Unfortunately, the zombie genre can explain more about the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic than anyone should be comfortable with.

This would seem to bode ill for human civilization: With a few exceptions, the zombie genre always starts with civilization and ends with a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Fortunately, there are key differences between what happens with the living dead and what the rest of 2020 will look like. The zombie genre is overly pessimistic about the adaptability of human beings. We can and should be more hopeful.

Of all the baddies in the horror genre, zombies are the perfect metaphor for a pandemic. This is because other archetypes of horror—vampires, wizards, werewolves—tend to produce soulful, sympathetic characters. In contrast, the living dead are almost always portrayed as a mass of decaying corpses with the simple and baffling goal of eating living human flesh. We cannot reason, negotiate, or bargain with zombies; like a virus, they have no agency. All they want to do is replicate. With such a simple, uninteresting motivation, the zombie genre has been historically viewed as the lowest of the low-rent genres. The interesting part of any zombie narrative is not the flesh-eating ghouls but how humans respond to that threat.

Alas, their response tends to be poor. With the important exception of the rom–zom–com subgenre, zombie narratives are extremely pessimistic about how the human race can respond to the threat posed by the living dead. The late filmmaker George A. Romero was the godfather of the modern zombie, and if there is a constant in his films, it is that human cooperation breaks down in the face of an undead threat.