The Trouble with Alien Zombies

With Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead fast approaching we look at the traditions and problems with space zombies opposite their earthly counterparts.

Army of the Dead zombie
Photo: Netflix

Soon we’re going to be watching Zack Snyder leave behind the quest for a “grown-up” superhero movie and return to his old playground, the zombie movie. Army of the Dead looks like a huge amount of fun and leaves us wondering why nobody has made a zombie heist movie before (except for Train to Busan sequel, Peninsula), but one of the plot details that has leaked about the film is that Area 51 plays a significant role.

This suggests that the zombie plague may be extraterrestrial in origin. Like most subversions of the zombie apocalypse genre (although Army of the Dead promises a much smaller and more contained “apocalypse” so that all that cash they steal is still worth something) this is actually a plot twist you can trace back to the earliest roots of the genre.

In Night of the Living Dead, the zombie apocalypse (although again, by the end of the film the “ghouls” seem to have been mostly mopped up) is the result of strange radiation emerging from a probe that has returned from Venus. The trope goes back even further than that.

One of the few films that can make a claim to an earlier take on the zombie apocalypse than Night of the Living Dead is the timeless classic Plan 9 from Outer Space. In that film, which we will not be making any jokes about, aliens reanimate the recently dead and drive them to attack the capital cities of the Earth.

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In fact, if you want to find pre-George Romero examples of zombie apocalypse stories, the original series of Star Trek has done two. In the episode “Miri” the Enterprise encounters an exact duplicate of Earth, except that humanity has been wiped out by a deadly pandemic that turns every adult human into a violent, raging monster. It’s a premise explored in more detail by Charlie Higson’s YA zombie series The Enemy, and the Netflix series Daybreak.

Star Trek also gives us the brilliantly titled “Operation — Annihilate!”, where a swarm of spacefaring parasites sweep through the galaxy, infecting humanoids and driving them to a violent rage.

Yes, zombie purists might claim both of these are close to 28 Days Later’s “Rage infected humans” than true zombies, but in truth, the genre is big enough to include multitudes, and anything that A: uses human bodies, to B: create more entities like itself, while C: Not appearing to be intelligent, will usually create a story that looks a lot like a zombie story.

Indeed, Star Trek would come back to space zombies again, once more in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode, “Impulse” and again in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks.

Is There Death on Mars?

Star Trek is not alone in drinking from this particular well. Early in its run Dark Matter had a space zombie episode. Doctor Who has done two space zombie episodes in the new series alone, “The Waters of Mars”, and “Oxygen” (which used zombie movie tropes for their intended purpose- bringing down capitalism), and that’s just including the ones actually set in space. Hell, even the primitive bandage-and-hospital-gown-wearing Cybermen from “The Doctor Falls” have a very George Romero vibe to them.

The appeal of putting a zombie in a spaceship for a TV show is easy to see. Zombies are a cool and instantly recognisable monster. Spaceships are a cool and instantly recognisable setting. What’s more, while your production values may vary, zombies on a spaceship is a pretty damn cheap concept to realise on screen. Zombies are just however many extras you can afford with some gory make-up. All you need for a spaceship is some suitably set-dressed corridors and maybe a couple of exterior model shots if you’re feeling swish.

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And as with the zombie apocalypse genre as a whole, the audience instantly and instinctively understands “the rules” of a zombie story, allowing you to focus on your characters and the solutions they come up with.

The movies are no stranger to the space zombie either. The most straightforward example being The Last Days on Mars, which is pretty much a note-for-note remake of Doctor Who’s “The Waters of Mars” but without David Tennant. Mars is a popular venue, in fact as we see also Martian zombie apocalypses in Doom (2005) and Doom Annihilation (neither of which I watched to research this article, because there are limits). Even the “Ghosts” in Ghosts of Mars (which I did watch) may resemble more of a cross between Mad Max baddies and Evil Dead’s Deadites than zombies, but still, have a certain zombieness about them.

Most recently, in this last year Bruce Willis has starred in not one, but two movies with sub-Doctor Who production values where he fights space zombie-like adversaries (I have watched Breach/Anti-Life and Cosmic Sin, so don’t know why I thought I could get away with being snobby about the Doom movies earlier).

But Doom also raises another point about space zombies – a really popular venue for the extra-terrestrial undead is videogames.

This is for surprisingly very similar reasons to why space zombies are popular on telly and in film. Videogames will get far more creative in designing the appearance of their space zombies  – with the Dead Space trilogy setting the bar with their gloriously gory Necromorphs – but the AI for a zombie, environmental navigation aside, seldom needs to be much more complicated than that of a Pac-Man ghost. Space has been a popular videogame setting for as long as videogames have been a thing, thanks to the handy black background it offers, and once again, corridors.

We’ve seen them in Dead Space, in all the Doom games, but also the Halo games in the form of the fungal, cancerous looking, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis-inspired Flood. Mass Effect gives us colonists zombified by the sentient Thorian plant, as well as the more technological “Husks”. And of course, there’s that one Call of Duty map.

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Even now the makers of the original Dead Space games are looking to get back in on the action with the upcoming game, The Callisto Protocol.

And yet, while the appeal of space zombies is undeniable, by the same token they just don’t feel quite like “proper” zombie stories.

In Space, Nobody Can Hear You Shout “Brains!”

The problem is this: Your archetypical zombie story is ultimately a siege narrative. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, even twists on the formula like 28 Days Later, Train to Busan, and Pontypool all operate on a similar premise. You and some humans you probably don’t get on with are trapped in a structure (in Train it’s a moving structure, but still counts). Outside of that structure, there are somewhere between hundreds and thousands of zombified humans who want to get in and kill you. The humans keep arguing until the zombies get in and kill everyone.

For this to work you need a structure with a lot of room around it, and a big population of people to be turned into zombies.

Unfortunately the living conditions in space, even in our wildest space future fantasies, tend to be A: Quite claustrophobic, and B: Don’t have many people in.

Even in Dead Space, arguably the best example of a space zombie story, you very often find yourself thinking that if zombies hadn’t killed off this mining ship/space station/mining colony, overpopulation would have.

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At the same time, spaceships, space stations and colonies tend to have really good, robust metal doors separating any two parts of the habitat, quickly reducing any zombie plotline to this XKCD cartoon.

But there are workarounds, and ways to use these restrictions to your advantage. Zombies are, by nature, pretty rubbish, slow-moving, stupid, easy to kill in small numbers. Most zombie stories get around this issue by throwing loads of them at you. Space zombie movies can make use of those corridors we mentioned earlier, showing how much scarier a single zombie can be in enforced close quarters.

Zombies also have one major advantage over their living victims – they don’t need to breathe. This is a major plus point in space, offering you the chance to have hordes of zombies crawling along the outer hull of the ship – something we’ve seen in Dead Space and Doctor Who’s “Oxygen”.

At the same time, the space setting also emphasises another key aspect of the zombie story – resource management. In space there is no huge abundance of well-stocked shopping malls or bunkers full of firearms. One of the ways The Last Days on Mars manages to make its very small number of zombies threatening is that their small hab modules have very little that you could use as a weapon.

And yet, space zombies still lack a certain something of their terrestrial counterparts.

It’s Undeath, Jim, but Not as We Know It

The thing is, aside from anything else, zombies are a transformation of the familiar. They look like more beaten-up versions of your neighbours and co-workers. The zombie apocalypse is a scene you can easily imagine on your street, at your pub, your local shopping centre.

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Army of the Dead gets this – no matter where you are in the world, the iconography of the Las Vegas strip is familiar and we enjoy seeing it overrun by the undead.

And spaceships just aren’t. You might conceivably end up on holiday in Vegas. You’re statistically unlikely to be an astronaut.

But it’s more than that. Zombies are far more than cheap monsters that require little in the way of make-up or AI programming. The symbolism they carry is incredibly weighty. Earthly zombies have been used to represent capitalism, conformity, Vietnam soldiers, couch potato culture, mob mentality, our instinct towards violence, poverty, our obsession with mobile phones, and our ability to dehumanise one another.

Divorced from our world, from us as we recognise ourselves, that symbolism becomes a lot harder to nail. The zombies in The Last Days on Mars are just zombies. Dead Space’s Necromorphs are maybe a legally-safe satire on Scientology? Pandorum gives us extremely pale evolved human descendants that are extremely zombie-ish, and they certainly exhibit some of the worst bits of humanity, but they also live in a darkened, claustrophobic Hell, so it’s hard to hold it against them.

Zombies rarely represent anything in the way Earth-bound zombies do.

At least, nothing human.

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Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin features a sentient alien slime mould-like creature that, in its curiosity and need to explore, infiltrates and takes over the nervous system of the humans it encounters. To an outside observer, they look extremely like zombies, but the lifeform itself isn’t aggressive, just very, very alien. Andrew Skinner’s Steel Frame gives us not only space zombies, but space zombie mechs, and again the “Flood” (not the Halo one) that infects them is implied to be a kind of hivemind.

Most of the space zombies we’ve seen here aren’t what purists would call “true zombies” but are some manner of hivemind. This is true of Halo’s Flood, Mass Effects Thorians and Husks, and if we throw the doors to zombie-dom wide open, while they’re very different in the TV series, the Borg of Star Trek: First Contact come across as alien cyber-zombies.

One book to feature relatively harmless alien-created zombies is Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. In that book the aliens aren’t robots or little green men, we just encounter their leftovers and garbage, which are artefacts strange and incomprehensible to humans. That these artefacts somehow raise the dead as mindless automata is a minor side issue – the book is about how alien intelligence might be something so different from ourselves we don’t even recognise it as intelligence.

If there is a space for alien zombies and zombie astronauts in the zombie pantheon, maybe it’s there. Space zombies are scary because they look like us but think so differently that we can’t comprehend them, while Earth zombies are scary because we have oh so much in common with them.

Chris Farnell is the author of Fermi’s Progress, a series of novellas about a prototype FTL ship that blows up every planet it encounters. The latest instalment, Descartesmageddon, features an alien planet undergoing a very different kind of zombie apocalypse. It is available at Scarlet Ferret and Amazon.