There is no doubt that zombie franchises have reached a new level of mainstream popularity and acceptance in the last ten years. Between television, literature, comic books, video games, and movies, there are more zombie productions than we have ever seen. For fans of the zombie genre, this is an exciting time.
I wonder, though, is this popularity actually good for the genre?
The Betrayal of Popularity
It seems strange to say that popularity can be a bad thing. In this case, however, this paradox stems from the foundational elements that make zombie films interesting - what makes them work. Zombie films are principally founded upon one main societal anxiety: the fear of death. The universality of this fear is a large part of why zombies have become so popular, but it has also been betrayed by the increased popularity that zombies have received. In order for the anxiety over death to truly be effective, it has to be an ever-present threat.
However, death creates issues when a franchise has popularity, or is trying to appeal to a large audience. If you kill your main characters, then you can't move forward with them. Considering how frequently studios are hoping to create sequels or larger franchises now, this basically makes your main characters immortal, which undercuts the power that death has in a film's universe.
This popularity has also come in a time where, as a culture, we have become increasingly aware of mental illness, as well as its connection to other medical issues. This seems incredibly fitting considering the longstanding connection between zombies and the brain in film. In fact, this is really an evolution of the way zombie films have used anxiety about death in order to create horror and suspense. With entire medical fields being created to understand and treat how brain chemistry affects behavior, it makes sense that people would be interested in stories that take this concept to an extremely heightened level.
However, the power that this concept could have has also been undercut by the popularity of the genre. This has happened because the zombie concept has become so completely ubiquitous that it is now something tagged onto another concept in order to ride the hype wave of popularity we have seen recently (largely thanks to the popularity of things like The Walking Dead or Zombieland). Instead of using a zombie outbreak to explore naturally fitting themes with potential to be incredibly powerful, it either feels like something thrown onto a half-baked idea or a device to create a sort of meta parody of an already existing idea, as seen in the recent total flop, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Die to Come Back to Life
How does the zombie genre get fixed then?
They need to become less popular.
The sooner that zombie films become less zeitgeist and return to being more artful or niche, the quicker it can reclaim the essential themes and style that are becoming lost. A huge problem in any genre that becomes popular very suddenly is that it ends up being boiled down to common motifs and themes, which are then repeated in ways that are lacking in any feeling of originality.
This is why, as a fan of what zombie films have potential to be, I believe that the absolute best thing that could happen for the genre is for it to actually become less popular. This doesn't mean that they need to return to their B-movie obscurity of past days, but there needs to be a higher standard to hold them up against.
No better movie encapsulates this than World War Z. At best, this film was an entertaining summer blockbuster, but it performed rather subpar critically, and was incredibly disjointed and uneven. I personally left the theater feeling nonplussed after seeing it. Despite this, however, the film was still a box office hit, and is receiving a sequel.
As I see it, zombie fans deserve better than this. They should not have to settle for a mediocre film being the largest commercial success that the genre has ever seen because of its broad appeal. Instead, zombie films would be well served by focusing on what the foundations of quality filmmaking are. Basically, they need to follow the extraordinary example set by George Miller and Mad Max: Fury Road. Miller showed that "genre films" don't have to go after mass appeal through clichés and predictable choices in order to be successful.
Instead, if you are devoted to crafting a great film that uses genre as a lens in order to highlight and discuss human themes and stories, you can be incredibly successful while transcending its limitations.