Post-apocalyptic pop culture is flooding American televisions and cinemas, and no other trend has escalated in popularity quite like zombie culture.
AMC’s nightmarish drama “The Walking Dead” shattered records in the network’s ratings this year, according to Time magazine, reaching a viewership of over 28 million. It’s really not surprising.
Escapism is what keeps the entertainment industry’s moguls in the billionaire’s club—but who in their right mind would choose to escape to a shattered society in which all luxury and progress lie trampled beneath hordes of rotting, feral, cannibalistic cadavers?
Zombie culture is just survivalist culture with a trendy aesthetic, and its popularity is revealing this generation’s zeitgeist.
Mass-fascination with post-catastrophic conditions is, in part, a subconscious means of preparation, mentally bracing against the anxieties of real, imminent events. The genre reflects all of the crises of overpopulation waiting just around the corner—resource scarcity, systems’ collapse and civil unrest on an unprecedented scale—but the problem won’t be shambling corpses; it’ll be us.
In the words of the scientifically influential, 18th-century cleric Thomas Robert Malthus, “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence and plague advance in terrific array and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear and with one mighty blow levels the population.”
In just 35 years, if current population-growth trends continue, the UN projects that humanity will be reaching figures over 10 billion, numbers approaching Earth’s maximum capacity—resulting in scarcity of fresh water; desertification due to deforestation; air, soil and water contamination irreparably altering the biosphere; rampant poverty leading to devastating crime rates; and microbial pandemics spreading rapidly across what will have become a planetary-scale petri dish.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a list of every motif from the last decade’s worth of end-of-days literature, cinema and television.
But all this still doesn’t explain viewers’ deep satisfaction in escaping to a hellish world of utter hopelessness.
It’s because the circumstances are so humanizing, returning people to a more naturalistic (if at times animalistic) state, reminding them of what truly means anything at all—family, community, love and life itself—and the desperate struggle to protect it all provides audiences with a sort of vicarious fulfillment, assuaging viewers’ estrangement from what it meant to be human for hundreds of thousands of years before Xboxes, Pop Tarts, Facebook and Netflix.
But the comforts of modernity could prove to be relatively short-lived. In less than half a century, humanity’s very success may be what drags the whole species back into a paradigm of pure survivalism once again, reminding us what being human is really all about.
So enjoy the post-apocalyptic hypotheticals now because when our planet reaches maximum capacity, films like “28 Days Later” will seem like tame, naïve underestimates of the nightmare that’s in store for us—that is, if we don’t start taking action to prevent such a hell on Earth now.