I've never been particularily keen on zombies. Apart for my early teenage years, when it was semi-mandatory to like zombie movies, because they seemed subversive and excitingly violent, I've never really seen the allure of empty-eyed corpses visciously brutalizing badly written everyman characters. The recent rise of zombie-based entertainment has only served to grow my ire towards the shuffling masses. Still, with ”zombie-fans” becoming an actual growing market segment, it seems that our undead friends are here to stay.
My main gripe with the prevalence of zombies as the villain du jour is that they're not very imaginative, all in all. They are a horde of mindless things, and no matter how you format or re-format their abilities for your particular corpse driven drivel, they cannot really carry any themes or questions of morality or otherness. They are mindless and thus beyond morality. They are already dead, so destroying one really isn't much of a moral dilemma in any given situation. The ”I can't shoot it, it's my mother!” -situation we see in practically every zombie narrative has always seemed to me like a desperate attempt at the writer's part to wring out a moral challenge where there is none.
Zombies don't have goals, hopes or dreams, they are merely defined by their undead condition. This makes them a fairly boring danger. There is no chance for diplomacy, no opportunity for negotiation or subterfuge, no grey ground of grudging co-existence, just the black reality of kill or be killed. Simply put, zombies are dull because ultimate evil is dull; the best villains have a hint of good in them to poignantly underline the otherness in the conflict. This issue combined with the growing omni-presence of zombies has caused my scales to tilt permanently towards dislike.
This said, zombie fiction can be interpreted in interesting ways, if you stray far enough from the more treaded paths of logic. I seem to recall a post-modern discussion on the topic from my film-theory studies, which interpreted the zombie apocalypse as a narrative tool to discuss social dissonance. According to this theory, the zombies represent the unwashed mass of blue collar wage-slaves, rising up to break the hegemony of the ruling/owning classes. This brings in an interesting political angle to the fiction, but I do doubt that most creators of zombie narratives intend this as the purpose of their stories. (If someone can point me in the right direction as to who came up with this theory, it would be much appreciated. It's been years since I read about it, and the reference has been lost to time.)
If you've made it through the above acrid rant, I suppose I should reward you with the actual meat and gravy of this post. Despite everything I've said above, I recently had a ground-shaking revelation about the function of zombies, especially their use in game design. In a project I've been working on we've come up to the point of finalization concerning enemy design for our game. The enemies need to be easily recognisable and understandable to the audience, and their basic concept has to be mutable enough to leave us a large enough design space for further development. We'd gone through several potential models for doing this, but none of it really seemed to fit so far.
As we considered yet another iteration, it hit me: we needed zombies! I mean, not zombies per se, but the equivalent of the mindless horde! I suddenly understood why zombies were so prevalent in games nowadays: they are easily recognisable, any given audience can almost instinctively understand why they are bad and dangerous, and still zombies can essentially be anything you like. I'd always suspected that the basis for using zombies as enemies stemmed from lazy design, but that seems to be only part of the truth: a bigger part of the issue is restrictions set by the audience. If your baddies are of the zombie persuasion, you don't need to expend additional narrative or design resources establishing the logic behind your bad guys, because your audience already knows why they are evil and how they operate.
Obviously, the same ticket goes for many other enemy types common in gaming and entertainment. Aliens, nazis, big corporations or the government, and more recently all types of Lovecraftian tentacled horror spring to mind. Creature design is much easier when there is a catch-all base to work from, and for this zombies and these other creepers are perfect. Actually fleshing out an evocative and original antagonist, and getting your audience to understand its whys and wherefores takes a considerable amount of resources, which tend to be in short supply in any creative project. This combined with the fact that everybody is already doing it and that it seems to work for current audiences leads to zombies being everywhere. The short and the long of it is that I now understand the function of zombies. Luckily, that doesn't have to mean that I like it.
(P.S. If any of you are interested about the project I mention near the end, you can check us out here. and on Facebook under ”A Scurry of Squirrels”. As far as the critical creature design decision we made: we settled on some variant of ”goblins”, and are currently finalising the design and function for them.)