The Rise Of Zombies As Highbrow Monsters

Courtesy of Broadway Books.
Over the past decade or so, zombies have stepped into the cultural spotlight. They have risen from obscurity to reach A List status among the crowded field of horror characters. And, it's not just in video games and blockbuster popcorn flicks, but literature, TV, and government manuals. 

Last May, for example, the Pentagon's U.S. Strategic Command released its contingency plan for a zombie apocalypse. The document walks through a national response to an attack by the undead: containment, triage, local/state/federal response integration. It also addresses several types of zombies including pathogenic zombies, radiation zombies, evil magic zombies, space zombies, weaponized zombies, symbiant-induced zombies, vegetarian zombies, and even chicken zombies (which — brace yourself — are actually real). 
"This plan was actually not designed as a joke," the manual states in the introduction. It turns out zombies help new defense department personnel understand how to plan for real-life, large-scale operations and catastrophes. (Both the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security have training documents using zombies as well.) The Pentagon plan explains that while training a squadron, USSTRATCOM "found out (by accident) that the hyperbole involved in writing a 'zombie survival plan' actually provided a very useful and effective training tool."

Zombies are more than just a curious character in a government disaster training manual. These days, they are also high art, touted like British film actors — highly regarded, pedigreed, culturally important. They show up in well-reviewed books like Max Brooks' World War Z and Colson Whitehead's Zone One. They've also been anointed in our current Golden Age of Television with the cable-ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead. And, on March 17, the CW premieres iZombie, a new series about Liv, a crime-fighting zombie girl. She works in a coroner's office and can see the memories of dead people when she eats their brains. It looks like it could be this decade's Buffy
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In essence, zombies have stumbled their way into possessing class and artistic merit. It's been quite a meteoric rise. A few decades ago (barely a minute in monster years), George Romero's zombie horror films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Day of the Dead (1985) were just B-movies that pre-teens watched late at night on VHS. Now, in retrospect, the films are seen as powerful allegories to the social and economic crises of their time and, in the case of 1978's Dawn of the Dead, a sly satire of consumerism. Even the zombie's origins have more cachet. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a masterpiece, while Bram Stoker's Dracula, as timeless as it is, is not as well-written. (Zombies even show up in the Bible. One could argue that Jesus himself is kind of a zombie.)

Meanwhile, vampires and witches are increasingly entering kitsch status. American Horror Story’s Coven season was a must-see cheesefest. And, ever since Edward and Bella fell in love, it's been downhill for vampires, with soap dramas like The Vampire Diaries draping the genre in overdone velour chintz and cheekbones.

What makes zombies so resonant? Their increasing popularity has led to many articles and books offering theories. Often it's said that zombies become popular during recessions and social unrest. Other cultural commentators credit the genre as a metaphor for consumerism and the loss of individuality. (Check out the zombies who walk down the street glued to their smartphones — maybe you are one, too?) Writer Grady Hendrix goes so far as to say that Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later (2007) is "an effective metaphor for the unstoppable, global spread of Starbucks." 
Courtesy of FOX Searchlight.
That's the thing about our undead friends: they are a versatile, malleable, almost painterly medium of artistic expression. As slow and uncoordinated as they are, they also create higher stakes. "The traditional narrative of the zombie canon also looks different from stories about other paranormal beings," writes Daniel Drezner in Theories of International Politics and Zombies. "Zombie stories usually end in one of two ways — the elimination/subjugation of all zombies, or the eradication of humanity from the face of the earth…such extreme all-or-nothing outcomes are less common in the vampire or wizard literatures."

Whether used dramatically (World War Z, The Walking Dead) or comedically (Shaun of the Dead, Warm Bodies) — zombies are a useful vehicle of expression. They allow us to stare straight into the decaying, milky eyes our greatest fear: death.

Will zombies ever peak like vampires or jump the shark like witches? One way that could happen is if their creators find a way to sexualize them and create undead teen heartthrobs à la Twilight. Actress Rose McIver, the star of iZombie, is beautiful (as was Nicholas Hoult in Warm Bodies), but a scene of her eating body parts with pasta helps keep things gritty. 
Courtesy of The CW.
And, until we achieve global order, zombies are turning out to be very useful. What other paranormal creature is so essential to military, pandemic, and emergency preparedness? No other horror genre helps us feel more secure. It's true: these undead creatures are our friends.
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