Future Tense

The Evolution of the Modern-Day Zombie

What tales of the undead say about our attitudes toward science.

Images from Resident Evil, World War Z, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jaap Buitendijk - © 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved, © 2004 Rogue Pictures. All Rights Reserved., Screen Gems, and © 2003 - Fox Searchlight - All Rights Reserved.
Images from Resident Evil, World War Z, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jaap Buitendijk - © 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved, © 2004 Rogue Pictures. All Rights Reserved., Screen Gems, and © 2003 - Fox Searchlight - All Rights Reserved.

On Tuesday, Jan. 23, Future Tense will host hold a free screening of World War Z in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

There is no better barometer of the values and fears of our society than the monsters our culture creates. The zombie, in all its various formulations, has been interpreted in a multitude of ways: as a reflection of the political leanings of the United States, a response to Haitian slavery, as an expression of anxiety regarding globalization.

What these types of interpretations often ignore, however, is the thread that stretches across all countries and their zombie films: the role of science. I don’t mean the scientific possibility of a zombie or its use as an academic exercise, but the perception of science and its role in society.

The 21st-century zombie renaissance began in 2002 with 28 Days Later and Resident Evil, two films whose plots were dependent upon the abuse of genetic engineering (and questionable scientific methods). For the next decade, the majority of mainstream zombie films followed the same premise, demonizing scientific intervention as the harbinger of the apocalypse.

But that’s changed. I’m an academic who specializes in the undead, and in my research, I’ve found that in the past eight years, zombie movies and television shows have shifted focus. In more recent tales, the primary causes of the zombie epidemic are natural, caused by an increased reliance on electronic technology, unknown, or quietly left out of the plot altogether. No longer do zombie viruses emerge from the lab. Instead, science becomes a mechanism for survival. Zombie apocalypse survivors are now shown dedicating time and effort to developing a cure or developing personal relationships in a demolished world. In other words, the origin of the disease is less important than humanity’s need for hope of survival.

A brief survey of the most popular zombie films of the early 21st-century reveals a strong preference for “evil scientist” based storylines. In addition to Resident Evil and 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead (2004), 28 Weeks Later (2004), [REC] (2007), Deadgirl (2008), and Quarantine (2008) all contain some element of scientific intervention as the cause of the zombie plague. Resident Evil’s zombies stemmed from the “T-virus,” a laboratory engineered mutagenic bioweapon once intended to reverse the effects of degenerative disorders, 28 Days Later the “rage virus” (very subtle!), [REC] a “vaccine” for possession, Quarantine a doomsday bioweapon. All of these films also feature laboratory scenes complete with dim lighting—which is not exactly the way research scientists typically work. The implication is clear: Labs are where bad things happen at the hands of nefarious or naïve scientists who underestimate the potential effects of their creations.

Other films are less direct, but no less effective in relating this message. While no clear reason for the outbreak appears in Shaun of the Dead, newspaper articles and TV images in the film hint at a “super-flu” or “GM crops” as the cause of the outbreak. Deadgirl similarly declines to pinpoint the reason for the titular character’s reanimation in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, but another character guesses “maybe they did some mad scientist experiments [on her].” For all of these zombie films, scientific advancement becomes synonymous with death.

Given the political atmosphere in which these movies were made, perhaps it wasn’t surprising. There were the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks in 2001, the Dubrovka Theater incident, years of numerous bombings across the world by al-Qaida and other terror cells, the Iraq war, and the hunt for Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological threats. The idea of a manmade disaster was at the forefront of global consciousness. Science played a vital role in facilitating this panic. Around the same time, we also saw a controversy over whether companies could patent life, beginning with the Oncomouse, the first transgenic mammal licensed in the United States. Global protests against GM crops surged following the global biosafety treaty of 2000, which regulated trade of genetically modified products and was ratified by 130 nations. A 2003 Wired headline went as far as to ask “Will Genetic Engineering Kill Us?” With such dialogue swirling, it is easy to see why zombie films during this time choose the most prevalently perceived threats to humanity—genetic research and bioterrorism.

However, in the last few years, such science has become viewed more as a method of salvation, not destruction. In 2016, an open letter supported by 100 Nobel laureates urged the public to “stop bashing” GM crops. Experimental gene therapies increasingly offer the possibility of curing all manner of diseases from cancer to blindness. In fact, the demand for viruses is up. The current criticism dominating the media is not that these treatments should not be researched and tested, but that their cost will make such therapy accessible only to the very wealthy. Public opinion appears to have shifted from demonizing science and genetic experimentation to monitoring how the results will be distributed and regulated in the marketplace. Polling from the Pew Research Center supports the idea that views toward science—especially biotechnology—have changed. In 2002, the United States showed less concern with GM foods than other countries, but 55 percent still viewed them negatively. In 2016, polling showed Americans were more concerned with how reliable scientists were than GM foods themselves. A 2017 poll regarding gene editing in humans reveals that while 68 percent were “somewhat worried about the idea,” 48 percent U.S. adults would support its use in babies to prevent serious disease.

This shift is prominent in on-screen depictions of zombies of the last eight years. The Walking Dead television series, which premiered in 2010, has never revealed the cause of the zombie apocalypse, and never will. Nevertheless, both the comic and the show dedicate significant time to the search for a cure. Even when a surviving member of the CDC reveals that zombie contagion already resides in every living human, Rick and his crew pursue the promise of a cure, which is ultimately shown to be a fabrication. Cargo (a short film from 2013), Hidden (2015), and It Stains the Sands Red (2017) offer zombies but no mention of their origin. Maggie (2015), What We Become (2015), and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) suggest the zombie virus developed naturally with no scientific intervention. Even the famous World War Z attributes the zombie plague to nature, with one character, a virologist, stating, “Mother Nature is a serial killer.” Other recent remarkable zombie films attribute their flesh-eating monsters to an intentionally spread sexually transmitted infection (Contracted, 2013; Contracted: Phase 2, 2015), an evil cell signal (Cell, 2016) and “a minor leak” from a biotech district (Train to Busan, 2016). What all of these films show is a growing fear of humanity. We now fear the man behind the science, not the science itself. The film World War Z demonstrates this clearly when a one-time U.N. investigator conceptualizes and creates a viral cloaking system that will allow living humans to move unparsed throughout the undead. The world is saved not by the lauded virologist, or an entire team of WHO medical research staff, but by someone far removed from the scientific discipline.

Instead of fearmongering, the modern zombie movie is concerned with social relationships and personal development. Zombies no longer represent the past returning to haunt us. Instead, current zombie films look toward the future, to a “cure” that can take the form of a vaccine or an altered system of ethics. Either way, today’s zombie narratives are not about the mistakes of the past, but the uncertain future.

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