Lindsay Ellis uploaded a video to YouTube in January called “Independence Day Vs. War of the Worlds,” wherein she posits the two films differ in tone because they were made and released before and after 9/11. It’s a sound theory, as history has cyclically shown art is heavily influenced by disasters, both man-made and otherwise. For this reason, it’s safe to assume the current COVID-19 pandemic will affect the zombie and pandemic genres in the future.
Because of the current outbreak, society has found itself thrust into a scenario reminiscent of countless instances of dystopian fiction. Terms like “quarantine,” “shelter in place,” and “contagion” — commonly used by characters in science-fiction — have now become part of our daily vocabulary and the pandemic’s reach and uncertain outcome has bestowed a new wave of fear. In the years following the pandemic, as society returns to some variation of normalcy, entertainment will surely reflect the experiences people have had during social distancing, various lockdowns, and a massive death toll.
Going back to Ellis’s essay, she points out that the Franco-Prussian War in the 19th century generated a rebellious form of fiction called Invasion Literature, which toyed with the (privy to unheard of) concept of Great Britain being overthrown by a foreign power. Film noir is also part of this dialogue, as many of the movies that came out in the classic era (the 1940s and 1950s) dealt with characters suffering from PTSD, a condition that plagued many American soldiers as they returned from World War II.
The World Trade Center Attacks did seem to have an effect on the zombie and outbreak genres. Examining 1995’s Outbreak and 2011’s Contagion illustrates these differences well. Both films are outbreak thrillers that deal with humanity trying to contain a virus before it spreads throughout the world. Outbreak is a fairly conventional Hollywood picture, with a farfetched script and little social relevance. All of its conflicts are settled in pat fashion come the conclusion.
Contagion, on the other hand, is eerily prophetic and likely not just because it came out after 9/11, but also the 2003 SARS outbreak. Its understanding of the possibility of a pandemic is clearly well-researched (one of the key ways to transfer the film’s disease is from people touching their faces) and its depiction of societal decline and false news make this nine-year-old film feel like it could have been released as recently as last month. The movie certainly doesn’t give viewers a happy ending either, but its characters manage to still avert the worst-case scenario, which makes the film fully believable.
The attacks on 9/11 actually had a strong impact on re-popularizing zombie fiction. During the ’90s, the genre significantly waned in cultural relevance, but the impact of 9/11 set the stage for a new, modernized take. In 2002, the U.K. released the critically acclaimed and commercially successful horror film 28 Days Later, which offered a much more realistic and gritty interpretation of zombie films (director Danny Boyle has insisted on calling it an outbreak film instead, but it has ample elements of both genres). Shot with a sense of realism that stripped it of any components that would feel supernatural, 28 Days Later covered difficult material such as martial law and sexual assault. This film has aged remarkably well for today’s climate.
28 Days Later undoubtedly paved the way for other zombie stories, but as the World Trade Center attacks become more of a distant memory, subsequent films and shows seemed to lose interest in commenting on the world at large. Planet Terror, the Dawn of the Dead remake and even The Walking Dead found an audience due to their viscera and creative use of genre tropes, but they all just seemed to lack the gravity that made 28 Days Later feel prescient.
Not only are zombie films likely to be even darker in the future, but they might strive for more attempts at realism. While today’s zombie fiction occasionally touches on biology, for the most part, creators haven’t expressed too much interest in giving scientific explanations for what makes the dead reanimate and attack the living. Perhaps future zombie shows and movies will apply more medical jargon to make the uprisings feel more palpable. The Resident Evil TV series may be a prime candidate for breaking this mold). Furthermore, perhaps other horror movies will see social distancing guidelines as inspiration for storylines, namely ones where infections cause rifts between characters (It Comes At Night already used such a method back in 2017). The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually pass, but the impact it has on art will likely remain with us for much longer.
COVID-19 has brought our world a bit closer to post-apocalyptic fiction. How will zombie and pathogen films in the future reflect this historic pandem