How the zombie became King of the Monsters

You might have noticed it: somewhere in the last 80 years or so, zombies started showing up everywhere. It started with a trickle in the ’30s — early movies like “White Zombie” and “Revolt of the Zombies.” But the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s went by uneventfully, with only a handful of ghoul movies being made — outside of the classic “Night of the Living Dead.”

Cut to 2012 and you can buy a version of Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice” teeming with ghouls. For the third year in a row, people converged on Rosendale to celebrate Zombie Fest. As they make the rounds this Halloween, your kids might even pick up zombie-themed candies. And AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is now one of the highest-rated dramas on TV.

In June, violent cannibalistic attacks — caused by people using a synthetic form of cocaine known as “bath salts” — prompted the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a press release reassuring the American populace that the Zombie Apocalypse was not, in fact, on hand. That’s not even a joke.


I have a good friend — let’s call him “Tom Servo” — who got so pissed off about our cultural fixation with zombies that’s he’s entirely written off the monster sub-genre as lazy, overused and ultimately stupid. Can’t say I agree with Servo totally, but he might have a point.

But how have the living dead managed to bite and infect the zeitgeist? I can think of a few reasons.


Millennials were lied to

Most people born between 1983 and, say, 2004 grew up hearing that the world was going to end literally any second. Well before the Y2K, way before “The X-Files” ever began, Fox got into the business of airing questionable content. Specials about Sasquatch, aliens and the end of time were broadcast seemingly every day. Slews of Nostradamus-themed apocalypse shows spouted nonsense about the “predicted” soon-coming end.

And then, come 1999, all the adults (sort of) bought into it. I happened to work at a grocery store during the whole Y2K thing. I helped ring up cases of canned foods and bottled water, pasta, Kool-Aid packets and dried fruits — anything that’d last. Sometimes people weren’t smart and bought perishables: meat to feed a family of five for three years; lettuce.

More people properly outfitted themselves for those fictional End Times than most people do for a real-world hurricane.

If it wasn’t a fake disaster, we had real ones. Sept. 11, 2001 set a grim tone for an entire decade, making us all feel completely unsafe everywhere we went. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita all but destroyed one of America’s most beloved cities. For more than 10 years, we’ve fought terrorists in an unending battle.

Millennials were raised in war and despair. Doesn’t it make sense they’d fantasize about the end?


Self-empowerment fantasy

People — most of whom would be toast if anything catastrophic actually happened, myself included — love to believe that they’d be able to survive the Zombie Apocalypse.

As one of the most defeatable, slowest-moving monsters ever devised by man, the rotting biters seem like they’d go down easy. Unlike other mythological foes — vampires or werewolves — zombies don’t need special weaponry or strategy to defeat. They’re more like target practice.

For a country founded on the unalienable right to gun ownership and fixated with the can-do attitude, zombies are America’s ultimate psychological foe. Anyone with a pistol can take them down — in a hail of gunfire, hopefully looking like Bruce Willis in “Die Hard.” Only those with resourcefulness and gumption would survive.


There is one comment

  1. Elissa

    “Vampires, I suspect, have a psychological appeal to straight women because they represent a bad boy. They’re the new Mr. Darcy.”

    Well played.

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