"They're coming to get you, Barbara…"
– Night of the Living Dead, 1968
The zombie apocalypse is real. Maybe not in the sense of re-animated flesh-eating corpses trudging down your street, but definitely in the pop-culture sense. We're being eaten alive by the damned things, and we love it.
This week sees the opening of Warm Bodies, a feel-good teen rom-(zom?)-com about an adorably lovestruck undead cannibal played by Nicholas Hoult, and it also marks the local premiere – during the Great Digital Film Festival at Cineplex Theatres – of Cockneys vs. Zombies, a movie in which some working-class London yobbos do battle against marauding hordes of the hungry shuffle demons.
Meanwhile, anticipation is high for the summer unleashing of World War Z, the most lavishly expensive zombie epic yet perpetrated by Hollywood – and featuring Brad Pitt as humanity's main hope. This will be met with particular appetite by the millions of people now addicted to AMC's The Walking Dead series, which has for three seasons done what zombies have been trying to do since George A. Romero first had them hammering at the farmhouse door in Night of the Living Dead: storm the living room and eat their way into our hearts. Today, you can tour the world on the zombie ticket – there are English zombie movies (Shaun of the Dead), French (Les Revenants), Italian (Zombie), Spanish (REC), Korean (The Guard Post), Japanese (Versus), and yes, Canadian zombie movies (Fido and Pontypool). You can, if not yet gorged on zombie delectables, also read zombie comics or zombie mashup novels, play skull-popping zombie video games, or dress up as a re-animated cannibal corpse and hang out with like-minded others.
Of whom there are probably millions, and countless more as yet unborn undead. So what gives here? Is it coincidence that zombies are pop culture's most conspicuous viral epidemic at a time when things like technology, science, economics, population surge and politics are making our humanity feel more precarious than ever? Is it them or us that's walking dead?
Apart from the vampire, another figure of predatory postmortal pedigree in conspicuous 21st-century demand, the zombie is, hands-down, the most unkillably popular horror figure of our day. Unlike the vampire, which soars on an updraft of dark romanticism and forbidden eroticism and has its roots in centuries-old literary and folkloric traditions, the zombie – the walking corpse starving for flesh and despatched only with a well-placed projectile to the skull – is neither very romantic, sexy or even that old. Forty-five this year, in fact.
For the zombie apocalypse really began in Pittsburgh in 1967, when Romero, at the time a 27-year-old maker of industrial films and commercials, decided to make a super-cheap horror movie because he was bored with his day job. His inspiration? The day during that day job when he was shooting kid's TV host Mr. Rogers getting a tonsillectomy for public-broadcasting educational purposes. This is kind of gross, he presumably thought. But this is also kind of cool.
So George Romero, also inspired by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and EC Comics of the 1950s, gathers some friends, colleagues and a tiny pot of production money, and starts to make a movie about what happens when a NASA probe to Venus returns to Earth with some irradiated whatever on board. The dead return to life and feed on the living, and the living learn – when not squabbling suicidally among themselves – that the only way to stop the marauding munchketeers is by blowing their brains out. Not that they were really using them, anyway.
And herein lies the secret to the current global zombie apocalypse: By making the monsters – which Romero had originally only referred to as "ghouls" – an unstoppable army of lurching, somnambulistic automatons who could be fired upon with utter impunity, Night of the Living Dead introduced one of the most sensationally visceral and subtextually versatile monsters in the history of horror movies. The zombie, as the figure came to be called – and which really bore only scant relation to its Afro-Caribbean voodoo progenitor – was an all-purpose metaphor of maximum interpretability. Basically, anything that evoked de-individualization on a mass or epidemic scale – consumerism, communism, conservatism, conformism, Vietnam, civil rights, viral epidemic, the Silent Majority, mass media, Homeland Security, reality TV – could be projected onto the infinite blankness of the living dead.
Indeed, so pliant is the zombie metaphor that there are even zombie-metaphor movies: films not literally about zombies but inescapably evocative of them: Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Rabid, The Omega Man, The Evil Dead, 28 Days Later, The Crazies, Cabin Fever, even Steven Soderbergh's recent non-horror clinical disaster movie Contagion.
Romero has spoken of the trip from Pittsburgh to New York he made with his just-completed movie, and of hearing the news on the car radio that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. In that instant, he has recalled, he realized that the stakes had suddenly soared, for his movie had featured the spectacle of a heroic black survivor (played by Duane Jones) who is nevertheless murdered by gun-toting rednecks and thrown onto a burning pile of corpses. Immediately, Night of the Living Dead took on some heavy sociopolitical baggage.
Although more likely stumbled upon than deliberately designed, George Romero's conception of the unstoppably apocalyptic cannibal undead was the perfect horror-movie metaphor for the age of the alienated mass: an age which first came to conscious self-awareness during the 20th century but has only intensified in the digitized 21st. If the zombie thrives, multiplies and marches only more ubiquitously on, it's because the food supply has never been more abundant. As long as we fear that we're losing our individual integrity, the zombie will feast.