It’s time to talk about everyone’s favorite movie characters: zombies and terrorists!
No, seriously. You love them.
For one thing, zombies and terrorists are really easy characters. They’re predictable, they’re single-minded, and they only want one thing: to either blow you up or eat your brains. That’s it. They rarely deviate from their set patterns of behavior.
This blandness, this lack of characterization, allows viewers to root for their demise with impunity. You can watch scores of zombies be mowed down and not feel anything. You can watch a terrorist base camp be flattened by missiles and be satisfied. Zombies and terrorists are easy to swallow as flat, static villains because they are Not Us. Zombies are the reanimated dead and terrorists are some vague foreign types who we never really get to know anyway. The movie’s over, the good guys (Us) win, and everything’s hunky-dory.
If that sounds too boring to account for the sheer amount of zombie and terrorist movies and TV shows that have cropped up recently, you’re onto something. Because a satisfying and cathartic release and a reaffirmation of how Us will triumph over Not Us is not all zombies and terrorists have to offer.
Let’s first look at why zombies and terrorists are so popular. We’ve seen a wave a zombie media like The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, Land of the Dead (and pretty much any other noun combined with “of the Dead”) and much more. In addition, we’re seeing shows like Homeland spiking in popularity alongside films like Skyfall (and, well, every other James Bond movie), and even more fantasy-style films like The Dark Knight Rises. So why do we like this stuff?
Simply put, because we’re living through it. Terrorism is, sadly, very real right now (and, one could argue, it always is), and as far as zombies go, the fear of biological warfare and pandemics is a serious one. With worldwide illnesses and a new strain of super-flu every year, not to mention how it’s easier to spread illnesses over wide areas thanks to air travel (hello, Contagion). Terrorism and illness are things we’re afraid of now.
Film, and particulary scary film, is a pretty good barometer of tracking where a society is and how it sees itself. In the 1950s, the villains were all Soviets and irradiated mutants, because the current threats were the USSR and nuclear war. Then, like now, the two fears were linked; people were afraid the Soviet Union was going to nuke us, thus ushering in an era of horrifying genetic mutation. Now we’re afraid of terrorists unleashing a deadly virus among us, which is what can be seen in (spoiler alert) Quarantine.
So naturally, the culprits and the results of our fears, in this case the terrorists and the zombies, respectively, are the manifestations of those fears. Enemies and illness. Those are scary things.
But maybe there’s something else happening here.
One of the staples of films about terrorists and zombies is an element of not knowing who’s on your side, who you can count among Us. In The Walking Dead, ascertaining whether or not someone’s been infected is a big deal in the first season. Occurrences in the second season make that sort of moot, but the original idea is still there. You don’t know who to trust (the tagline is "Fight the dead, fear the living"). Someone might look like you and move like you, and suddenly they’re attempting to eat your brains. It’s hard to get close to anyone. Terrorists are similarly sneaky. They could be anyone, living right under your nose. The common element here is the lack of trust of your fellow human because they might be infected, they might be out to get you.
To me, these movies and TV shows indicate that in our culture right now, we all have trust issues. And it’s understandable. Things are messed up. They’ve always been messed up and they’ll likely continue, and we each try to make it through our days staying safe and keeping our families safe. And it’s hard when, especially after watching the news, it seems like everyone is a potential murderer.
So why do we want to watch what we’re afraid of? As I mentioned in my post about horror movies, it’s a way of facing our fears. Watching a movie or a TV show makes us look at and think about the things that frighten us, but in a safe way that presents no actual threat to us. By watching movies about terrorists and zombies, we get to look at them and, perhaps in some small not-very-comforting way, feel as though they are no longer totally unknown. Additionally, most of these films, even the bleak ones, allow us to imagine ourselves as and identify with the resourceful survivor. Maybe on some level, we get to think, if only for a little while, that we just might survive. And if we can survive a terrorist-fueled zombie apocalypse, then we can surely get up and face the day tomorrow.