Over the last ten years or so, the popularity of zombies in modern American culture has increased noticeably. As you can see in the Google search timeline, there were a few spikes throughout the last 100 years (1932 was the year of the release of White Zombie, which was perhaps the first zombie movie; 1943 was the remake of I Walked With a Zombie; 1968 and 78 were Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead), but the slow climb increased significantly starting in the early 2000s. And I’m curious as to why that is.
Zombies are an interesting blend of two types of speculative fiction — monster stories and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic stories. Vampires are probably the single most frequent example of the former, and the latter is generally split between human caused and naturally caused apocalypses. However, there are two other significant ways that the two kinds of stories are blended as well — robots and aliens.
Apocalyptic stories first. One of the immediate draws of apocalyptic fiction is that people try to imagine themselves in the stories. They wonder how well they would deal with the situations the characters are facing. The reality often is that they would likely be part of the vast majority that doesn’t survive. But no one really wants to accept that reality any more than they want to accept that an apocalyptic event of any kind is going to happen.
For about 50 years, the reality of a potential apocalypse was much more real for many people, for one simple reason. Nuclear weapons. And while we still have nuclear weapons, the global political situation is such that the possibility of a complete nuclear holocaust is much less likely. Nuclear weapons are perhaps the most obvious example of human caused apocalypses. And they dominated science fiction stories for most of the mid to late 20th century. But since the 1980s, an apocalypse caused by nuclear weapons is a rare thing indeed.
Other than nuclear weapons, no human caused apocalyptic events seen quite as imminent. Global warming is occasionally used to create an apocalypse, but it is a relatively slow process and even the scientific community is divided on just what the long term effects are going to be. Biological and chemical weapons have the same realistic imminent threat quality as nuclear weapons, but visually, they don’t have the same sort of effect as a thermonuclear mushroom cloud. And most books and movies that use them as the cause for the apocalypse create a hybridized zombie story. A lot of people don’t regard those sorts of “infected” humans, with their ability to run and not necessarily being dead, as real zombies. More on that later.
Natural apocalypse stories generally use comets or asteroids or massive solar flares or other astronomical or geologically catastrophes. Often they feature a last ditch effort by a small group of people to avert the disaster. It is very rare for them to then consider how the world fares following the event. They are often less apocalyptic stories than they are failed hero stories, meant to put humanity in its place in the universe. That makes them significantly different, beyond the cause of the apocalypse, from human caused disasters in which the characters are people who are trying to survive during and after the event, but rarely trying to stop the event entirely and to save the world.
Monster movies are, generally, much smaller scale than apocalyptic movies. They tend to focus on an individual monster or a specific location — mummies, sharks, sharktopus, Godzilla, etc. But some of them present a more encompassing concept — werewolves and vampires being the two most popular. Of the various monster types, vampires are the most similar to zombies in terms of modern popularity, but for completely unrelated reasons. And the average monster just doesn’t have the world-spanning impact to really latch into a person’s mind. Dealing with an individual monster is a localized, and therefore, someone else’s problem
Vampires play on romanticism and sexuality, and blend into the every day world. The present a very minor change to reality and they are generally not interested in making things any different. As undead, vampires have their full cognitive powers. Like humans they are essentially rational actors. And, for the most part, they have no desire to significantly change the status quo. They use humans as a food source, and like humans try to avoid overfeeding on their food sources, vampires don’t want to run out of humans. In a few versions of the stories, they set up factories and farms in which to subjugate humanity, but more often they limit their population size due to the nature of their hierarchal society and concerns for purity of bloodlines.
That brings us to the crossovers: aliens and robots and zombies. Robot (and other Artificial Intelligence) caused apocalypses have been pretty significant in the history of science fiction, though the stories have been more common in the last 20-30 years than early in the 20th century, no doubt due to the rate of technological progression in computers. As human constructed entities, AI have a disturbing predilection for deciding that humans don’t deserve to live, and they are pretty darned good at proving to us that we are much squishier than them. In fact, every major story that I can think of involving AI taking over the world — The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, Terminator — the AI have already won and humans are simply trying to survive. This makes AI obsession less appealing, because it suggests that humanity is actually doomed and there isn’t anything we can do about it.
In contrast, every time we face up against aliens (monsters who bring non-human caused apocalypses), it is a fight to the finish. And they often involve some sort of lucky discovery or last minute deus ex machina. It is very rare for the stories to be examining how humans survive after the aliens win. (The only such that comes to mind is The Day of the Triffids, in which the aliens are seemingly mindless killer plants, and have more in common with zombies than more directly hostile aliens.) Which is how aliens are very much in the same category of story as earth killing asteroids. Alien stories are about reminding of about our place in the universe. Which, while nice, is a much harder thing for people to cling to as something to obsess over.
Now zombies. Some stories posit that they are caused by humanity — governments testing biological and chemical weapons. Others claim it’s a naturally occurring “disease”. The earliest zombie stories made them localized problems, which is great for a short term scare, but a localized problem isn’t something that the average person worries about. When zombies went national and international, that’s when they really started to catch in the public consciousness.
A true zombie is a slow zombie. Reanimated bodies of the recently deceased. There are plenty of plot holes about how an outbreak starts, but pretty much every zombie story agrees that if zombie blood, saliva or flesh is taken into a human body, then when that person dies, they’ll become reanimated as well. Most frequently it happens when someone is bitten, but doesn’t get completely eaten or torn apart by the zombies. It is their very slowness that allows this to happen. A person can escape a slow moving zombie after being bitten. Not so much from something that is moving just as fast as them and isn’t hampered by injury. And so they escape, possibly find more living humans, die and have the chance to spread the disease.
The slow zombie is a symbol of the inexorable. It doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t feel pain, and often, it has friends. Without some way to fight, or somewhere to hide, it will catch you and you will die. They are “living”, moving symbols of death. And because they aren’t immediate destruction like nuclear weapons or asteroids, they can be fought. So you have stories in which people are fighting against the coming apocalypse, and in those stories they have a chance to win without the need for a deus ex machina. But if they don’t win, then we have the post-apocalyptic story in which small bands of survivors are trying to find some way to continue to live. Zombies provide the best of both possible worlds in that regard. They are a multipurpose trope.
But the true attraction of zombies is simple. They are us. But, unlike vampires and werewolves who are also us, they are us destroyed. Our lives are gone, our will is gone, and yet, we see our bodies moving and killing. We see the bodies of our friends and loved ones, dead, but still moving and now, trying to kill us. It is this idea that who we are becomes completely meaningless when we die that terrifies people. And that is a fear that people have even before the idea that the body keeps on “living”, without us inside it.
So zombie stories have the general appeal of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. The reader or viewer can imagine that they are one of the ones who will survive. Zombie stories don’t rely on outside forces or cheap tricks to save humanity — enough people with guns and strong defenses can mount a counter attack and wipe them out easily enough. They present an enemy that is steady and implacable and intends nothing but our complete eradication, unlike AI and vampires and like aliens. But unlike aliens, they do not take the frame of reference away from the individual. And they face us with not just death, but the complete loss of self. There are certainly problems with the way zombies are presented in many stories, but the story that zombies provide is much deeper, more complex, and more challenging than any other form of apocalyptic or monster stories.