present.

The zombie is the embodiment of the insatiable tyranny of mortality, its rotting face and shuffling implacability represents a potent symbol for the horror death. Its unspeakable appetite warns us of the fragility of life when faced by the reality of death, and its violence is the revenge of a past which demands guilt and fear of us because we live on in a world it has been denied.

Mean monsters

Simon Pegg, who starred in and co-wrote the 2004 zombie comedy film Shaun of the Dead, wrote that zombies were the “most potent metaphorical monster”. According to Pegg, whereas vampires represent sex, zombies represent death:

“Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.”

He expressed his dislike for depictions of fast zombies and argued that zombies should be slow-moving and inept; just as a healthy diet and exercise can delay death, zombies are easy to avoid, but not forever.

He also argued that this was essential to making them

“oddly sympathetic…to create tragic anti-heroes…to be pitied, empathized with, even rooted for. The moment they appear angry or petulant, the second they emit furious screeches (as opposed to the correct mournful moans of longing), they cease to possess any ambiguity. They are simply mean”

According to Robert Kirkman who created The Walking Dead, the comic and TV series:

“The appeal of zombies is that it plays on everyone’s fear of death. A zombie represents death to the characters, and to readers and viewers. Death will always be in the back of their minds. It’s an unrelenting, unstoppable force, just like death. Zombies are out to get you; no matter how hard you try, eventually everyone has to succumb to it. It’s really an exploration of everyone’s natural fear of death.”

More than any other movie monster, the zombie has proven adept at evolving; the mindless nature of the living dead makes for a perfect blank canvas. Even without the potential applications of socially-driven horror, we humans tend to fear death and what could be waiting for us beyond. There’s something inherently terrifying about a flesh-eating, rotting corpse, and the apocalyptic nature surrounding it; the not-so underlying message that you can’t escape death is crystal clear.