• A skeptical look at zombies

    noun_23957It is Halloween-time and I like zombie movies, so why not look at some zombie tropes for fun and skeptical profit? Zombie films are meant to be entertaining suspension-of-disbelief stories. It’s a bit silly to analyze them, which is another fine reason to do it. At the end I will recommend my personal favorite films.

    For purposes of this post, I am talking about the classic Romeroan slow zombies. There are many subtypes, but I am sticking to the most common tropes.


    Why are zombie stories so enduring and compelling as to become a fully realized horror sub-genre? There are many possibilities here, and they are not mutually exclusive. Here are a few.

    • The original Night of the Living Dead was allegory for fear of  nuclear annihilation (radiation reanimated the corpses). It was also a metaphorical embodiment of the fear of the spread of communism. It might convert you or your friends, making them mindless slaves to a destructive anti-human ideology.
    • Zombie flics provoke our fear of mortality as few other horror tropes can because they are a half-step between life and death.
    • Safety valve for our antisocial and violent tendencies: zombies are sort-of human, but without any sort of moral value that would make violence against them wrong. So they are a zero morality-burden relief valve for our violent, perhaps antisocial fantasies.
    • Metaphorical alienation of the human condition. Inevitably, protagonists face the zombie version of a loved one. The zombie strongly resembles and triggers emotions one has for that loved one, even if they are in every important way a totally incomprehensible creature. But even in real life, we sometimes feel this way about loved ones. We don’t understand their perspective or wants; or we simply find those alien and incomprehensible.

    The zombie  apocalypse is impossible because…

    Zombies never seem to actually eat their caught prey. Why not? When a pack of hyenas take down a bison, they skeletonize it in days. But if this happened with zombies, there’d almost never be any new zombies.

    They’d eat each other, especially the freshly-dead. Some would say that they can detect the dead from the living, but this contradicts everything else about zombies. They trudge along clumsily because their brain and bodies are partly broken and decayed. They generally have no higher reasoning abilities at all. And since they’re just partly-broken and highly resilient humans, they don’t have any extra sense organs- the ones they have are going to be worse, not better. The idea that these ravenous, animal-like, not-really-conscious monsters are somehow hyper-sensitive to which human-shaped thing they are eating requires explanation.

    Clean zombie energy?

    In the movies in which there is no yet a total destruction of society, it is curious why no corporation harnesses zombie walkers and use them to spin turbines forever as a source of limitless power. You could do this with zombie animals that have more power, in movie universes that have zombie animals.

    Dumb things people do in every zombie movie

    They don’t wear protective leather clothes. In the movies, many of the humans die when they are bitten or scratched, but otherwise escape. Metal armor would be far too heavy, as you must be able to run and evade. But since human teeth/jaws have a very hard time puncturing leather, why wouldn’t you cover yourself in it?

    Melee weapons

    There’s just no good melee weapon in a zombie apocalypse. If a bite can infect you, then it’s highly likely the blood and other fluids that splatter forth with every swing of a hatchet, machete, or club will aerosolize the infectious agent which can then land in your mouth, nose, or eyes. A blunt weapon might be the best of the options, because it is less likely to break skin, and could buy you a moment to flee. In general, you should use ranged weapons or nothing.


    In tense, life-or-death situations, humans in the real world tend to band together and become more cooperative. There will be disagreements, but these tend to be muted. This is observed in situations where people are stranded or lost in a wilderness facing low odds of survival. But a movie needs drama, so protagonists in a zombie movie inevitably become jerks so unbelievably selfish that they continue to fight and bicker long after it is obvious those choices will lead to their own death.

    How to survive the apocalypse

    Don’t. Why would you want to? Unless there is some cure out there that let’s you bring the plague to a definitive halt, you would live out your days constantly worried about attack. This is the best-case scenario. Never getting a good night sleep ever again. Probably running constantly, fighting constantly. The less-good scenario is you watching your loved ones turn and having to destroy them with your own hands. Your long-term chance of survival is basically zero no matter what you do. This is bleak, but true.

    Ed’s zombie movie picks in no particular order

    Fido 2006
    Part satire and social commentary, this retro-50’s set screenplay is quite masterful and entertaining. It also adds a welcome twist on the genre casting zombies as some sort of class of pets and servants. Great film.

    Dead-Alive 1992, aka Braindead
    Self-aware ultra-gore fun from Peter Jackson. Yes, that Peter Jackson. It reads like a satire of zombie movies and pushes the envelope of horror in its own right as zombies have sex and a mousey protagonist uses a lawn mower as  make-shift weapon. Not to be missed is the action-hero priest. “I kick ass for the Lord!” Gross, shocking, hilarious.

    Night of the Living Dead 1968
    Has to be said. Probably no zombie movie ever did a better over-all job than the classic that started it all. It’s scary, tense, and ages well even though it was created for a late 60’s audience.

    Idle Hands 1999

    Seth Green anchors this comedy-horror. It’s the MTV/American Pie version of a zombie movie with its focus on high schoolers, awkward dating scenes, and sophomoric humor. But it’s clever, and its twist on the genre feels fresher than more recent efforts. Not bad, for 1999.

    Category: Critical ThinkingfeaturedFeatured Inchumorskepticism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.
    • Brive1987

      The short BBC series Dead Set is pretty much my favourite. Iconic.


      • Thanks for the suggestion. Cheers!

      • Shatterface

        Channel 4

        • Brive1987

          Ta. To be honest I have had to watch them on Youtube. :/

    • Shatterface

      One of the reasons zombies took off spectacularly was George A Romero’s failure to copyright his intellectual property.

      His zombies bear no relationship to the traditional zombies of folk tales so he really could have called them something else.

      Lucio Fulci even had the cheek to make films etitled Zombi 2 and Zombi 3 that were marketed as sequels to Dawn of the Dead (titled Zombi in Italy and Zombie in the UK).

      Romero’s Night of the Living Dead co-writer wrote Return of the Living Dead as a direct sequel to the original: it’s this movie, not Romero’s, that gives us the zombie hunger for ‘brainzzz’ (It’s a classic, by the way: very funny)

      There were dozens of Alien, Predator and Mad Max clones made but none of them could pass for authentic sequels.

    • Shatterface

      Incidentally, Night of the Living Dead gave us one of the first black horror heroes. The zombie-killers who gun him down at the end are portrayed as racist rednecks.

      The interpretation of this movie as paranoia about communism is anachronistic – that was more a Fifties thing – and highly unlikely given that it was championed by a politically radicalised generation who were gunned down at Kent State and who refused to go to Vietnam.

      Dawn of the Dead is actually a bit heavy handed in its satire on consumerism; Day of the Dead (the best of the original three) is blatantly anti-military and anti-vivisection (if ‘vivisection’ is the right term to apply to experiments on the undead).