Undead Awakening: Why Zombies are More Popular Than Ever
Why are zombies so popular all of a sudden? It's a question I've been asked a lot in interviews but that rarely seems to get the full attention it deserves.
My smart ass answer is "two words: Brad Pitt." Or, better yet, Norman Reedus, aka Daryl Dixon, whose popularity on AMC's The Walking Dead is so overwhelming (despite his character not existing in the original comic series), that he's spawned a legion of die-hard fans who threaten to literally riot if anything ever happens to him on the show.
Considering the way the show has gone the last few seasons, it is plain to see why fans are so concerned. The Walking Dead loses more beloved main characters per season than any other show on television with the exception of the equally blood thirsty Game of Thrones.
But what's the real answer? When you take away the popularity of the television show or having one of the biggest celebrities on the planet make a special effects heavy, bloated-budget horror movie for a summer blockbuster, you still have legions of fans out there hungry to devour anything even remotely zombie related - including undead ice monsters and living cannibal freaks. Some of them even want to become zombies themselves! So what is the appeal, and where does it come from?
In the movie Humans Versus Zombies, I took a playful stab at the question. I knew that I couldn't sum it all up with a simple explanation, but I thought it would be fun to try. Danny, an expert on all things zombie played by actor Jonah Priour, is trapped with his crush in a college dorm with their newly transformed student body trying to break in and eat them for breakfast. He explains that zombies are a metaphor we've created to explain our mob mentality, as well as our mindless need for blood and gore, and that they don't exist. She tells him to explain it to the hungry masses just on the other side of the door. It's good for a quick laugh, but there is truth hidden in there, which is why it works.
The idea that we need an outlet for the darkest desires hidden down in the ugly parts of us has been used for centuries to explain the worst of humanity's atrocities. But does that really explain why we love zombies? And why we are fascinated with them now more than we've ever been at any other point in our history? Does the answer lie in mankind's lust for power, yearning for oblivion, or appetite for destruction? Why are we so compelled to love apocalyptic endings and the chaos and aftermath they inevitably spawn among the remaining survivors? Is it a passing trend based on our fear of the future, our inability to control things, or the general feeling that the world we grew up in and have always known is rapidly coming apart at the seams?
The simple answer is that the current skyrocketing zombie trend (The Walking Dead has over 12 million fans who regularly tune in to watch) is the byproduct of feeling powerless and dissatisfied with a dangerously unstable world and the constant and pervasive threats it presents to our lives, both real and imagined. At least that's what the experts on the subject have to say. I agree with that in general, but I feel it's missing something very obvious. It's the text book reply that will get you through your community college class Undead 101(yes there really is such a thing now), but won't help you get at the heart of the question in any meaningful way. If you're still reading this, chances are you're not satisfied with the easy answer.
Neither am I.
Personally I've been drawn to the idea of apocalypse since I was young. There was always just something about seeing movies and reading books that focused on a dystopic future where the technology and science we worship so much has turned on us, bringing us back to some kind of original state. We take for granted that the things we enjoy in this life will always just be there, but the truth is everything is in a fragile balance. It can all be taken away in an instant. Some of us know what it's like to lose it all, how terrifying and liberating it can feel at the same time. Wasn't that the message that made Chuck Palahniuk a household name through Fight Club? Tyler Durden leering at the audience pornographically while calmly reciting his most memorable phrase like it was a Zen koan... "it's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything."
Zombies speak to me for a number of reasons. First of all, I honestly enjoy the idea of a mindless killing machine that cannot be reasoned with as the antagonist. It's truly terrifying to think that people you once knew and loved can turn into monsters that won't hear your pleas as they come to kill you. And yes I think they serve as a good release for those unspeakable parts of ourselves too. Whether we watch them tear apart another person, or we imagine that we are putting them down for good with a point blank gunshot to the dome, there is an undeniably cathartic response involved.
But the number one reason I enjoy writing about the proverbial "end of it all" (and the reason I believe so many people enjoy hearing about it) is that such a purging allows us the chance for a clamored-for fresh start. Put simply, zombie fiction allows us to start over and re-imagine the world as something other than what it is. It gives us the chance to be heroic and selfless, as well as the chance to quench our blood lust and anger at how unpredictable and unfair life can be. When we read zombie fiction we can be equally good and bad. We can explore the darkest recesses of our soul without being judged, but we can also praise those qualities we most admire in the people we look up to and try to emulate.
In my young adult novel Zombie Attack, the main character Xander Macnamara seems to be busy fleeing for his life at every turn. The book moves very fast with an insane amount of action happening in a very short period of time. If you're not paying attention it's easy to miss the way Xander is upholding the values he most honors despite the end of times. How his commitment to friendship, his loyalty to family, his compassion for those who are suffering cause him to put his life in jeopardy over and over again up until the very last sentence of the book. The book also pays tribute to those in the armed services who have sacrificed so much on our behalf. It's these qualities that show up when fans and critics talk about why they loved the book, far and above the also-present gory zombie action.
What I am suggesting is that it's not the killing, the lawlessness, the wanton lust for power and destruction that ultimately speaks to us about the idea of the zombie apocalypse so much as the chance it offers each of us to rise up and become the kinds of heroes we've always wished we could be, the kind we often can't risk being in real life. Sure it's fun to imagine being the bad guy, but not nearly as satisfying as the idea of being credited with saving the lives of those we love - or the whole of humanity for that matter! I believe that it's this selfless urge that compels us to love the genre. The idea of humanity uniting to overcome a series of grandiose and insurmountable problems threatening our extinction is far more powerful in my opinion than the urge to kill and plunder.