Zombies Just Won’t Die

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Woman dressed as a zombie
The “walkers” at Zombicon love you for your brains. You’ll have to outrun Shannon if you don’t want yours to be her dinner.

They’re the pleated-front pants of movie monsters. Experts keep predicting they’ll fall out of fashion, but like husbands and boyfriends who just don’t want flat-fronts, monster fans want their zombies.

It’s not just movies. There are zombie-themed parties, and zombie 5K runs. There’s even a charity walk in my town where people dress up as the undead.

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My 35-year-old brother and his 16-year-old daughter share a zombie bond. He’s a “Walking Dead” fan, she’s got an “I (Heart) Zombies” bumper sticker on her very first car. Even Noam Chomsky has weighed in on them.

It all leaves me wondering: Why are people are so enamored of the undead when there are so many vampires, werewolves and lawyers roaming the streets?

Usually these things come in waves, eventually to be replaced by something else. But not zombies.

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I decided to track down an expert.

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Robert Horton is a film critic for Seattle Weekly and teaches film at Seattle University. And he’s co-author of a zombie-themed comic book, “Rotten,” set in the Old West. His new book, “Frankenstein,” from Columbia University Press, looks at the 1931 film and its legacy.

Horton regularly gives talks about how 1950s alien invasion movies offer insight into the Cold War fears of Soviet invasion. I’ve heard this theory before, so I asked him whether the current zombie craze tells us anything about our own current fears.

“It’s interesting that people have been announcing that the zombie thing was over for at least five years now, but it keeps staggering right along,” Horton said.

Zombie films have come and gone ever since 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Their current rise began with 2002’s 28 Days Later.

28 Days Later hit theaters while we were still reeling from 9/11 and zombies have done nothing to slow down since. They have lasted through long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the crashed economy.

And then there’s Edward Snowden, warning us of the creeping power of a soulless government coming at us from all sides, and from which there is no escape.

So is that it? Do zombies represent the hopelessness of a society that has no chance of survival?

It can’t be a coincidence, the BBC says, that “zombies are in vogue during a period when banks are failing, when climate change is playing havoc with weather patterns, and when both terrorist bombers and global corporations seem to be beyond the reach of any country’s jurisdiction.”

Millennial jitters or post-9/11 reaction?
Horton tells me he’s never completely settled on why the zombie genre was unearthed when it was.

“Millennial jitters or post-9/11 reaction?” he said. “The idea of looking out and seeing non-thinking mobs had some resonance during the ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’ phase of the war on terror, so that must have had something to do with it. A mindless horde that feeds on its own kind is a handy metaphor. Of course that could apply to practically any era.”

“I do think there’s something interesting in the difference between the fear of aliens (and especially having one’s identity or lifestyle taken over by aliens) in the 1950s and fear of zombies,” Horton said. “The Cold War threat came from outside; but zombies make us think that the enemy is us. They look like us, dress like us – they were us, until recently.”

They don’t so much suggest the fear of war as the fear of contagion, he said. “They don’t come from outer space anymore; they come from here, because we’ve ruined something, we’ve poisoned ourselves.”

I wondered what your average zombie fan thinks of the phenomenon, so I asked my friend Shannon, who has a decent share of zombie-related posts on her Facebook page.

Shannon has dressed up for Zombicon in Fort Myers, Florida, since 2010. The 26-year-old attributes growing up in the South to hooking her into the zombie craze at an early age.

“Owning and shooting guns out in the woods is a pretty normal occurrence there,” she told me. “I know there are people that are also preparing for economic or government collapse, so they are stockpiling guns, ammo, food, medical supplies, etc., and then they, in passing, make jokes that they are prepared for the zombie apocalypse.”

It gives people an excuse, albeit a humorous one, to act a little compulsive, she said.

Zombies, she said, are all in good fun. Aficionados of other “monsters” tend to take themselves way too seriously.

“There is a community of people that take vampires/werewolves/warlocks/witches quite seriously and become rather dogmatic and even ritualistic, but I feel like zombies are more tongue-in-cheek,” Shannon said. “No one worships zombies or wants to be one. No one dresses like a zombie on a daily basis and claims it is a way of life while wearing tiny brains in little vials around their neck.”

Zombicon is one of Shannon’s favorite events. She and friends join thousands of others, dressed up in fake blood and torn clothes as they invade the streets of downtown Fort Myers for a charity, Pushing Daizies.

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The event features blood and food drives, as well as music, food, drink and children’s areas.

“At first I was shocked as to how many children were there, as I thought that a mass amount of people covered in blood would be a place a little bit inappropriate for children, but they seem to love it as much as the adults,” she said. “I can only attribute it to the fact that they seem so ridiculous, and no one really takes them that seriously that even children think they can outrun them.”

Shannon doesn’t consider herself a fanatic, though she does enjoy pretty much all things zombie: movies, video games and public events.

“They are simple,” Shannon says. “You can’t sexualize, demonize or idealize a zombie. They are just there, acting out on their basic instinctual nature, usually due to some evil virus, so it leaves the rest up to you. You either get bitten and you become one, or you outrun and outsmart them. And I think a lot of people relate to that, or at the very least enjoy the simplicity of it.”

Of course, there’s always somebody who has to complicate it.

“Our collective dreaming of zombies could be an archetypal symbol indicating that something new is emerging from the collective unconscious,” writes Jenna Lilla on the website Path of Soul.  “Change is emerging: ‘a different attitude.’ Possibly our collective dreaming of zombies foreshadows a ‘period of improvement.'”

"Rotten" comic bookPossibly, but Horton and his co-author Mark Rahner certainly weren’t thinking “period of improvement” when they first conceived of their “Rotten” comic books during the George W. Bush administration. Their idea, he said, was to channel their frustrations about the way the world was working during that time.

“So the zombies were a way to see how scary things could be exploited, how governments could encourage fear and ignorance,” he said. “It’s set during the Old West but it was pretty easy to draw parallels with the early 21st century.”

While the vampire genre always trails around the traces of Victorian-era romance, in the zombie genre, “Things are just reduced to blankness,” he added.

“And yet people like to dress up like zombies and go on marches, as though there’s something comforting in escaping from the pressures of thinking and responsibility. It almost seems like a relief.”

In his public talks on the Cold War, Horton contrasts the classic ’50s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with its most recent remake, The Invasion, from 2007.

“Lousy movie, but the one intriguing wrinkle is that while we’re rooting for the humans to retain their precious, imperfect humanity in the original film, by 2007 the flaws and violence of human nature make the whole thing almost not worth fighting for,” he said. “Who needs us, really?”

Even Noam Chomsky has a theory on zombies – and not surprisingly, it mirrors his political views.

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In a Skype Q&A session this month, a college student half apologetically asked him what he thinks is behind the phenomenon. Chomsky was happy to answer, letting loose with a 700-word-plus answer.

In short, Chomsky said that American popular literature has always expressed a fear of an oppressed enemy (Indians, slaves) rising up against the society keeping a boot on its neck.

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“I’ve never seen a real study, but my guess is that it’s a reflection of fear and desperation,” Chomsky said. “The United States is an unusually frightened country. And in such circumstances, people concoct either for escape or maybe out of relief, fears that terrible things happen.”

America, Chomsky said, “has always had of fear of invented dangers. There is a kind of paranoid streak in the culture that’s pretty unusual.”