Hearts, Not Brains: Why Zombies Are the Newest Big-Screen Heartthrobs

They have no personalities, rotting bodies and they want to eat your brains. So why are zombies now being considered in romantic and sexual terms?

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Jan Thijs/Summit Entertainment

Move over, Twilight. When it comes to big-screen romance, zombies are the new vampires.

That argument is clear in the new movie Warm Bodies, Jonathan Levine’s movie adaptation of Isaac Marion’s 2011 novel of the same name. One look at R, the undead romantic lead of the story (played by Nicholas Hoult), reveals a zombie with the same pale skin and smoldering eyes of Edward Cullen. The movie’s tagline recasts brain-eating, shambling corpses as wistful romantics, asking “Why can’t I connect with people? Oh right, because I’m dead.” The Walking Dead it isn’t; R is just another misunderstood breed of monster, looking for love just like the rest of us.

This new idea of zombies isn’t anything new, of course. We’ve seen zombie strippers, zombies versus strippers (as well as a Japanese take on the same idea) and the inevitable X-rated parody of The Walking Dead in the last five years alone. Sure, there may have been a more innocent time when zombies were merely unstoppable death machines who personified the political, social and public-health concerns of the day. But in 2013, it appears that even zombies have to be hot. Is this just another sign of celebrity making looks more important, or is there really something about undead cannibals that makes them appealing  — and even desirable?

For Isaac Marion, who wrote the original novel, the incongruity of an undead romantic lead was part of the initial creative impulse. “I’d never heard anyone treat these creatures as individuals, something that would have a perspective,” he explained in the film’s production notes. “They’re anonymous and mindless. [Exploring zombies as individuals as a] concept really fascinated me.” It was more problematic for the special effects crew to have to deal with, however, given their task to make R both believable as a zombie and yet somehow attractive to the viewer. “You can’t have teeth showing or a piece of flesh or ribcage,” explained the movie’s head of makeup, Adrian Morot. “That’s really gross, and a different kind of movie.”

But perhaps the gross-out looks are part of zombies’ appeal. Aaron Allen, who has tracked the growing zombie craze since 2008 at his site The Zed Word, suggests that zombies can be read as a rejection of society’s focus on surface beauty. He writes, “With missing arms, holes in their heads, torn faces, and eviscerated guts, zombies embrace their bodies and go about fulfilling their desires regardless of what society thinks.”

Others argue that the zombie myth as we recognize it today has its roots in less-palatable sexuality. In her paper To Say Death’s Name: The Ever-Changing Definition of the Zombie in Popular Culture, Erin Burns-Davies, a faculty member at Florida‘s Broward College, describes the 1943 movie I Walked with a Zombie by noting that the voodoo practitioners trying to raise the undead do so using “eroticized rituals of hip thrusting and drum banging.” That movie is also referenced by Joshua Gunn and Shaun Treat in Zombie Trouble: A Propaedeutic on Ideological Subjectification and the Unconscious from a 2005 edition of the Quarterly Journal of Speech in which they note that it and 1944′s similarly-themed The Voodoo Man “repeatedly revisit titillating possibility of female sex slaves as a standard plot.”

Zombies’ loss of free will may relate less to patriarchal control and more to the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, argues Nicole Limacher, a horror critic who blogs under the pseudonym “Gethsemaneful.” She points out that the brain-eating could be a metaphor for a different kind of hunger: “It is not until the 1960s, or the Sexual Revolution, that the flesh-eating variety [of zombie] was created by George Romero. The evolution of the flesh-eating variety of the zombie from slow shambler to sprinter ironically parallels the increasing pervasiveness of sexual permissiveness and promiscuity in today’s society.”

Certainly, it’s not only zombies that could be seen as sexual metaphor when it comes to horror monsters. The evolution of werewolves, for example, is as likely due to the reinterpretation of werewolf as parable about our inability to control our sexual urges as it is due to the set of pecs that is Taylor Lautner. And that’s to say nothing of the sexual imagery now commonly accepted to be at play in Lovecraft’s work, or the gender politics at play in the original Frankenstein.

If film critic Robin Wood is to be believed, such hidden themes and metaphors have always been present in horror, even if the audience hasn’t recognized them. In his influential 1979 essay “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” Wood argues that monsters represent, in many cases, suppressed sexual ideas or desires. Another movie critic and philosopher, Noel Carroll, suggested something similar in his 1990 book The Philosophy of Horror: What draws us towards monsters, he says, is the ways in which they are not like us. We find them attractive, in other words, because of what we project onto them our own ideas of what lies under the surface of “normality.”

Viewed from that perspective, perhaps the rise of the zombie as an object of desire — who falls for a living human, of course — becomes easier to stomach. After all, with the current success of Twilight and True Blood, we’re far too familiar with vampires for them to have any kind of mysterious allure for us anymore. Zombies, however, remain something of a mystery, despite their popularity. A very small number of exceptions aside, we rarely see things from their perspective, and so they can be imprinted with many of our own fantasies and needs. Think of that this Halloween, when Warm Bodies is sure to inspire a few sexy-zombie costumes.