There aren't a whole lot of things in "horror" movies that scare me, but I'll admit--just about every zombie movie I've watched has given me horrible nightmares. The Romero films--I don't know if I'll ever be able to watch 'Day of the Dead', the other three were grueling experiences for me. The remake of 'Dawn'--I couldn't finish watching it the first time around, I had to turn it off because it was freaking me out too bad. The comedy ones--I've watched 'Shaun of the Dead' three, four times easily, and I love it to death (I consider it the best zombie movie ever, in fact)...but I had trouble sleeping for days after watching it. Even the crap zombie movies like 'Resident Evil' and '28 Days Later' (and don't let anyone kid you, '28 Days Later' is a crap movie, despite Chris Eccleston doing yeoman's duty in trying to make his character's internal logic work) still scare the hell out of me.
So what is it that scares me about zombies so bad?
Three things. One, I think, is the theme of infection and corruption. The idea of something that can be passed on, something that slowly robs you of identity, is very chilling. Two, which is intimately tied into one, is the end result. You don't die when you become a zombie, you're not that lucky. You lose your mind, your personality, you just become a shambling vegetable that doesn't understand anything except killing and eating. As someone who values their mind, it's pretty damn scary. And three is the sense of scale involved. It's not just one person, or even five or six. It's not like the 'Friday the 13th' movies (or the slasher film of your choice), where you can say, "Well, why did you go out to the deserted summer camp where the last 75 counselors have been murdered? DUH!" It's happening everywhere, there's no escaping it, it's the whole world. Romero doesn't just kill people, he murders civilization itself.
But what always frustrates me about zombie stories is that they skip over the interesting bit. 'Dawn of the Dead' has everyone hide in a mall while they watch the interesting bit happen on TV. '28 Days Later' just has the character wake up from a coma and the bad stuff has already happened. Ditto with 'The Walking Dead', a comic that essentially takes the same starting point, but keeps going with the characters on an ongoing basis. Nobody ever asks the question I want to ask:
How hard would we fight to preserve what we have?
Romero treats it as a foregone conclusion. He thinks that the act of re-killing our loved ones, our friends and family, is just too instinctively revulsive and terrifying to achieve. In 'Dawn of the Dead', the few who insist that the walking dead have to be killed no matter what are greeted with scorn and anger, and the zombies overrun us as a result. We don't even see it, really; we're hiding from the war with the survivors, the people who've shut themselves away because fighting back isn't even an option.
I think fighting back would be an option. That's the story I'd want to tell; not what happens after the end of the world, but why the end of the world doesn't happen for another day. Someday, I'd love to tell it (and anyone who owns a publishing company and has money going spare, feel free to pay attention to that.) It'd be the 'War and Peace' of killer zombie movies.
Until then, though, zombies will continue to scare the crap out of me.