Zombies. Shamblers, moaners, walkers, undead, the risen, biters, crawlers, uglies. Mindless masses of once living humans craving human flesh.
Whatever you want to call them, they’re terrifying. Death by zombie isn’t pretty, what with the gnawing and the gnashing of teeth. Having one’s brains scooped from his or her skull and chowed upon doesn’t sound like the most peaceful way to slip into the hereafter.
No one wants to become a zombie, either. The idea of wandering the planet restlessly searching for my next meal isn’t exactly appealing. Depending on the type of zombie and the writer’s preferences, there is a question of whether or not the zombie is aware of their predicament. Is the soul of the person still behind the decaying face, unable to control his or her movements and base desires?
These are the questions we are faced with when the walkers come knocking. Nothing about zombies is pleasant, including their actions and the manner in which they feed. Is it fair to downplay the violence associated with zombies? When we, as readers, are confronted with something as horrifying as the walking dead, is the writer somehow obligated to domesticate the monsters? Or do readers of zombie fiction prefer the full experience, the visceral terror and grotesque details of the legend?
My novel, Habeas Corpse, is the story of a zombie who is trying to reintegrate into a post-apocalyptic society. Theo Walker discovers he can relive the last moments of a dead person’s life when he consumes their gray matter. Eating human flesh is the only way the zombies in my novel can feel emotions or experience chemical sensations, like sexual pleasure or anxiety.
If you look at the classic zombie movie, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the violence is understated. The audience was very different then. These were people accustomed to I Love Lucy, Gomer Pyle, and Gunsmoke. Fast forward to today, and we’ve got movies like Zombieland, The Dead, and the upcoming film adaptation of World War Z. Even movies meant to be comedic like Shaun of the Dead, and YA novels like Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series incorporate more violence and gore than ever before. The modern zombie connoisseur cuts his teeth on The Walking Dead, and if you’ve been watching that over the last few episodes, you know what gore is all about.
Does the modern zombie reader want to return to the homogenized, nonviolent zombie of Romero’s time? I don’t think so. Today’s zombies fans want realism. They don’t want the story sugarcoated or dumbed down. In fact, most zombie fans expect a healthy dose of gore and complain if they don’t get it. Fans of the TV version of The Walking Dead did just that after a season of what they saw as too little action and too much sitting around the farm. This season reflects the fans desire for more zombie killing, blood, death, and the struggle for survival, not just avoiding the walkers.
In Habeas Corpse, Theo depends on ingesting human flesh in order to feel emotion and experience stimulation. Eating the flesh is more than opening his mouth and inserting the food for Theo; the act of eating heightens his senses and brings him closer to the state of humanity he’s lost since dying. It’s a “whole” experience for him. The sensual nature of savoring the entire experience is essential to understand his motivation. The story would not be as effective without the graphic descriptions of the consumption of human flesh.
Leave me a comment. Do zombie fans expect or even want gore? Or should zombie stories be homogenized to fit a larger audience?