Why the Zombie Apocalypse Proves We’re Becoming Better Men


This generation’s guns-and-bunkers fantasy is objectively better than its predecessors.

It’s Halloween season as I write this, and that means non-stop zombie jokes and references. It means folks dragging out the same old fantasies about how they’d survive a zombie apocalypse, whether by building a safehouse, planning a defense, or just enjoying a few of the hundreds of video games that allow one to machine-gun the hell out of an unending army of the living dead. (I personally like Left 4 Dead 2, but everyone’s got their favorites.)

This fantasy, of being one of a few tough holdouts against a horde of enemies, of surviving the collapse of all the civilized structures designed to keep that scenario from happening, is kind of a guy thing. It’s especially strong in the teen years, when a testosterone-flooded system yearns for violent catharsis and adolescent rebellion has little use for civilized mores. Even after that age, though, the fantasy holds a certain appeal. It’s fun to imagine a scenario where you can stop worrying about taxes and traffic lights and rent checks, where all your problems are refreshingly immediate and most of them can be solved via shotgun. It’s legitimately entertaining to tell yourself how you’d come through an impossible armageddon alive and well, surviving in a harsh and unforgiving world.

On the other hand, it’s also pretty much pure unreconstructed machismo. As one internet commenter noted:

Zombie movies are going to be popular as long as dudes fantasize about being in a situation where the most valuable possible trait is the capacity for heteromasculine violence and sociopathy towards the diseased and weak.

The thing is, this naive critique of the zombie apocalypse fantasy actually underscores its strength. Because to criticize the zombie apocalypse as a macho survival fantasy is to ignore its existence in the context of other macho survival fantasies.

To criticize the zombie apocalypse as a macho survival fantasy is to ignore its existence in the context of other macho survival fantasies.

As Western society has grown more civilized, stable, and prosperous, things have gotten safer. There’ve always been those who criticized this very concept, guys who felt that men were growing weak and soft because of their lives being insufficiently imperiled. My favorite is still the one who blamed the wussy modern men of the 1920s on, no kidding, safety razors. Most of us, though, just enjoy the occasional fantasy of how if that safety and civilization were taken away, we’d still be totally awesome. And those fantasies, too, are growing more civilized.

Back a generation or two, the apocalypse was scheduled to be nuclear. Fallout shelters sold like mad, each one stocked with canned food and plenty of ammo, because once they dropped the bomb, your less-paranoid neighbors would be trying to steal your canned food and you’d have to kill ’em. This fantasy developed further, into a whole post-nuclear genre of fiction, all positing a Mad Max future where heavily-armed dudes in badass leather outfits ruled the wastelands.

Then, too, there were the paramilitary fantasies, embodied in the right-wing cult favorite Red Dawn, where the only thing that can defeat the forces of international communism is a bunch of, yes, heavily-armed teenage boys having the best camping trip ever. These fantasies are still acted out by a diminishing number of kooks and paranoids, but they’ve lost a lot of steam as one apocalypse after another (nuclear war, Y2K, the Rapture, etc.) has been cancelled on them.

Today, people’s fantasies revolve around a safely imaginary apocalypse: zombies. Unlike nuclear war, the dead rising to feast on the living will not be less likely next year than it is this year. Its likelihood is… steady, let’s say. Other than that, it’s got all the hallmarks of a great apocalypse fantasy. It’s got bunkers, looting, mysterious lone wanderers, and best of all, the opportunity to shoot all the people you want, consequence-free.

Let’s just admit it: we’ve all wanted to shoot someone. We don’t actually do it because it’s wrong, and if we’re not at that level of moral development, we don’t do it because society has a lot of structures to disincentivize murder. But we indulge the fantasies nonetheless, because we’re human and there’s a part of us that’s always going to want to shoot our way out of trouble.

For the first time in history, we’ve stopped fantasizing about shooting people.

And that’s where the zombie apocalypse differs. Because for the first time in history, we’ve stopped fantasizing about shooting people. The entire point of zombie hunting is that the people you’re shooting at are dead. They’re not people any more. There’s frequently a scene in zombie fiction where someone has to drive this point home: the zombies aren’t saveable, they aren’t going to get better, they’re upright corpses with teeth. (Can’t overemphasize the teeth.)

When you kill a pushy neighbor, a godless commie, or even Master Blaster, you’re extinguishing a human existence, a person with as much complexity and inner life as yourself. And that’s something we’ve grown increasingly less comfortable with. More and more, we’ve internalized the idea that killing people is actually wrong, not just sorta wrong. Our old fantasies of killing people with impunity feel more inappropriate every year. The Red Dawn remake flopped like a dying trout.

We still love the fantasy of violent self-reliance and freedom from society’s rules, we still get off on the notion that killing people without consequences would be cool as hell. But the form that fantasy takes shows that we’ve learned that killing human beings IS a consequence, that shooting people is intrinsically wrong, with or without societal rules against it.

Zombies, however, aren’t people any more, so we can blast the hell out of ’em with total moral impunity. And let’s face it: that’s awesome.


About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. Back before internet gaming was common there was a “fake LAN” internet service with a slogan I love and still use today, “Kill Pixels not People.”

    It pretty much sums up a lot of our masculine power fantasies today. I get pissed off at someone at work? I’ll go shoot some dudes in Planetside 2. Kids driving me up the wall? Drop in a Mech and shoot some big stompy robots. Want to relax but still possibly blow stuff up? Launch some Kerbals into orbit. 🙂

    Pixels allow for all sorts of ways of “living out” these power fantasies, I find it sad that Zombies are still so popular when we could do so much more. Then again robots are just “future zombies” so… :p

  2. John Weeast says:

    Zombie apocalypse scenarios aren’t new, they’re just in style now. There’s a reason government agencies have used the scenario for training purposes (although only recently acknowledged it publicly) and that’s because it’s the combination of every worst-case scenario.

    Nuclear war, while a big phobia of most for a long time, has evolved to be even worse due to technology shrinking the bombs and allowing them to now be held in a suitcase or smaller. Still infinitely more dangerous than zombies.

    Zombies are dumb and stupid. Look deeper and you’ll find that in every zombie apocalypse story, show or movie, the real threat isn’t the zombies but other humans. The zombies are a threat due to numbers, and at the beginning, it’s always smart to group up and fight the common enemy. But as time goes on, humankind always goes back to it’s basic instincts and survival of the fittest takes over.

    It’s the reason the government sets up programs that help people. Because we as a species can’t be relied upon to do it ourselves. Sure many of us will help as many as we could, but when it comes down to them or us, the majority will always try to save themselves. Some will give up their lives to save someone else, but how many will be willing to die with someone? I’m not sure many can deny that basic human instinct.

    Ok, probably too deep for this discussion lol, but where you see us becoming better men, I see it as us just recognizing what we really are. Not what we can or should be, but what we are at our core. Survivors.

    • This reminds me of one of those old 1950’s-era Twilight Zone episodes (or maybe it was The Outer Limits?) where the family in the bomb shelter after the nuclear war has to decide whether to open the door to their neighbors or not. The neighbors knock less and less until eventually the knocking stops. We’ve been thinking about/fantasizing about these things for a very long time. I imagine towards the end of the Western Roman Empire the people in Rome told a lot of these stories imagining the barbarians sort of the way we imagine zombies. (The word apocalypse is a very, very old word….)

  3. You’ve touched on a great irony of all these shows and stories about fighting zombies. A lot of the anti-zombie tactics are actually pretty stupid. Gunslinging macho tactics are only slightly more sophisticated than the zombie brain itself. So, there’s one irony – mindlessly fighting mindless creatures.

    Taking on zombies head-on with firepower or muscle power as your central feature would be perhaps the stupidest way to fight them, only the best thing as a last resort. That would provide the least strategic or tactical advantage compared to the zombies’ own strengths and weaknesses. The best, most effective advantage over zombies we would have is that they are generally slow and totally stupid. I have yet to see a zombie show/movie where anyone gives any serious thought to *outsmarting* the damn things. I know that doesn’t satisfy what movie-goers are actually looking for. The average movie patron doesn’t want to risk feeling less intelligent than a movie hero.

    But, there’s no need to sink to the enemy’s level of incompetence. It’s all about the match-ups. Use your greatest advantage against their greatest disadvantage. Why not use some guile, some forethought, some actual brains? Brains aren’t just a food group, people.

    • Another way to put it:

      If you’re using melee weapons or even handguns against zombies, that’s because you’ve probably made several pretty stupid choices. Smarter choices would not let them get so close.

      • Exactly! Incendiaries, explosives, or a well positioned industrial chipper would be a lot better than small arms. Also, why do the protagonists always light out for the country? A high-rise suburban office building always seemed more defensible.

        • wellokaythen says:

          Based on the _Walking Dead_ series, one of the most useful things to have in a zombie apocalypse is an Anthropology degree. Not one of the cultural ones, but a social anthro degree. What survivors will have to do is make a transition from a large-scale industrial/agricultural society to smaller, scavenger/forager communities. You can’t keep applying the same social, political, and military rules to the new situation. You have to change the whole organization of society. Especially once the ammo and processed food runs out.

          True survivalists should do a little field work in the Amazon or the Congo….

        • In reply to Douglas:

          Military tacticians, especially the ancient masters, would tell you that a fortress you can’t escape from is no fortress. A high-rise building would be impenetrable to an enemy that can’t climb ladders, but by the same token it would be a trap for the people who fortified it. (Unless you’re banking on helicopters coming to your rescue.) One advantage of taking to the country is maneuverability, which takes advantage of the superior speed of humans over zombies. Holing up in a building destroys one of your key advantages. A high-rise fortress is great if you want to martyr yourself like an Alamo defender, but I’d prefer to avoid last stands if I can help it.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    I’ve definitely noticed some thick gender stereotypes in the _Walking Dead_ series. (I’m still on season 2, though, so no one tell me any spoilers.) The two main cop characters are practically cartoon characters of macho cops. They swagger and posture so much they can’t even stand up straight. (Ironically like zombies, actually.) They can hardly walk straight because of the way they swing their arms and strut bowlegged like apes. They are incapable of having a conversation without their thumbs hanging in their gun belts.

    What I absolutely hate about the show is that so far the women survivors basically sit around doing housework, babysitting, and fretting. Heaven forbid they actually do something to defend the group or go on a mission or even say “thank you for saving my life.” It’s the classic Flinstones caveman myth of man the hunter and action hero and woman the housewife. If there was a zombie apocalypse, this is not how most of the women I know would act.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Come to think of it, the zombies themselves resemble the worst stereotypes that our society has about men. Maybe the zombie mania right now is actually a critique of traditional masculinity, except using the zombies as the symbols. Look at all the horrible things that misandric people associate with males today. Maybe the *zombies* are the male stereotypes, not the zombie fighters.

      For example, negatively stereotyped men and zombies are both:
      Not really human or barely human
      Disgusting eaters
      Grunters and mumblers
      Have only one thing on their minds
      Obsessed with other people’s bodies
      Entirely self-centered
      Terrible listeners
      Incapable of empathy, communication, or self-awareness
      Invaders of other people’s space
      Creatures you’re better off without

      Yes, there are both male and female zombies in all these stories, but notice how there’s very little gender difference at all among zombies. They are generally treated all the same as gender-neutral monsters.

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