Back in 2011 I wrote about how we as human beings are obsessed with stories about the way we End, i.e. apocalypses of various flavors, and particularly how those flavors have evolved over the decades in modern pop culture media as the nature of our fears shifted. I have a thought still in my mind that the most commercially successful, or at least unforgettable tales of apocalypse are the ones that resonate with the time period they are released in. In a sense the best ones even represent a snapshot of that time period in general, even if their particular subject matter seems on the surface to be outlandish and nothing you could really be expected to take seriously. Basic physics precludes the idea of ants becoming the size of school buses, but that didn’t stop THEM! from touching a nerve, because the THEY of THEM! was a result of atomic radiation. I believe that origin is very important. The giant ants would have seemed far more ridiculous to the audience of the time, for example, were they discovered to have been the product of a vengeful voodoo curse.
That’s a weird thing to state, but that’s the nature of science fiction and horror where you bend or break certain laws of reality as we know them, but if you don’t ground the story somehow it won’t elicit the appropriate visceral reaction from the audience. Tapping into the apocalyptic zeitgeist, by accident or design, can help with that. Just as a rough hypothesis, I think the post-WWII breakdown in the United States goes something like this:
1950s/1960s: Communism / Radiation / Space Invasion
1970s: Government Conspiracy / Street Crime
1980s: Nuclear War / Robots / Toxic Waste
1990s: Hackers / Genetic Engineering
2000s: Plague / Terrorism
Now I’m sure this could be picked apart. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) could be seen as at least as much of an anti-Communist parable as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was, but on the other hand fears of Communism arguably made a resurgence in the early to mid-80s, just as fears of an invasion from space (whether by aliens or asteroids) had a bit of a resurgence in the ’90s. A movie like Alien got in touch with more primal fears, though the conspiracy element of being betrayed by those in power was certainly there as well.
And where, you might ask, do zombies fit in? Well, they keep being reimagined, don’t you think? In Night of the Living Dead the implied culprit was a crashed (and irradiated!) space probe. Dawn of the Dead doesn’t really concern itself with causation, but the outlaw biker gang certainly ties into ’70s zeitgeist. Return of the Living Dead puts the blame squarely on toxic waste, while the Resident Evil games are on the balance between genetic engineering and plague, with the 2002 film missing the Y2K mark but still throwing in a wacked out computer on top of everything. Finally the Dawn of the Dead remake and 28 Days Later kick off our current zombie situation of plague combined with being struck quickly and without warning in your own backyard.
What’s next? Well, much as I hate to say it, I think The Day After Tomorrow was a film on the leading edge of the zeitgeist for the 2010’s. It might have still been a little early to really register, a fate which I don’t think there’s any argument for with Waterworld in the mid-90s. The U.S. economy was humming along in 1995, gas was 99 cents a gallon, and Waterworld looked completely ridiculous. By 2004 The Day After Tomorrow is a little bit more on people’s minds what with Al Gore banging the drum on climate change, but it still seems more laughable than anything.
Now it’s 2015. Last year, Snowpiercer was on a lot of minds. This year Mad Max: Fury Road won’t let go of people’s imaginations (including mine), a movie filmed several years ago but releasing to general audiences right on the heels of things like California’s “one year left” drought scare and the Nestlé chairman’s declaration that people don’t have a right to water. Both of these news items were quickly downplayed as misinterpretations, but the fact they took hold so quickly and spread so far is telling. I believe that whether we give voice to it or not, we are starting to get really, really concerned with what we might have done to the planet’s environment, and what the consequences are going to be. Call it the Droughtpocalypse or even just more generally a Climatepocalpyse, but this is now becoming our vision of The End. Where in the 80s Interstellar‘s crisis necessitating a new world would have been all about nukes, now it’s all about our crops dying off. The term “cli fi” has even been coined to specifically denote science fiction dealing with catastrophic climate change.
It’s a thing. And I’m postulating it will be the Next Big Thing, at least in terms of apocalypse fiction. Where will the zombies fit into that? I’m not quite sure yet, but they’ve proven a rather adaptable monster through all the previous eras. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum, I’m sure they’ll (uh, uh) find a way…