Zombies are disgusting, slobbering, blood-dripping, brainless sacks of lost humanity raised from the dead. With such loveable charms, they are currently top dog in the world of horror literature. Fans can’t seem to get enough of the lurching, slow-moving zombie mobs as they hunt down tasty morsels of human flesh. So what is it about the walking dead that can cause endless fascination and volumes of writing? Not to mention annual Zombie walks and pub crawls in cities and towns across the world.
Re-animated corpses departing the Netherworld have been around in one form or another for eons. But it wasn’t until the late 20th century that the walking dead came to life in popular culture. What started as a slow growing emergence of the modern zombie began with George Romero's 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead”. Even with such a highly rated film, it took many decades before the zombie exploded into mainstream popular culture. For me and many others, it began with “Shaun of the Dead”, a quirky take on the Zombie Apocalypse.
Shaun is an ordinary guy for whom nothing ever seems to go right. He is coping with personal relationships when a zombie invasion begins. He finds himself working through those relationships as he fights off hoards of zombies. As Shaun demonstrates over and over, one doesn’t need to be Rambo to ward off a zombie invasion. Zombies are typically slow to think, move, and act. An ordinary guy can, with a bit of luck, survive and become the hero. This to me is the true genius of the zombie as villain. Finally, the regular guy gets to be top dog. In the great pyramid of humanity, the majority will never reach the top. With the zombie invasion, the pyramid collapses and it becomes every man for himself. In surviving, the ordinary man or woman becomes a hero. And by helping others to survive, he becomes a leader.
There are many other takes on why zombies have become so popular in recent years. Many say that zombies provide the thrill of the kill without the guilt. Zombies are an unthinking, unstoppable creature out to feed on human flesh and they have no possibility of redemption. They feel no pain or sorrow for their own life, only intense hunger. We can destroy them one-by-one or in bulk and still feel good about ourselves regardless if the zombie wears J. Crew or sports a green mohawk. In real life, there is nothing left we can hunt or kill without societies’ guilt weighing on our shoulders. With the zombie, we do him a favor with a clean kill and an end to its futile existence.
Then there is the fear factor. Zombies represent many kinds of fear and this enables them to be written about in new and unique ways. There is the fear of disease; mobs run amuck; anarchy; the fall of civilization; technology gone bad; government experiments; warfare; disease; decay; death; you name it. With zombies, a decent author can find a way to bring that fear to life. And, at the same time, find a way for readers to confront their fears and deal with them. It could be that our ultimate fear for the survival of the human race is greater than at any other time in history and zombies capture that fear better than any other single archetype.
If you believe zombie literature is about the blood and the gore, you are often right. But the greater substance of a good zombie story is about survival. If faced with a creature and worse yet, a mob of creatures willing to rip out your brain for a midnight snack, survival is the essence of the story. No matter how complicated a zombie invasion becomes, a world filled with zombies is simplified. There is only one goal and it is to keep you and your friends alive, not only for the short haul, but for the long haul as civilization is rebuilt. And, honestly, who among us doesn’t yearn for that chance to build a better, stronger society from scratch. Especially when conveniently supplied with vast hoards of food and necessities to take at will. The world of the imagination lies in literature. And of all the things we can become in our imaginations, zombies are uniquely qualified to be on the top of that list. They are us and they are our worst nightmare.
Check out the horror/comedy Shaun of the Dead. I haven't read the book yet but watched the movie on cable many years ago. Very funny stuff!