Audrey Fox / April 23, 2019
A lone cowboy rides across a wide and empty prairie. A group of sweaty, unkempt outlaws bully the owner of the local saloon. The tired but hardy wife manages the homestead amid chaos and violence. We can all recognize the iconography of the traditional Hollywood Western. Its themes are just as familiar: wilderness vs. domesticity, lawlessness vs. civilization, and the glorification of rugged individualism. But while Westerns are significantly less popular today than they were 60 years ago, we can see parallels between them and the zombie apocalypse films that have become a genre in their own right over the last 40 years. Those same images and underlying themes are front and center in films such as 28 Days Later (2002), Zombieland (2009), and AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010-).
Although the Western has been a formidable genre since the earliest days of film (the first western, The Great Train Robbery, was filmed in 1903), it peaked in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, and has become more and more of a niche interest with each passing decade. Westerns were commonly made in the early days of Hollywood because they were cheap, formulaic, and had a structure that made it incredibly easy for filmmakers to reuse sets, costumes, and even entire narratives. But that isn’t the reason they became so popular with audiences. The interest in Westerns was borne out of a complex intersection of societal fears that made a return to so-called simpler times appealing.
After World War II and the incredible advances in military weaponry that accompanied it (particularly the development of the atomic bomb), American audiences were terrified of a technologically driven future that seemed on course to threaten humanity itself. No small wonder that their natural reaction would be to look back on what they imagined to be an idyllic past. In addition, the 1960s wrought great societal changes and a tremendous amount of instability that could, again, lend appeal to films that depicted a world of frontier justice with a moral code so uncomplicated that heroes and villains could literally be identified by the color of their hats.
Societal conditions have certainly changed since the heyday of the Hollywood Western, but similar fears seem to be at the basis of the zombie apocalypse film. Zombies have long stood as a cipher for a variety of fears that range from the AIDS crisis to environmental disasters to governmental malfeasance to the breakdown of the nuclear family. But the decision to focus on the post-apocalyptic element of these films, where humanity has been massively culled and civilization has ceased to function on a large scale, is particularly salient in a world that seems now more than ever on the brink of disaster. No one wants to end up in a post-apocalyptic hellscape ravaged by a scourge of brain-eating zombies (or at least as close to no one as to be rendered statistically irrelevant), but there is an intriguing aspect to the notion of a reset that offers at least a metaphorical escape from so many of our current problems.
The zombie apocalypse narrative features the same lack of technology that contributed to the Western’s popularity in previous decades, and its regression to a lawless society where the traits of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency are celebrated mimic the most common tropes of the Western, providing a counterbalance to our at times overwhelmingly interdependent social construct. We have an almost limitless ability to interact with people everywhere, instantly: it’s an impressive technological achievement that does a lot of good, but it can also be emotionally and mentally exhausting. A zombie apocalypse film, in which we can explore a world that has forced the remnants of society back into more traditional methods of communication and interaction, can be a freeing piece of escapism.
When comparing the traditional Western and the zombie apocalypse genre, we can see certain visual parallels between the two. Expansive, long shots of stark, empty space abound, designed to emphasize the unnerving isolation that our characters inhabit. This imagery in Westerns serves as an indicator that our characters exist in a largely unsettled, open environment, but in zombie apocalypse films the implication is a bit darker. Often they will show entire cities that have seemingly been abandoned, where survivors have either scattered or become so depleted in number that there are no signs of their presence—like modern versions of ghost towns from the Old West—populated only by our intrepid heroes. But in both cases, the silence is misleading. A constant threat lurks unseen.
In Western films, the lone cowboy is likely to be ambushed by a group of bandits or a “savage” tribe of Native Americans. In modern zombie apocalypse films, there’s an unwritten rule that whenever things are starting to get a little too quiet, that’s when a horde of the undead is about to appear out of nowhere. In fact, there are quite a few similarities between the portrayal of zombie hordes and Native American “raiders,” and it’s worth examining how both antagonists have evolved over time into a (relatively) more nuanced, thoughtful portrayal. In early Westerns, Native Americans are depicted as primitive and war-like, capable of great brutality against the supposedly noble white settlers. The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, made in 1914 by D.W. Griffith, begins one of the most well-known tropes of the Western, where a frontier home is under siege by a violent Native American raid and has to be rescued by the cavalry. (Contrast this with a similar framing in, say, George A. Romero’s genre-defining Night of the Living Dead, and the parallels become even more clear.) Likewise, the first modern zombies to appear on screen are striking in their simplicity—slow, lumbering beasts incapable of thought, dangerous only by virtue of overwhelming strength of numbers.
The representation of Native Americans and zombies becomes more refined and even sympathetic as their respective genres matured. In Westerns from the 1970s through today, Native Americans are more frequently portrayed with humanity and personality. 1970’s Little Big Man, for example, depicts members of the Cheyenne Nation as multifaceted people and casts the U.S. military as the villain. Soldier Blue, also released in 1970, similarly shifts the trope through its exploration of the Sand Creek massacre, where U.S. cavalrymen massacred a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho in Colorado. This thread continues to the 1990s and beyond in films like Dances With Wolves (1990) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992), which feature fully developed Native Americans as individuals with their own culture and characteristics rather than faceless members of a hive-minded collective.
We can compare this evolution to a more sympathetic view of zombies that developed slowly throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s to the present day. In films like Return of the Living Dead (1985), there is an attribution of intelligence and wit to the zombies, as they scheme for “more brains” and crack jokes; in Romero’s Day of the Dead from the same year, enslaved zombie “Bub” is capable of learning and emotion. 2007’s I Am Legend (the third cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name) shows zombies with a functioning social structure, and the film The Cured (2017) and the television series In the Flesh (2013-2014) emphasize their humanity: both narratives explore the implication of zombies returning to society after a cure is found and they no longer pose a threat.
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In Westerns, our heroes are frequently alone on screen. The famous image of John Wayne framed in a doorway at the end of The Searchers (1956) shows a hard man who has withdrawn into himself so extensively that, even after rescuing his beloved niece and returning her home, he is physically incapable of walking through the door and joining his family to celebrate the moment. He walks away instead.
Former Army Colonel Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) roams the empty streets of Los Angeles alone in The Omega Man (the second cinematic adaptation of Matheson’s novel), destroying nests of the zombie-like plague victims by day and hiding in his desolate apartment at night. In Zombieland, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) only reluctantly allows Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) to team up with him, much preferring a self-imposed isolation. This is hardly where the visual parallels end, either—even the costuming in zombie apocalypse films and TV series are clearly intended as a nod to older Western films. It’s certainly not an accident that Tallahassee in Zombieland is styled like a modern-day cowboy, or that Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead is a sheriff, complete with a holster slung low on his hip as though he’s preparing for a midday shootout.
The focus on lawlessness and moral ambiguity in a loosely structured society is certainly present in both the Western and the zombie apocalypse. In the former, this is implicit: the action occurs in a time period before the West was settled, so our lead characters operate based on their own individual moral codes. In the case of a zombie apocalypse, civilization has crumbled, and everyone has been forcibly reverted to a more primitive society. Both genres emphasize pragmatic rules of survival, although our heroes generally find space to act nobly within the larger context of lawlessness. We commonly see violence and other traditionally immoral acts carried out as a means of protection or for the greater good. In both, there is no authority figure or governmental structure that is going to save our heroes if they get in trouble; their survival is entirely dependent on their own wits or, if they’re lucky, the aid of a trusted sidekick or companion.
There’s also a fairly extensive conflict between domestication and wilderness. There’s a lot to unpack in this classic showdown, but essentially women and cities (especially on the East Coast, in the case of the Western) represent civilization. The closing of the frontier brought homesteads and families to the formerly unsettled wilderness of the Old West, where a gunslinger was free to do as he liked, largely unconstrained by the rules of society. A key example of this is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), with the educated East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) contrasted with brusque cowboy Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Generally speaking, the civilized and therefore “feminized” character must be educated in the brute ways of the West in order to survive.
We see elements of this in the zombie apocalypse film, where characters who are too connected to their lost civilization are unable to adapt to the harsh new reality, usually with deadly results. Zombieland echoes this sort of mentor-student relationship in Tallahassee and Columbus, but it’s the film’s female counterparts, Wichita and Little Rock, who are most vulnerable. Their continued attachment to vestiges of the civilization that has been destroyed (in this case, the Pacific Playland amusement park) results in the party getting boxed in and nearly eaten by zombies. The fact that the women are the ones trying to reconnect with civilization is squarely in line with the Western’s view of femininity as an inherent danger in what essentially mimics a frontier society.
In the Western, the small frontier town serves as the best approximation of civilization they are able to create. It’s a society, sort of, with only the barest of rules governing its existence. Similarly, in zombie apocalypse films, we see many characters gravitate towards relics of civilization, regardless of how empty and hollow they may be. It’s no coincidence, then, that the protagonists in Dawn of the Dead (1978) flock to the mall, the ultimate symbol of the capitalist system that defined Western society. Many other zombie apocalypse films take place in major American and European cities, deserted monuments to a fallen civilization. They, like the sparsely populated frontier towns in the Western, are familiar enough to provide comfort to weary survivors surrounded by threats on all sides, though a poor substitute for the real thing.
Although the Western has waned in popularity, it is one of the most recognizable genres in filmmaking, and its narratives have endured by being blended with other film styles: in this case, horror. In important ways, both thematically and visually, the zombie apocalypse film has assimilated many of the elements that traditionally define the Western, including the anxieties of each genre’s respective audience, substituting different villains and dangerous frontiers to expose nearly identical fears that have grown steadily more violent, inescapable, and nihilistic.
Audrey Fox is an ex-film student, which means that she prefers to spend her days in the dark, watching movies and pondering the director’s use of diegetic sound. She currently works as an entertainment writer, joyfully rambling about all things film and television related.