Zombies and the Apocalypse go hand-in-hand like biscuits and gravy… or meth labs and the Midwest. And while you may sometimes see an Apocalypse book or movie without zombies, you almost never see a zombie movie without the apocalypse. They are the quintessential villains of countless movies, books, and video games. Generally speaking, the zombie genesis seems to originate from one of three options:

  • The dead rise again
  • Chemical or bio-warfare
  • People driven crazy

Out of curiosity, I want to pose two questions to anyone reading this blog:

  1. What movie, book, or game in your opinion has depicted the most scary, horrifying, and/or intriguing zombie premise?
  2. Why do you think so many people are enamored with the prospect of the apocalypse and the mass conversion of the human species into zombies?

Out of fairness, I should try to answer my own questions first. I’m not sure I can name a specific book/game/movie, but in my opinion the scarier “zombies” are the ones that aren’t really zombies at all; they are everyday people who have been driven mad. For example, in the movie The Crazies, the zombies are actually high-functioning humans who have essentially been driven to bloodlust (in this case, due to exposure to some kind of toxin). Because of this, the zombies aren’t drooling over themselves and mindlessly hammering at barricaded doors like jackasses. They are capable of thought, and therefore, capable of more horrific acts. It’s like having a host of serial killers after you, which I think is a little more disconcerting than the almost comically slow zombies that you see in some cases.

In Reclamation (my RPG), the “zombies” are not zombies. They are men, women, and children who are consumed by The Sickness–a disease that basically allows the darkest thoughts and desires of a person to take over. The evil that is bottled up inside each and every one of us is suddenly loosed in a deadly explosion, and everyone nearby is caught in the destruction. I chose this approach for my game because I wanted my zombies (or the members of the Mortis-Horde as they’re called in Reclamation) to be more than just brain dead fodder. I want them to be what we are most afraid of… ourselves. It’s like staring into a mirror and seeing the person we try to hide from everyone else suddenly staring back.

This leads to my other question about “Why do we like zombies and the apocalypse so much?” My opinion is fairly cynical… I think this is part of the reason why I’d like to hear from others. I think each and every one of us has a violent streak that we fight to suppress. We are cultured to deny this monstrous side of ourselves and we understand the immorality of giving in to that kind of anger. I think zombies present a horrifying catharsis that allows us to destroy and murder without guilt or remorse. Sure… they LOOK human, but they’re not. They’re dead or at least alienated. You don’t shoot out the brains of a zombie and then think to yourself, “Oh no! Did that zombie have a wife or children?” We get to identify with the violence and free ourselves from the remorse. Same goes for video games. Ever play a WW2 game? How many Nazis did you blast through? You didn’t keep count, did you? Why should you?… they’re not HUMAN… they’re NAZIS. I think many of us seek to fulfill a violent catharsis by mowing down face-less enemies that feel real enough to be gratifying but inhuman enough for it to not be considered murder.

And again… this is something that Reclamation seeks to challenge. While there are certainly zombie-esque people shambling around, many of the enemies you will face in the Dystopia are men and women who slip in and out of the hold of The Sickness. It’s not so easy to divorce these individuals from their humanity… which means killing them–while potentially necessary to survive–means you might not be able to do so without serious guilt and remorse. In fact, there is a spot on the character sheet to track your Soul Path. The more guilt, remorse, sadness, and pain that you experience, the further you fall on the Path of Despair which in turn leaves you more susceptible to The Sickness yourself.

So once again, what’s your favorite “zombie storyline” and why do you think so many people are drawn to the apocalypse and zombies in general?


6 responses to “Zombies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  1. I would like to answer the second question first:

    “Why do you think so many people are enamored with […] zombies?”

    I think it’s just the next fad. We’ve done the robots, aliens, vampires, reality television (which was the scariest for me and I’m glad we’re getting over it). Zombies are just what the general populace are getting into. The question “Why now?” is probably because of the reduction in cost for ‘making’ zombies and associated effects. Think about how long it would take special effects artists to create a dozen zombies without the add of computers. The full body zombies would take hours to create. Now you can take a reasonably average looking zombie job, and photoshop the grisly bits for the long shots with hordes of undead, and worry about the detailed zombies for the close-up shots. Also the mandatory “head shot” for taking out the zombie used to me an elaborate small-explosive device, now you can added in after the fact with a computer.

    Secondly, I find the whole zombie apocalypse a bit on the geek side. And with the proliferation of the internet (one their main forms of communications) it has spread the genre to the less informed. I work for a prominent tech company and one of the question that a co-worker asks during the interview process is:

    “If there was a zombie-apocalypse and you had the chance to grab one piece of equipment before fleeing, what would it be?”

    Which has some interesting answers. The co-worker who asks the question is somewhat of a zombie-fanatic, but I’ve seen about half-a-dozen “Zombie Survival Guides” on various peoples desk.

    The first question is a little bit harder. I found “28 Days Later” extremely unsettling, but that was just from a zombie perspective. Movies like “Carriers” and “Night of the Comet” were so much more interesting as far as how people react to those infected after the the apocalypse has arrived. I am currently enjoying “The Walking Dead” series and it dives deeper into the human condition and how it handles dealing with the Zombie Apocalypse.

    On your mechanic of “Zombie-killing”: I don’t particularly like a mechanic that forces a player out of the game due to his actions. This is akin to going crazy in “Call of Cthulhu”, and because of it, I have never liked the game. I feel to put an opponent in the game like a zombie and then penalizing them for eliminating them how they feel appropriate is somewhat of a double standard for the character. While some good role-players may embrace the concept, I think the more average player will just use it as a limit. They will kill zombies indiscriminately until they reach the threshold, and then run at that point. It would be the same effect as running out of bullets.

    I honestly can’t say that it would be universal either. Being a father, I can say that if someone threatens my family, I would have no remorse eliminating that threat by any means necessary. I don’t believe that makes the person any less human, much the same way that warrior of any particular society is any less human for killing enemies of that society.

    The burning question I have is “Why isn’t the singular version of the word spelled ‘zomby’?”

    • I’d like to start by commending your business for questioning applicants about the zombie apocalypse. That is both awesome and important; preparation is key! lol.

      I wonder if “zombies” are more of the counter-culture response to our new wave of sparkling vampires. I mean… we had our rock music, and it was good, and as the genre expanded and changed… it eventually became the glam-rock hair-band style of the 80s. And that was rock… until the Grunge movement came and pretty much wiped it out, becoming the new foundation for the future of rock. You really can’t pretty up a zombie or glamorize them with a teen-sappy love story. Well… I mean you could, but I think it would only “work” as satire. Now I’m not going to be able to think about zombies without hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in my head!

      As for your issue with the “zombie-killing soul path” game mechanic… I hear you. It’s definitely a challenge to implement some kind of morality system, because like you said, there are so many factors. Many people when forced into a corner could ostensibly kill someone who perhaps intruded into their home and threatened their family… and not all of them would feel remorse or be haunted by that action after the fact… and yet others would. So in a game, how do you handle that? Do you implement an imperfect system or do you ignore it altogether? Those are some of the challenges that I’ve wrestled with for years now in the making of this game. I mean, D&D had Alignment… Vampire had Humanity. Call of Cthulu has sanity like you mentioned. I played the crap out of these games, and the same questions you mentioned were brought up in those games.

      Here’s the rationale for why I included the Soul Path (which I should mention is an optional rule). I think you include something like this to encourage players and the storyteller to tell stories that have a sense of verisimilitude. It’s been my experience that the best Reclamation journeys that I’ve told had players who were truly living out their characters and reacting to obstacles in a realistic, HUMAN way. When they all acted like Rambo, it got stale. I feel like the Soul Path was a constant role-playing reminder; keep it real! keep it real! keep it real! The group that I play with is always one heartbeat away from brutal carnage… on the battlefield… at the orphanage… You name it, they will try to kill it. Even though there are no consequences on the actual player’s psyche (it’s all pretend after all… and actually quite silly when you really step back and think about it…) but their characters, the protagonists, they have to live with their actions. But again… that goes back to the subjectivity of morality like you mentioned before. There are a number of other fail-safes as well. One… your character’s Background helps determine what might constitute a character movement on the Soul Path. The person with the Blackguard Background is a crueler person and therefore doesn’t slide down the path quite so easy. The Avenger might be more human except when it comes to the target of his revenge, in which case anything goes without remorse. And so on. There is also a talent in Reclamation called Philosophy. Basically, the more points you have in this, the easier it is to justify your own actions. Finally, my example demonstrating the Soul Path was not entirely clear. In Reclamation there are mortis-creatures called dregs; they are basically true zombies. No one feels guilty for killing them. Mortis-fiends or people controlled by The Sickness… that’s a little different. But honestly, the Soul Path–at least in my games–gets used a lot more in the realm of interactions with human NPCs. You come across a ragged group of survivors… do you help them? Steal what little they have left? Wound them to draw the horde away from your own trail? The Reclamation is about unifying and rebuilding civilization, but people are a liability to your own survival. How do you balance that? That is the true purpose of the Soul Path.

      • I think it is good as an optional rule. I like optional rules. Don’t get me wrong, I think the mechanic is fine and may work for some groups, but from my experience, more of the gamers tend to have a propensity for wanton destruction and look forward to mindless slaying of enemies. I can’t fault them for their views as they spend a week of trying to what people are asking for and no longer want to try and spend their free time trying to figure out the emotional outcomes of their character’s actions.

        I handle it a little differently in my game (I don’t have a mechanic for it, just handle the zombie aspect differently). I have tailored a lot of my ideas around the article:


        I can post it on my site if you are interested in reading about it.

  2. I can agree with your thoughts regarding the reason people enjoy watching Zombies. Anytime we can be taken to the brink of despair and still survive, we feel victorious. And getting our jollies out of watching the “other” do the dirty work, well that lets us off the hook for sure.
    Stepford Wives comes to mind as a movie that scared me in this regard. It was frightening precisely because of what you said. These women were “normal” just more obedient than real-life “homemakers.” When Paula Prentess (or whoever it was) walks into her own kitchen and sees her (robot) self fixing dinner….shocked me and scared me to death. Scared me because she was a normal and very real wifey….one who had been programmed by the men of the town. That picture came out in the early “women’s lib” days and we were all reading Betty Friedan’s book…and feeling rebellious against the society that had stifled our independence and creativity….lol…
    People, for eons, have been afraid of “the end.” Whether it is their own demise, or the world as they know it. That is a common fear to play on, because everyone has to face that fateful day at one time or another. Those with “wild and crazy” imaginations like yourself can take that fear and develop it into a marvelous game to share. Great job Chris.

  3. Favorite storyline? Probably “Crossed”, where zombies aren’t dead people, just people infected with pure unfettered maliciousness to the point of becoming near animals (animals who can shoot guns and drive vehicles and potentially fire off nuclear missiles and cause reactor meltdowns). As such, I find your take on zombies to be pretty interesting!

    Why are zombies so popular? They’re the vessel whereby individuals can live fantasies of a world without jobs and mortgages and hordes of other people to socially interact with. They aren’t really a threat (NotLD ’90 shows that you can just walk around the living dead if you can keep your head about you), but they manage to wipe out all the boses and ex-lovers and bankers and annoying neighbors for you, somehow leaving you alone to survive. Ideally taking refuge in a shopping mall you fortify for your own personal use. And then 28 Days Later became a major hit, and Dawn was remade, and suddenly zombies were fast and a lot of the old fans were disappointed. “Fast zombies aren’t scary”, “fast zombies may as well be tigers”, etc. etc. But the real problem complaining fans had is that fast zombies really are dangerous, and they make most of their old survival plans obsolete. And fast zombies are the new zombie champions since even Romero can’t make a good zombie movie about slow zombies anymore. Zombies aren’t a metaphor for social unrest, but instead reflect a current fear that not only is the world going to end, but it’ll end with people turning on one another en masse. And there is nothing anyone can do to just walk away from it all.

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