Some thoughts on Zombies, Othering, and Gaze

I’m a fan of zombies. Like, a huge fan. Give me a well crafted zombie story, and I’m a very happy girl. I firmly believe it’s a genre that will never die. Why? Because it’s already undead (da dum dum).

But seriously, the zombie genre keeps rising from the grave because zombies are, in many ways, the perfect backdrop for every horror sub-genre you could imagine, from drama (Maggie), to splatstick exploitation (Planet Terror), to humor (Shaun of the Dead), and zom-rom-com (Warm Bodies). Zombies work so well because they can be just that: backdrop. They are the background terror, the slow but steady-burn anxiety, a constant, underlying (or in your face, depending on the story) threat. You can take almost any story you want and set it against a zombie apocalypse. Newer movies, like Army of the Dead and Army of Thieves have played this to the max, giving us fun, frenetic heist movies where, at least with Army of Thieves, the zombies were simply background noise…a low, unsettling hum that didn’t play a big role in the immediate story-line but sure as hell added an edge of discomfort to the whole thing.

So why are zombies so scary? For me, there are three main reasons:

  • Overwhelming numbers: a singular zombie isn’t that big a threat; most people could take one down with a baseball bat and outrun at a quick walk (so long as you’re dealing with classic Romero shamblers and not 28 Days Later-style infected). But zombies never come alone, do they? They come in hordes, swarms, and armies. They overwhelm with sheer numbers, and no matter how fast or far you run, they just keep coming.
  • Human sized: I know it sounds weird, but bear with me. Zombies are scary because they are they same size and scale as us. They can go where we go, follow us into our homes and hiding places. The raptors in Jurassic Park were scary for (among other things) the same reason. Rexy was huge and terrifying, but she was built on a totally different scale. If you could get inside a sturdy bunker, you’d be safe. With the raptors, not so much. They fit in the bunker…the could even open the door. H.R. Giger’s Aliens were much the same: they invaded and colonized human spaces.
  • Making the familiar “Other“: zombies take what should be comfortable and familiar – your friends, your family, your neighbors – and turn it monstrous. The horror genre writ large relies a lot on the concept of “the other” to incite unease and terror. It plays on our conscious and unconscious fears of the unknown, the dark, the unfamiliar or alien. By “othering” the familiar, they flip the narrative on what is safe and what isn’t, and by doing so upend the characters’ (and audiences’) entire worlds. They even “other” our own bodily autonomy – one bite and you’re infected, invaded, and on the path to becoming inhuman. Nothing is safe in a zombie story.

Long story short, zombies scare the crap out of us because there are lots of them, they can follow us wherever we go, and they twist the familiar and safe into a source of fear.

BUT…and this is a big BUT…”othering” can be loaded, and those of us working in the horror community need be explicitly aware of what we do, how we do it, and the messages our work sends, when we use this narrative device. We need to think very hard about how the genre has (historically and not-so historically) used things like physical and invisible disability as a lazy-writer’s way to create an instant ‘other’.

To explore this further, I’d like to have a look at how “othering” works in three zombie movies.

Example #1: Shaun of the Dead

In Shaun of the Dead, the titular character Shaun and his friends wake up one morning find themselves in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. England is a country with a diverse population, but most (not all, but I’m looking at the big picture here) of the zombies Shaun and his friends encounter look pretty much like them, which is to say, white and English-speaking. In classic zombie movie-style, Shaun of the Dead “others” that which is closest and most familiar to the main character – his family and friends…people just like him.

  • Gaze centered: White (White, English-speaking MC & secondary characters)
  • Others: White (Zombies are mostly white, English-speaking people)
  • Power relationship: Neutral

Example #2: The Dead 2

In The Dead 2, an American Engineer tries to save his girlfriend as a zombie plague spreads across India. When this movie first came out, I was super excited to see a zombie movie in a non-western setting (all the diverse voices, please!), but elements of this firm and how it employs “the other” are seriously problematic. First and foremost, it doesn’t give us a diverse voice. The main character, Nicholas Burton, is a white, English-speaking American. On the other hand, the vast majority of the zombies he encounters are non-white and non-English speaking. In fact, the trailer goes out of its way to emphasize India’s population (1.2 billion) as a tension builder. This movie creates fear by first playing on a (presumably white, western) audiences’ discomfort with an unfamiliar, crowded setting (we’re literally invited to imagine just how many zombies there would be), and then systematically and intentionally “othering” people who are visibly, culturally, and linguistically different from the main character. It does not take the familiar and make it scary. It takes what is already unfamiliar to the audience and the says “what if this scary, unfamiliar thing was even scarier?”

When a story centering a white (or abled, or hetero/cis-normative) gaze “others” a marginalized population (BIPOC, Disabled, LGTBQ2+), that’s just lazy horror writing. Not only that, coming from white creators and marketed to a (mostly) white audience, it reinforces damaging biases and inequalities. It’s punching down.

There is absolutely no reason this movie (or its predecessor, The Dead) couldn’t have featured a non-white lead – a South Asian actor for The Dead 2, or an African actor, for The Dead – and given us a completely different view on a zombie apocalypse.

  • Gaze centered: White (white English-speaking MC)
  • Others: BIPOC (Zombies are mostly non-white, non-English-speaking people)
  • Power relationship: Punching down

Example #3: Blood Quantum

In Blood Quantum, the Indigenous residents of an isolated Mi’kmaq reserve find themselves immune to the zombie plague spreading beyond their borders. As refugees converge on the reserve, the inhabitants must decide how to deal with the (potentially infected) outsiders. Written and directed by a Mi’kmaq film director, with a predominantly Indigenous cast, this film tackles Canada’s problematic colonial history head-on in a number of ways, including by intentionally “othering” the white, English (or French)-speaking majority. While this movie also “others” a group of people who are different visually, culturally, and linguistically from the main characters, it centers the gaze of a marginalized population and “others” the group responsible for that marginalization. In doing so, Blood Quantum presents not only a scathing cultural critique, but a critique of the horror genre’s unfortunate tendency to center those already in positions of privilege.

Gaze centered: Indigenous (Mi’kmaq MC & secondary characters)
Others: White (Zombies are mostly non-Indigenous people – there’s a bit more nuance to this in the film but for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll say the zombies are non-Indigenous)
Power relationship: Punching up for the Win!!!

Long story short, how we construct the “other” in our horror has meaning and power, and it’s our responsibility as creators to challenge the status quo and to avoid playing into and reinforcing those biases and inequalities.

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