This week’s Pop Culture League topic is zombies, a very popular entertainment vehicle these days and not just during the Halloween season. And not just in American entertainment. The whole world has been obsessed with zombies. In fact since 2010, there have been at least 100 movies worldwide about zombies or featuring zombies in them. Not to mention TV shows (The Walking Dead, anyone?). We might very well be at Peak Zombies.
Despite the popularity of zombies, they are not like any of the typical Classic Monsters–such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man, Mummy, and the Creature. For one, the Classic Monsters are fully realized characters with emotions, desires and motives. Zombies by definition are braindead and therefore cannot have the aforementioned attributes. The Classic Monster is also usually the story’s adversary, and oftentimes its central character. You could count the horde of walking dead as the collective antagonist in a zombie-centric story, but it isn’t the same thing (I wouldn’t even count the lead zombie in I am Legend as a true antagonist).
In addition, the Classic Monster is at times the character that we could root for. They are the tragic heroes in the Shakespearean sense. Nobody cheers on the zombies. There are exceptions, of course. The TV show, iZombie, and the movie, Warm Bodies, come to mind. However, those are weak examples.
Consequently, from a commercial standpoint, merchandising for zombies is sparse. Sure, there are Walking Dead “walker” action figures, iZombie Funko Pop! figures, and even generic zombie figurines in the market place, as well as masks and whatnot. But without a monster brand–you need a trademarkable name (“Tommy the Zombie”?)–there are not really any signature zombie products.
The zombie paradigm therefore forces the shift to the humans in the story. The zombies become the backdrop and the obstacle to overcome. As such, the “bad guy” is usually just another human character. This is really a derivative of the Scooby-Doo formula, where the real monsters are human.
So just as the focus in the storyline is on the humans, the merchandising is relegated to the human characters. This is best exemplified by products for The Walking Dead, and I presume it will be true for Fear of the Walking Dead as well.
As a final tangent to the topic, I will go out on a limb here to say that the underlying zombie theme is really an existential one. In a zombie apocalypse, people are forced to confront their own worse characteristics. People have to choose who they really are, for better or worse. While death by zombie is a constant threat, it’s really the decisions and actions of people that do them in. Furthermore, the zombie in many ways is a reflection of our sins. And our sins have a way of coming back to haunt us.
If you can’t get enough of zombies, take a bite out of these Pop Culture League postings: