When I ask people what their zombie escape plan is, I’m interested not just in what they respond, but how they handle the question.
Some pause to think, then tell me they would stay put. Barricade the doors. Fill up every container with water. Others explain how they would put all their energy into escaping to an island, banking on the fact that zombies either can’t swim or would get too waterlogged along the way. From time to time someone will say they’ve never thought about it, or refuse to answer. Those people are, let’s face it, probably the ones who’d get bitten and lie about it, only to turn into a flesh-eating monster that wreaks havoc on their motley crew of fellow apocalypse-survivors.
Zombies of screen and literature are in turn silly, terrifying and a helpful tool for exploring deeper societal issues. It doesn’t matter if they’re fast or slow, if they’re created through a quirk of science or via the supernatural. To some extent, it doesn’t even really matter if their existence is a metaphor for something (capitalism, blind faith, etc.) or not. The point is that when the shambling monsters arrive, society’s rules fall away – providing an opportunity for the best, but mostly the worst, of human nature to come through. Think of Major Henry West’s command in 28 Days Later. Or The Governor from The Walking Dead. Or the Umbrella Corporation from Resident Evil. Or the people from Terminus in The Walking Dead. Or most of the non-protagonist, non-zombie characters from Land of the Dead. Or Negan from The Walking Dead. Or the protagonists of Zombieland through the eyes of Bill Murray (because if you can’t safely disguise yourself as a zombie in your own house, where can you?). Or…pretty much anyone from The Walking Dead.
The real villains of these stories aren’t the monsters hungry for brains. Zombies might catalyse the apocalypse, but hell is other people.
This is definitely the case in Alison Evans’ newly released Highway Bodies (Echo Publishing). ‘The zombies are scary,’ Evans tells me, ‘but they’re not the big baddies.’
Zombies might catalyse the apocalypse, but hell is other people.
Highway Bodies is, in a lot of ways, a classic zombie tale. The YA novel, set in regional Victoria, follows three groups of teenagers as they navigate a new, monster-filled world after an incident causes otherwise normal people to turn into murderous undead shells of their former selves. But, while the premise may be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in zombie literature, it doesn’t feel tired or reliant on played-out tropes.
Much of this lies in Evans’ skill at crafting interesting, well-rounded characters that you rapidly invest in. However there is also something about the zombie genre that – ironically – feels agile and alive.
Throwing monsters into an otherwise normal society gives writers an opportunity to look at the different ways human beings would respond. With human nature being so variable, with no moral code being absolute, and with the reasons why and ways in which we can betray one another being so plentiful – this is essentially a bottomless well of material. The zombie genre has been used to explore the way that power corrupts, how people thinking they are doing the right thing end up committing the worst atrocities of all. It’s a way of taking a different look at society’s flaws and failings. It’s the same in Highway Bodies – the apocalyptic setting in this case providing a new backdrop to explore the ways society views gender, and the way it treats LGBTQI+ people.
Evans’ first novel, Ida (2017) used parallel universes as a way of exploring ideas around gender and nonbinary identity. For their second novel, I ask Evans: why zombies? ‘I think it’s a convenient way to dodge a lot of the more awful things about contemporary queer life’, they explain. For the LGBTQI+ teens at the centre of the book, this means they can ‘build their own understanding of things. So with gender especially, no one’s imposing anything on them, which I think is really why I chose zombies – just to get all that out of the way, really.’
Evans’ zombies are particularly scary because they are a mixture of both fast and slow moving. It makes them unpredictable, ‘which I think is scarier if you don’t know what to expect. I don’t know how that would go down with zombie nerds though,’ they add with a laugh.
‘I think [zombies are] a convenient way to dodge a lot of the more awful things about contemporary queer life.’
But despite the horror of the monsters, as with all good zombie fiction, the true threat in Highway Bodies is much more recognisable and everyday. The lumbering undead are scary, yes, but the book’s real villains are a group that the protagonists refer to as ‘preppers’. Led in a militaristic style by an aggressive man, the preppers are a band of apocalypse survivors who rely heavily on strongly enforced gender roles, and the idea that in order to claw their way back to a stable society a certain degree of dictatorship and violence is acceptable.
It’s strange that in a book set amidst an apocalypse, it’s the scenes that take place after the zombies have taken over that show us what a better world might look like. The teens are kind and understanding of one another – they don’t assume gender or sexuality, they apologise when they get things wrong. It’s only in the snippets from the time before the outbreak that things feel really ugly; such as a scene where one of the protagonists is about to wear the one dress she owns outside (‘[Mum] don’ like it when I do. Dunno if it’s cause she wishes I still called meself her son or if she’s worried someone’ll see me an say something. Maybe both’), or when the teens come across a group of adults desperately trying to get the world back to the way it was previously. Our present is the real dystopia.
When two of the teens, nonbinary Jojo and their twin sister Rhea, are taken in by preppers, they are immediately separated based on their outward appearance and the expectations that come along with them. Jojo is forced to join the men on their hunting trips and to patrol the grounds, while Rhea, despite being an adept zombie-killer, is recruited into ‘women’s work’ – cooking and cleaning for the rest of the group.
I ask Evans about the idea behind the preppers. ‘I find it’s kind of an exaggerated version of real life. So the expectation that you will be cis and you will be straight and then you’ll marry someone and you’ll have babies.’ They pause. ‘I guess it’s kind of that, but a bit more extreme’.
‘The expectation that you will be cis and you will be straight and then you’ll marry someone…I guess it’s kind of that, but a bit more extreme’.
It’s this exaggeration of real life that keeps providing fodder to the zombie genre – even as recent years have brought the genre close to saturation point, the fountain of ways that human beings can be awful to each other doesn’t dry up.
While tropes can get tired, zombie stories allow us to shine lights on different aspects of human nature that exist in our current world but are perhaps slightly suppressed due to societal rules and expectation. It’s these factors that keep us, like zombies to brains, hungry for more.
When I ask people what their zombie apocalypse plan is, the conversation almost always ends on a bit of a downer. (‘Ah, I thought we were going to knock about ideas like riding around on a motorcycle with two chainsaws strapped to the handlebars,’ said one friend sadly.) Evans and I are on the same page on this topic. ‘I would probably die immediately,’ they tell me with a laugh. On the plus side however, Evans is a skilled green thumb and adept at growing things, which, we decide, would be a very useful survival skill to have if they made it through the initial swarm. Plus, Evans adds, their apartment is on the second floor, which would make it easier to barricade.
In the end it isn’t really about whether you could protect yourself from rabid monsters however – it’s about whether human nature, without the rules and structure we rely on, would tilt more towards good or bad. So far, the literature suggests, things aren’t looking great.
Alison Evans will be discussing Australian Young Adult Fiction: Gender Diversity and Dystopian Futures with Marlee Jane Ward on 6 April, as part of the Fitzroy Writers Festival.
Alison Evans will also be appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on 3 and 4 May.