A little alteration to a favourite quote of mine (props if you can name the source) seems to sum up this monster’s fortunes of late: zombies are indeed hot right now.
And I, alongside other writers, find myself caught up in the shuffling, groaning popularity. Such popularity comes with all the typical responses: hard-core fans bemoaning new works; detractors bemoaning the appearance of ‘yet another zombie film/book’; and a quieter group of fans steadily hoovering up the entrails and flapping, dislocated jaws that are hitting more and more pages and screens. The question for many people is: why now? Why so hot right now?
When I mentioned to my partner that I would be writing a piece for World Zombie Day she calmly said: ‘Oh, when is that?’
This off-hand response really summed it up for me. My girlfriend is not a zombie fan. She writes historical fiction and has never read a zombie novel or really seen much of the zombie-canon of Romero et al. But she has sat through two seasons of The Walking Dead because she, like a lot of people, was really caught up in the buzz of that show. To her the idea of a World Zombie Day was not laughably ridiculous. I went on to explain that events happen across the globe in 50 different cities to raise money for issues like hunger and homelessness. It seemed obvious and natural to her. Zombies have come a long way.
Whether you credit the origin of the modern zombie phenomenon to George A. Romero’s seminal Night Of The Living Dead, or earlier works such as William Seabrook’s The Magical Island and White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, it’s important to recognise the journey that the shuffling hoard has managed.
From those early beginnings, many of which now have cult status, a whole sub-genre of horror was born. It developed in the 1980s with works such as Evil Dead and progressed, as genres do, to the self-reflective stage in the 90s with Idle Hands. It’s not hard to see that zombies have been present in fiction and cinema for a long time as writers continued to use the sub-genre to examine all kinds of themes. But it is only in the last few years that zombie texts have started grabbing headlines and infecting larger audiences.
The academic community has been slow to investigate the recent popularity of zombies, feet-draggingly slow. But there are a few dedicated exceptions that are examining the issue with an eye to finding some cultural trends.
In an interview for Penn State News, a college e-zine, Professor Peter Dendle suggests our modern, technology-driven society is “fixated on this creature specifically because there’s fascination as well as repulsion. There must be something viscerally satisfying about the simplicity of the zombie’s cravings and impulses.” I think this idea neatly addresses why zombie narratives have an odd attraction for modern audiences. As our lives get more and more complicated and interlinked, there’s a kind of freedom in the simplicity Dendle notes.
Others have suggested an economic factor – that when recession and hard times hit, the interest in zombie fiction rises. I find the argument that zombies are a metaphor for the worst kind of consumerism, a mindless need to devour resources, fairly compelling. Shopping centres and ‘malls’ have a long history in the genre, but the supermarket in particular brings out the zombie in me: the fluorescent lighting, the slow moving and mumbling crowd, the vacant look in everyone’s eyes.
But there is also something stupefying about seeing all that food in one place, in one shopping trolley. It’s like part of my brain recognises that this isn’t really the way food was supposed to be acquired. I haven’t hunted and I wouldn’t go as far as calling a trip to Morrisons ‘gathering’. There are times when I find myself gripping the handle of my trolley until my knuckles turn white…
Whatever the reason, zombie-appeal is undeniable and has a far wider reach than many give it credit. Books, films, TV, and computer games are all obvious sites of contamination. But it’s the fitness industry that has surprised me the most. Running apps like Zombies, Run! are increasing in sophistication and popularity, giving a narrative and designated missions to a morning jog.
I can’t think of a better way to motivate me to finish that last stretch of the street than the threat of zombie attack. And the notion I might actually survive a zombie apocalypse due to my moderate level of fitness is oddly reassuring. Official zombie runs and interactive city chase games like 2.8 Hours Later are all fantastic fun and a great addition to a fitness routine. If I lived nearer a big city I’d attend more of these apocalyptic events, but then the isolation of living in the countryside has certain survival benefits if the real deal did happen.
Returning finally to zombie fictions, one of the key factors in their current success seems to be a willingness in both writers and readers to experiment. There are works of parody like Pride And Prejudice And Zombies or zom-coms like Warm Bodies. Arguably even more exciting is the move into so-called high art or literary modes in examples like The Returned and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. It feels like there is a great sense of play in the zombie sub-genre right now.
This is roughly where my debut, Your Brother’s Blood, comes in: a zombie-western that tweaks a number of zombie tropes. When I started writing the novel five or so years ago, I had no idea zombies would be so current at the time of publication (I also had no idea it would take five years to write). It’s exciting, but also intimidating, to have my work step onto these crowded streets and – with its arms raised and growling – see it act the part. I hope Your Brother’s Blood can shuffle along with the best of them.