“Slaughter, Slaughter, Everywhere” by Nick Slosser
I think it’s fair to say that Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2002 rekindled our love of zombies. The film demonstrated that zombies need not be the slow-moving easy targets of earlier films, and that zombie apocalypses have much to offer—at least, for storytellers. The movie created a wave of enthusiasm that’s still going strong: Battlefield Baseball (2003), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Land of the Dead (2005), Slither (2006), Planet Terror (2007), Dead Snow (2008), Zombieland (2009), The Crazies (2010), and the upcoming Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament and World War Z to name a few. Wikipedia lists over 180 movies with zombies made between 2008 and 2010. Contrast that to an earlier heyday, 1984 to 1986, which produced such titles as The Return of the Living Dead, C.H.U.D., Night of the Comet, and Night of the Creeps, but yielded a total of only 17 movies.
True, our love of zombies was more undead than dead, but for a long time George Romero, John Russo, and Lucio Fulci seemed to have had the last word on the subject. But since 28 Days Later. And now even publishing companies have caught the bug and zombie fiction is spreading like a zombie plague. From straightforward narratives like World War Z to zombie POVs like Breathers to literary mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, from anthologies like The Living Dead to graphic novels like The Walking Dead to choose-your-own-adventures like Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?, zombie fiction is hot.
But while vampires are essentially malleable—they can be scary, sexy, romantic, funny, metaphoric, anti-heroic, or even sparkly—zombies have fewer inherent possibilities. So why the craze and how long will it last—i.e. should I jump on board?
Perhaps it was, as Publisher’s Weekly suggests, a response to the September 11 attacks: “Then came the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the national fear of a faceless horde of enemies slavishly obedient to their objective of dishing out extreme violence. Suddenly, the zombie became a monster for our time.” It is notable that 28 Days Later hit the theatres that very next year. And its raging zombies were neither slow-moving, nor easy targets—a closer approximation to terrorists than, say, Romero’s stumbling, fumbling meat-puppets.
But I wonder why, if terrorists really are behind our collective anxiety, the ‘alien among us’ story—e.g. The Faculty—didn’t take off as well. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers reflected our fear of communist infiltration during the early years of the Cold War, and updated versions of these stories could have done the same for our fear of highly-planned attacks by single-minded fanatics using our own institutions and technologies against us. And better, I think, than zombie stories.
So I wonder, in the case of the zombie, if it’s not the “faceless horde” that actually scares us, but rather the upending of our world as we know it. Think about some of our major crises: terrorism and war in the Middle East; a depressed national economy with an uncertain future as a former superpower; environmental destruction and global climate change…just to name a few. I wonder if it’s not the apocalypse in zombie apocalypse that’s really what gets us in the gonads.
Still, how long can the trend last? Some publishing executives will tell you that it’s coming to an end. On the one hand, I agree. There’s only so much you can do with zombies.
But it’s interesting to note some other trends in fantasy fiction: vampires (a perennial), steampunk, and young adult romance with angels—not guardian angels, but sexy fallen angels who become smitten with teenage girls. Hell, it worked for a sparkly emo vampire named Edward, so why not an angsty angel? This last trend is truly interesting. Belief in angels seems to be on the rise. According to a Time magazine article in September 2008, over half of 1,700 respondents believed in the existence of angels. Could it be that the face of these crises, people are turning to religion for answers? And getting angels in return?
The ebbs and flows in the popularity of horror, crime fiction, and film noir are easily traceable to periods of collective anxiety over issues too big for most people to fully comprehend, let alone influence—issues like the Red Scare and the Atomic Bomb in the 40’s and 50’s, the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 70’s, the War on Terror, Global Climate Change, and China as the Next Great Superpower today. Perhaps belief in angels and interest in angel fiction fall into that same category and reflect widespread anxiety in the extreme.
If that’s true, then I wonder if the zombie craze is indeed coming to an end. Fads may come and go. And there are certainly aspects of this zombie trend that are fad-like—the literary mash-ups, for one. But if, as I suspect, the interest in apocalypse fiction (and angels) is rooted in fears deeper and greater than that of terrorists plotting in our backyards, and realizing that the crises underlying these fears will not simply fade away, then I would argue that this zombie fiction trend might have a longer lifespan than God or nature had intended.