The topic of the walking dead came up the other day... again. It's no secret that my circle of friends has a somewhat inexplicable fascination with zombies, but my friend Suzanne asked what the deal was.
"What's the deal?" she queried. She meant, why zombies? Why not ghosts? Why not a plague? What's going on here? The supernatural genre has never been unpopular. Anne Rice's legacy was taken up by those hideous Twilight novels. Shows like Lost or Fringe aren't exactly The X-Files, but they do have a strong and distinct undercurrent dealing with the spooky and unusual. Even the Harry Potter novels -- you know, for kids! -- were all about casting spells and hitting puberty which are both events requiring one to suspend credulity.
But zombies have reached this zeitgeisty place in pop cultures, and with AMC's The Walking Dead returning in October, and Brad Pitt shooting next year's World War Z, it's only getting bigger. So: why zombies? Why now?
Zombies, as an intellectual construct, have always been about death; they are, after all, reanimated corpses that feed on the living. In the same way that ghosts deal with the spiritual realm of the (un)dead (what happens to a person's soul after they die?), vampires address the sexual link with death (all that blood and penetration), and werewolves take up the primal, animalistic nature of man (we did evolve from beasts, no matter what Arkansas teaches its kids), zombies deal with our discomfort with death as a physical event. The walking dead aren't transformed into a different creature. They don't grow extra legs or fur.
In most representations, zombies are slow-moving, covered in gore, and utterly empty in the brainpan. They are physical husks, designed and desiring only to prey (slowly) on the living. With ghosts, we lose the body and keep the soul -- the essence of what we think makes us human. Zombies take that and flips it right on its head, so only the meat suit remains.
So why now? All of a sudden there are comic books, movies, spoof movies, guides, faux-memoirs, fashion, parades... I'm surprised that there isn't a children's television character named Zombo. While the first wave of zombie pop culture came in the 1970s with George Romero and his brilliant film Night of the Living Dead, there's been a recent resurgence in the last few years. Zombies have shuffled back onto the radar.
As a culture, we have incredible anxiety at this point about many, many different things. We have collective body issues: we're too fat and we worship too skinny. We don't deal well with death. We're losing the primal modes of social interaction to technological replacements (G-chatting doesn't count as having a conversation!). Most of us have no idea how to live off the land, shoot a gun, or even throw a punch. Our highest-paid jobs don't include physical labour, but rather mental somersaults. In short, we're a bunch of soft, lonely, citified, lazy sheep who are scared to die.
So what could possibly be more appealing that a figure who cuts a wide swath through the very embodiment of death, brandishing a machete and living on the run? That person would be ridiculously badass. In the case of widespread zombification, we would lose creature comforts like tampons and cold beer. We would be tired, stressed out, and alone.
I would argue that we're currently tired, stressed-out, and alone: we just do it in condos and in offices, instead of while fighting ghoulish enemies. A zombie invasion would allow us to face some of our death-related neuroses, reconnect as families and communities, and tone us into a leaner, meaner fighting machine. That's pretty appealing.
It goes without saying that a zombocalypse wouldn't be all fine wines and fancy cheeses, but the secret belief that fighting off an army of the undead would actually be kind of cool stems from our desire to have the lifestyle it would force us to create. Not since the fall of the Roman Empire has humanity had an opportunity to recreate itself: we ended up, ahundred generations later, with YouTube videos and cheeseburger in a can. We want to connect with each other; we want to be physically fit; we want to feel special. Are we so collectively stuck in our ways that the only way to achieve this is to literally raise the dead?