by Scott Baker
Are zombies still relevant in today’s horror genre?
It’s a legitimate question. Since the 1990s, a seemingly endless influx of zombie fiction, movies, and video games has flooded the market. Fans have been treated to some truly outstanding books (Patient Zero and World War Z), films (The Horde and Zombieland), and video games (Dead Island and Left 4 Dead). Unfortunately, we have also seen zombies placed in every scenario imaginable. The living dead have faced off against strippers, cheerleaders, and ninjas. A zombie apocalypse has been the focus of a commercial for Toshiba computers in which an electrical glitch in a laptop plunges the world into a living dead nightmare. And enough zombie romances have entered the market to spawn the creation of its own genre name, “zomroms.” Traditionally, once a horror icon becomes the subject of farce, it marks its inevitable demise. (A good case in point is Universal Studio’s cache of monsters from the 1930s and 1940s, all of whom lumbered through countless resurrections until permanently put to death by Abbott and Costello).
Zombies, however, are different. They fill a niche that is not shared by any other creature.
Vampire, werewolves, and other ghoulish things will always thrill us. Vampires appeal to that dark erotic nature of our personalities that we keep bridled, while werewolves remind us of how violent and uncontrollable our subconscious truly is. The other monsters are adult manifestations of those things in the closet that scared us as kids. They are pure fantasy, and we know it. We sit in a darkened movie theater or become engrossed in the pages of a novel and relish what horrors await. Deep down we know that as long as the characters can make it through the end, they can rejoin society and continue to live out normal lives.
Zombies, on the other hand, strike a chord with us because there is an undertone of realism that is terrifying. A zombie apocalypse represents a total collapse of society as we know it and the breakdown of everything we hold dear. We don’t have to foolishly spend the night in a haunted house, carelessly walk through the moors during a full moon, or inadvertently go camping near a violated burial ground to come face to face with terror. The living dead hunt us down in our own neighborhoods, and no place is safe.
This has been brought home to us repeatedly over the past five years thanks to twenty-four hour cable news which has piped little microcosms of catastrophe into our homes. We’ve all watched the flood waters of Katrina inundate New Orleans, tsunamis devastate the coasts of Thailand and Japan, and a massive earthquake lay waste to Haiti. With the devastation comes the inevitable collapse of the social order. Local and federal governments are unable to help those who are suffering most. Rioters and looters take advantage of the chaos. People have to fend for themselves in order to survive. Our hearts go out to the victims of these natural disasters while a part of us breathes a sigh of relief that there but for the Grace of God goes us.
Thanks to the zombie genre, we would suddenly become those nameless victims, and are forced to confront bitter realities about how we would react in such a situation.
One of my favorite zombie movies is the 2004 reimaging of Dawn of the Dead because it is a superb portrayal of how ordinary people would react during a complete collapse of the social order. Would we become Anna or Michael who try to maintain their humanity even after losing everything dear to them? Would we become Kenneth who decides to look out only for himself? Would we become Steve, who places the others in jeopardy to save his infected family from being put down, or CJ, the mall security guard who would turn away survivors because “no one here is infected and I intend to keep it that way?” Or would we be Tucker or Frank, the nameless faces that blend into the background and merely try to go on existing, only to become the redshirts of the mall survivors?
Zombies will always be relevant to the genre because they strike a terror in us that is all too real.
Confronting how we would behave in such a situation can be scarier than the zombie apocalypse itself.
[The above is based on my notes for the panel “Are Zombies Still Relevant?” from the HorrorFind Convention, September 2011.]
Born and raised in Everett, Massachusetts, Scott M. Baker now lives in northern Virginia with his four house rabbits. He has authored several short stories, including “Rednecks Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things,” which appeared in the autumn 2008 edition of the e-zine Necrotic Tissue; “Cruise of the Living Dead,” which appeared in Living Dead Press’ Dead Worlds: Volume 3 anthology (August 2009); “Deck the Malls with Bowels of Holly,” which appeared in Living Dead Press’ Christmas Is Dead anthology (October 2009); “Denizens,” which appeared in Living Dead Press’ The Book of Horror anthology (March 2010); and the e-chapbook “Dead Water” by Kensington Publications.
Scott’s has also authored The Vampire Hunters trilogy, which has been published as a series of trade paperbacks by Pill Hill Press. His first zombie novel, Rotter World, which details the struggle between humans and vampires during a zombie apocalypse, is scheduled for print and e-book publication by permuted Press in early 2012. Scott is preparing to start his fifth novel, a homage to the monster movies of the 1950s set in northern New Mexico.
Please visit the author’s website.
Within the vaults of the Smithsonian Institute lies the key to finding the Vampyrnomicon, the Book of the Undead, that contains the history and secrets of the vampires. According to legend, whoever possesses the book can establish a vampire nation on earth–or destroy the undead once and for all. With an opportunity to end the war against the undead so close, Drake Matthews is determined to find the book.
But the vampires also want the Vampyrnomicon. When Master Chiang Shih and her coven of the most powerful and dangerous vampires arrive in Washington to claim the book as their own, the hunters find themselves facing their most dangerous enemy yet. With the stakes so high, so is the ferocity of the struggle.
Toni sighed, resigned that she had to tell the truth, but knowing her opinion would be unpopular. “We tried this once before. In the Ukraine. And failed miserably. The Russians annihilated all of our covens. Over two hundred vampires and five masters were killed. Ion and I barely escaped. Why would you want to try again? And why here in Washington, where we face one of our most dangerous enemies?”
“Because this time we have something that guarantees victory. We have the Vampyrnomicon.”
“The Vampyrnomiconis a legend,” spat Melinda.
“It’s far from a legend,” corrected Walker, an angry edge to his tone.
“You’ve seen it?”
“We once owned it.” Chiang Shih stared down the adolescent, who cowered. “Various masters were caretakers of the book for centuries. The last owner was Emilio Carius, a master from Saragossa who was arrested as part of the Inquisition in the late 15th Century. Neither Carius or the Vampyrnomiconwere ever seen again.”
“So what changed?” asked Treja.
“The inquisitor who interrogated Emilio Carius was Antonio Ferrar.”
Toni raised an eyebrow. “The same Antonio Ferrar whose personal belongings are on display at the Smithsonian?”
“The same.” Chiang Shih nodded. “And with Ferrar’s personal belongings here in Washington, that means the Vampyrnomiconis here also.”
“If it still exists,” Melinda muttered under her breath.
Chiang Shih shot her a withering look. She struggled to keep her voice calm, despite her anger. “The Vampyrnomiconis among Ferrar’s personal affects. I can sense it. We’ll find it. And once we do, we’ll obtain a power that has been deprived to us for millennia, a power that will give us dominion over humans. Once we have that power, we’ll take this city from the humans. No longer will we live in sewers and abandoned buildings, but in the humans’ homes. Soon the humans won’t be hunting us, but serving us, as our slaves and as our food.”
After being hidden away for centuries, the Vampyrnomicon, the Book of the Undead, is finally unearthed, and with it the terrible secret of the vampires’ origins. The discovery of the Vampyrnomicongives Drake Matthews the means to defeat the Master and eradicate the vampire threat, but it also provides Chiang Shih with the knowledge she needs to make her masters immortal.
Now more powerful than ever, Chiang Shih raises an army of the undead and creates a vampire nation in Washington D.C. Her attempt to assassinate Drake and his colleagues nearly cripples the hunters, but fails to kill them all. Driven by vengeance, and with his band of hunters swelled by unlikely allies, Drake leads the group into the infested city.
With the fate of humankind hanging in the balance, hunters and vampires wage the final epic battle in the streets of the nation’s capital to determine who will hold dominion over the earth.
Chiang Shih turned to face the rose window. Picking up the Vampyrnomicon, she opened it and began to read.
“Fortunate are the evil in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Hell. Fortunate are those who hate, for they will be avenged. Fortunate are the strong, for they will dominate the earth. Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for wickedness, for they will be satiated in their lust. Fortunate are the merciless, for they themselves have been shown no mercy. Fortunate are the dark of heart, for they will know Satan. Fortunate are the warmakers, for they will be called sons of Satan. Fortunate are those who persecute the righteous, for theirs is the kingdom of Hell. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in Hell.”
A rumbling emanated from outside, similar to thunder but deeper and prolonged.
“Praise Satan! Oh Dark Lord, you are very great; you are clothed with cruelty and ignominy. You wrap yourself in darkness as with a garment. You undermine the earth’s foundations; it can never be stable again.”
A small black cloud three feet in diameter formed out in front of and just above the cathedral.
“How many are your works, Oh Dark Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. We all look to you to give us our human food at the proper time. When you give them to us, we gather them up; when you open your hand, we are satisfied with evil things. When you send your Evil Spirit, we are created, and you renew the face of the earth in Hell’s image.”
The cloud expanded rapidly until it dominated the sky above the front lawn.
“May the infamy of the Dark Lord Satan endure forever; may the Dark Lord Satan rejoice in his works, he who looks at the earth and the earth trembles. May the righteous vanish from the earth and the humans be no more. Praise the Dark Lord Satan!”
The cloud began swirling, forming a vortex. The rumbling grew increasingly louder until the cathedral trembled from the noise.
“The Dark Lord Satan said, ‘I am the resurrection of death. He who obeys me will live as the undead. Whoever obeys me and lives as the undead shall never die.’
“Dark Lord Satan, make us immortal like you!”
A thunderous boom rocked the cathedral. The rose window shattered outward, covering the humans below with shards. Walker watched in fascination as the black cloud deepened in density and its swirling increased in speed. A brilliant beam of sunlight emanated from the vortex and shone through the frame, illuminating Chiang Shih. She stiffened. Her body glowed until she seemed almost as bright as the beam. When she turned to face her masters, her eyes burned bright yellow.
Without warning, sunlight flowed from her eyes and filled the interior of the cathedral, washing over the masters, the vampires huddled in the corner, and the corpses scattered around the nave. Walker closed his eyes and crouched, expecting death. Instead, he felt a sensation he had not experienced since his days as a human. Warmth.
Walker opened his eyes and stood. Sunlight bathed his body. Rather than peel off and crumble, however, his flesh tingled. He looked back down the nave toward the crossing, excited to see his shadow extending away from him. Raising his hand in front of his face, he noticed that his shadow did the same.
Chiang Shih had done it. She had made them all daywalkers.