The zombies are coming, the zombies are coming!
Just to be clear, we're talking about fictional zombies in movies, television and books. These shuffling, brain-eating creatures have become so ubiquitous that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually has guidelines on how to survive a zombie pandemic. It's all done with humor, although when that guy in Miami ate that other guy's face last year, it felt good to be prepared.
In popular culture, zombies began supplanting vampires a while ago, but now they're becoming the new normal. "The Walking Dead," AMC's series about love triangles and flesh-eating ghouls, is one of the most popular shows on television (it returns Feb. 10). "Warm Bodies," about a lonely young zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who falls for a human (Teresa Palmer), comes out Friday. In June, Brad Pitt will join the mania in "World War Z," one of the year's most hotly anticipated movies. Even the literary world has embraced the genre: Colson Whitehead, a MacArthur-winning author, won critical acclaim for his "legit" zombie novel, "Zone One," in 2011.
Maybe this is just a cyclical trend, and we'll all end up like Randall Skeffington, a character on Comedy Central's supernatural animated sitcom, "Ugly Americans," who became a zombie to impress a girl, only to find that she had moved on to warlocks. Like most trends, though, this one seems to tap into the deeper parts of our psyches. In recent years, we've been scarred by terrorism, war and fears of an economic collapse and environmental doom -- and that's the short list. If we've been seeking escapism with superheroes and boy wizards, perhaps we've been trying to face our fears with zombies.
"I think the response from the public really does have to do with the zeitgeist of a world in which most of us feel we're dancing on the edge of the abyss," says Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer of "The Walking Dead," which broke a basic-cable record with nearly 11 million viewers last fall. "There is a fear that people have, that tomorrow our safe, secure, comfortable lives may be taken away from us. And who will we be? Who will we become during and after that apocalypse?"
Zombies have been connected to civilization's collapse at least since George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" hit theaters in 1968. That low-budget, black-and-white shocker, which daringly cast a black actor, Duane Jones, as its lead, has been variously interpreted as an allegory for racism, nuclear destruction, the Vietnam War and even Marxist revolution, but it definitively established the ground rules for generations of movie zombies. By and large, they are undead, slow-moving, flesh-eating, infectious and taking over the world. As for stopping them, just remember the old adage: Kill the brain and you kill the ghoul.
For years, zombies remained ghettoized, mainly in B-grade horror flicks and Romero's own sequels ("Dawn of the Dead," "Day of the Dead"). But in 2002, Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" juiced up the genre by breaking with tradition and introducing a new breed of superfast zombie. The movie became a hit, spawning a sequel ("28 Weeks Later"), a graphic novel and a comic-book series. Few have dared to copy the zippy-zombie concept, but Boyle's film ushered in a new golden age for the genre.
There are reasons for that, says Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts University and author of the 2011 book "Theories of International Politics and Zombies." According to Drezner's research, roughly one-third of all zombie movies were made after 9/11, and a Google Trends analysis shows that "zombie" searches began rising steadily after the financial crisis of 2008. "Horror movies generally reflect the kinds of fears people had during that age," he says. "In the case of zombies, it's obviously fear of the apocalypse."
Drezner, whose book imagines how zombie pandemics would play out according to different international political theories, concludes -- rather reassuringly -- that most movie scenarios are overly negative, focusing on the animalistic behavior of survivors rather than on their ability to adapt. "Zombie literature tends to be extremely skeptical about humanity," he says. "Increasingly, the zombie genre represents a potentially cognitive trap: If people watch too many of these movies, they'd think, 'Oh, we're all doomed.' "
"Warm Bodies," a zom-rom-com directed by Jonathan Levine, could be an exception. Like "28 Days Later," it breaks a cardinal rule of the genre: It's about a zombie who has feelings. Levine, 36, whose previous films include "The Wackness," a coming-of-age comedy, and "50/50," about a young man's battle with cancer, says "Warm Bodies" covers similar themes of youth, alienation and love.
"For me, the metaphor of being a zombie is, you're this person around a beautiful girl that you're in love with, and you can't express yourself. You feel like the biggest loser in the world," he says. "It's a metaphor for shyness, depression and being trapped in your own body."
Levine's movie, though, raises a question about the future of zombies. Just as vampires have grown popular by becoming less like vampires -- in the "Twilight" movies, they don't even drink human blood -- could zombies be in danger of losing their zombieness?
"It's going to be very tough to have a serious zombie romance movie," says Jonathan James, founder of the online horror magazine DailyDead.com. "But I think people will try it, and I think people will try to do more PG-13 zombie movies. It'll get further and further away from what George Romero did. But it can only go so far."