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understanding the zombie invasion
the popular culture of the undead
by erik lars myers (@TopFermented)
3.23.09
pop culture


Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the graveyard at night, it turns out there's a zombie invasion and the only thing you can think is: "Again?"

Zombies are an interesting phenomenon, and not only for their keen fashion sense and their undying love of fresh brain. Whether risen from a shallow grave as a result of an ancient unholy rite, or created from the worldwide pandemic of a virus gone horribly out of control, zombies have one thing in common: they're so damned hip.

Of course, anybody with any sort of knowledge of the undead will know that zombies are hardly a new item in popular culture. In literature, the hungering dead date back hundreds if not thousands of years, popping up here and there occasionally when an author is in need of a horrifying and unstoppable supernatural force. The modern zombie archetype can be traced back to 1968's Night of the Living Dead by George C. Romero. We have him to thank for the unending barrage of shambling corpses we have seen for the past 40 years.

Recently, though, something new has happened. It's not so much a different type of zombie (notwithstanding the weirdo running zombies of Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days) so much as it's a different, almost sympathetic, view of them.

The undead and their companions are omnipresent in popular culture, but the past few decades have shown strange obsessions with them in an odd cycle. It's almost as though we, as a culture, are systematically disarming what horror icons we have left in these modern times.

The 80's and early 90's were fairly werewolf focused. (While not actually undead, werewolves are part of the same canon of horror-related monsters that fulfill that "something mysterious and frightening is coming for you in the night" feeling.) They were treated seriously in American Werewolf in London, Stephen King's Silver Bullet, Wolf, and even the brief television series Werewolf, but sympathy and humor came in the form of Teen Wolf (and Teen Wolf Too AND the Saturday morning cartoon Teen Wolf). It's hard to find something scary after you've watched a high school basketball comedy movie about it starring Michael J. Fox.

The 90's and early 00's brought us full-swing into vampire territory, the onslaught of vampire movies are too numerous to fit into this short column. High points include Dracula (of course), the Blade series, Interview with a Vampire (noteworthy for the thousands of books Anne Rice wrote), and Underworld. Where's our disarming of the horror of vampires? With everybody's favorite: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel which used not only comedy but romance to offset any horror vampires might have had left. Without this, the sympathetic and goth-ly romantic vampires of Twilight would probably never have existed.

And now? Zombies. George C. Romero is still up to his old tricks, releasing actual real horror zombie movies (all related to Night of the Living Dead) and lots of others are following in his footsteps. Still, we've already seen the beginning of the end of zombies. 2004's Shaun of the Dead was the first clear parody of zombie flicks and Max Brooks's Zombie Survival Guide is a tongue-in-cheek look at what to do in case of a real zombie invasion (though his followup World War Z is chilling). You can now order funny or cute zombie t-shirts and even plush toys. As a final parting shot to any sort of terror credibility they might have, they've even been incorporated into Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Like everything else that was once a horrifying symbol of the unknown, our modern entertainment culture has turned zombies into something fashionable and cute.

What happens when we run out of horror icons? Hard to say. There is plenty of horror in the world without factoring the undead into it, but it's hard to find the cute and funny side of genocidal dictators or religious wars. Perhaps that's why we spend so much time lampooning and disarming the horrors that aren't directly looming over us. With any luck, we can deal with the real life monsters before the actual zombie invasion begins.


ABOUT ERIK LARS MYERS

Writer, beer drinker, brewer. Not necessarily in the order. For more, check Top Fermented and Mystery Brewing Company.

more about erik lars myers

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COMMENTS

sandra thompson
3.23.09 @ 9:34a

Personally, I don't like zombies. I'll be glad when they're all gone, and a new crop of vampires shows up.

adam kraemer
3.23.09 @ 10:22a

To be fair, there was the 1993 Andrew Lowery vehicle "My Boyfriend's Back," in which he came back from the dead to take his dream girl to the prom and try to avoid eating his best friend in the process.
Which gave me one of my favorite movie quotes ever:
Grandmother: "Oh, boy, if I had a nickel for every one of my friends your grandfather ate..."
Eddie: "You'd have eleven nickels."

[edited]

russ carr
3.23.09 @ 1:12p

For the past few years, Marvel Comics has been running zombie-themed miniseries, featuring their superhero characters as super-powered zombies who schlump around doing the things zombies do. The series has been popular enough to cause crossovers with the "real" Marvel Universe, as well as spawning zombie-variant covers on comics that don't even have zombies in them. The latest spin is the upcoming "Marvel Zombies vs. Marvel Apes." Ish.

I'll stick with The Serpent and the Rainbow. Or better still, a different kind of zombie.

erik myers
3.23.09 @ 1:29p

Oh.. y'know, I actually meant to bring up the Marvel Zombies comics. They're awesome. The crossovers start to feel a little gimmicky, though. But I suppose it kinda keeps with the trend.

I also should have mentioned the huge rash of zombie video games in the past 5 - 8 years.



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