The obsession with zombies shows no signs of abating, despite the flood of zombie novels, zombie films, zombie games and a hugely successful zombie TV series, The Walking Dead, now about to begin its seventh season. In popular culture the zombies are not only refusing to die but showing good business sense in moves to diversify. Zombie horror has successfully combined with comedy in the film Shaun of the Dead and with costume drama in the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (the film of this died in cinemas but of course rejects death and wanders undead in the cyberspace of streaming services like Netflix). And now that zombie films are an international industry, each country adds its own twist to the conventions (in the Irish version, Dead Meat, zombies infected with a form of mad cow disease infest the forty shades of green). But the consensus among zombists is that Asian zombie films have been the most innovative (by introducing intelligent zombies, remorseful zombies and zombies with antlers) and produced the most successful fusions, combining with the gangster, baseball, cop and porn film genres (in Big Tit Zombies and Attack of the Zombie Schoolgirls)
Another development is that many are no longer content to watch zombie stories but want to act them out, either as members of a zombie horde or the band of survivors of a zombie apocalypse in one of the numerous versions of the Zombie Experience, staged in derelict factories, abandoned shopping malls or decommissioned nuclear bunkers (‘You have been chosen as one of the select few deemed worthy to undergo intense zombie survival experience training from our undead response unit. Not only will you get to handle at least 3 different types of weaponry, you will also be taught life-saving techniques in how to immobilise and destroy the zombie horde. Expect big frights, gore and the end of civilization’.)
Why is the contemporary world fascinated by a 17th century myth from a Caribbean island? This myth originated with African slaves brought to Haiti to work in the sugar plantations, where conditions were so harsh that half died within a few years. The consoling belief was that death brought a return to the homeland in Africa. However, many others committed suicide and these were not permitted to return but became the undead, condemned to haunt the plantations forever (the term ‘zombie’ is thought to be a corruption of nzambi, a West African word for spirits of the dead).
By the twentieth century the myth had died away in Haiti but was introduced to the West by two George A. Romero films, Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). These developed a cult following, which led to other cult zombie films, but it was not until the present century that the phenomenon went international and mainstream with the major Hollywood film, Zombieland, and then the TV series. In the process the zombies killed off the vampires who were sure they would enjoy eternal life in fiction and film as well as myth. This battle for undead supremacy could be the basis for a fusion film where the last vampires are holed up in a castle besieged by a ravening zombie horde, a scenario that would surely appeal to the populist hatred of evil, decadent, scheming elites.
My theory is that the timing of the zombie rise and vampire fall is significant. Vampires flourished in the age of individualism at the end of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty first, but have been gradually supplanted by zombies as individualism is losing its appeal and groups of every kind are once again becoming popular.
Vampires were a secret minority of outsiders – nocturnal, attractive, intelligent, sophisticated, stylish, amoral, jaded, and of course eternally young, in other words every twentieth-century rebellious teenager’s dream. Vampires were cool, unemotional, detached, and above all individualistic. Impossible to imagine a vampire social, never mind a horde. And no vampire would ever be caught dead staggering about in public with a bloody mouth and stained clothes.
The vampires were the real heroes of the movies, the individuals to identify with. Whereas zombie apocalypse films encourage identification with the plucky band of survivors, the disparate group brought together by chance and obliged to cooperate to survive. The vampire theme is the rejection of a society and the zombie theme is the creation of a society, the issues of leadership, consensus making and relationships in a random group.
Another crucial difference is that vampires were content to remain a minority. They were never a global threat to civilisation, and indeed knew that they needed civilisation, unlike the dumbass zombies bent on destroying everything. Zombies are the new horror because they represent the new fear that the dumbass human race will destroy itself through mindless greed. They also represent the fear of overcrowding and of being overrun by a multitude of desperate immigrants or an enraged underclass or third world determined to seize the privileges of the few. For the zombies operate only in a horde – as impossible to imagine an individual zombie as a horde of vampires. Finally, zombies represent the other new fear of a global pandemic. In recent zombie films the zombies are not reanimated corpses but the victims of a new, incurable infection, and films like 28 Days Later have cleverly combined the fear of anger and contagion by making the source of infection a rage virus.
The threat level has also been raised by making the zombies not only angrier but faster. The horde has realised that it is not likely to enjoy a square meal by lurching towards its prey like a stag party after a heavy night, a significant change to the conventions that has displeased many traditionalists, including George A. Romero (‘I don’t buy running zombies’) and Simon Pegg, writer and star of Shaun of the Dead, who devoted an entire Guardian article, The Dead and the Quick, to an eloquent expression of outrage: ‘I know it is absurd to debate the rules of a reality that does not exist, but this genuinely irks me. You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can't fly; zombies do not run. It's a misconception, a bastardisation that diminishes a classic movie monster. The best phantasmagoria uses reality to render the inconceivable conceivable. The speedy zombie seems implausible to me, even within the fantastic realm it inhabits. A biological agent, I'll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower. It's hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all. More significantly, the fast zombie is bereft of poetic subtlety.’
Pegg also objects to rage as another innovation destroying the zombie appeal - but the crazed runners of 28 Days Later seemed to me as effective as any. What is more likely to kill the undead at last is not their anger or speed but the sight of them collecting for charity. The attraction of dressing up as a zombie is that it brings membership of a horde, and so, as well as dressing up for Halloween, corporate events and cosplay conventions, the latest way to enjoy a horde is to stage zombie walks, zombie fun runs and zombie invasions of city centres to collect for worthy causes. It always takes something special to finish the undead. With vampires it was a stake, with werewolves a silver bullet, and with zombies it may be a collecting tin.