I’ve never seen a zombie movie or read a zombie book, but that’s not going to stop me from enjoying the theorising of others about the popularity of the genre.
Right now, of course, vampires are in the ascendant, but approximately 5 times the number of zombie moves were made in the 2000s so far (208 of them) as in the 1990s (46), after decades of slow but steady growth in the industry. Apparently these movies are bloodbaths and some involve cannibalism.
Why do we care about zombies? Here’s where the theorising (by Paul Waldman in the Prospect) begins:
(1) Zombies remind us that death lies in wait, no matter how good our diet, no matter how careful we are. They function as memento mori similar to those in paintings, archietecture, literature, and other art forms.
“For all the metaphoric possibilities zombies hold, at their most fundamental, they are death itself, pursuing us through the countryside: ‘Zombies are our destiny writ large. … Their ineptitude actually makes them avoidable, at least for a while. If you’re careful, if you keep your wits about you, you can stave them off, even outstrip them — much as we strive to outstrip death.'”
(2) Zombies are sort of human but not entirely. Similar to the scapegoat in Girardian terms, the zombie, like other monsters, can be both an acceptable villain and an acceptable victim because they remind us enough of ourselves for their actions to be cathartic, but they’re different enough that they distance us from our own actions:
“When you play a zombie game, you get to act like a psychopath without saying to yourself, ‘I really shouldn’t be enjoying acting like a psychopath.’ The zombie game allows us to indulge our inner barbarian without self-doubt.”
The same is true when enjoying a zombie movie, because though you’re not directing the action as in a video game, you’re implicitly condoning it by watching it.
(3) Even though they thrive on lots of firearms and little government control, zombie movies encourage us to believe that collective action is salvific:
“What ensures survival in a zombie story are the progressive ideals of common cause and collective action. A small group of people from varying backgrounds are thrust together and find that they can transcend their differences of age, race, and gender (the typical band of survivors is a veritable United Nations of cultural diversity). They come to understand that if they’re going to get out of this with their brains kept securely housed in their skulls and not travelling down some zombie’s gullet, they’ve got to act as though they’re all in it together.”
More about movie and literary monsters and Girardian themes here.
Update 1 July: Morning Edition offered a primer on zombies and pop culture, including this:
“Zombies are also the perfect faceless villain, says undead fan Trent Reid. They’re not alive, and they don’t have too many fans, so ‘[whatever] you do to them doesn’t really matter — you can kill them in the most ridiculous graphic ways.’
“Like in the video games Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead. And parents don’t complain about the carnage — at least not the way they did about their kids killing hookers in Grand Theft Auto. If those had been zombie hookers, it’d be a different story.”