The Real Reason Zombies Never Die

The zombie story is a ready-made allegory for just about anything you care to indict. No wonder they're so popular these days

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How did "The Walking Dead" make it to a second season?

What’s it going to take to kill zombies? I don’t mean individual zombies, who of course can be brought down for good with a shot to the head. I mean zombies as a pop-cultural force. If they were just a fad, they’d be gone by now. I date the current zombie renaissance (if that phrase isn’t in poor taste) to 2002’s 28 Days Later, nearly a decade ago. Fads don’t last that long. Zombies don’t last that long. Yet with the second season of AMC’s The Walking Dead currently underway, the zombies of the screen and the page don’t seem to be going anywhere. Not even the mobile ones. Furthermore, zombies seem to be seeping into real life, with zombie pub crawls, zombie 5k runs, and CDC reports on how to survive a zombie attack. Normally all it takes to bring down a genre is a good parody, like This Is Spinal Tap did with hair metal. Yet zombies have taken not one but two strong hits, in the form of Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, and they just keep on coming. Why won’t this phenomenon die already?

Like it or not, zombie stories just plain work. They go hand in hand with the end of the world, always a fraught subject. They play on multiple fears, from our revulsion at decomposing human remains, to those remains coming at you with cannibalistic intent; to a potential fate worse than death, i.e. the permanent loss of self represented by zombification. There are the mostly immutable rules and internal logic of zombie tales, providing a framework for storytellers that allows them to spin a fast-moving, unlikely yarn without bogging down in explanations. And a zombie story is a ready-made allegory about anything you care to indict, from mob groupthink (Night of the Living Dead) to consumerism (both Dawns of the Dead) to the rape of the environment (the novel World War Z by Max Brooks) to the unexamined life (Shaun of the Dead) to science and/or animal activism run amok (28 Days Later with the twofer!).

But I think it’s simpler than that. People like stories where they can see themselves. And people like to imagine that when the zombie apocalypse comes, they’ll be among the brave, resourceful few standing against the shambling — or, God forbid, sprinting — hordes of the undead.

(MORE: Let’s Talk Zombies: AMC to Air ‘Walking Dead’-Themed Talk Show)

Stephen King, speaking of his killer-virus epic The Stand, once said that there’s something comforting about the end of the world. Everyone assumes they’ll survive; all of their current problems, which seem so daunting today, are suddenly, conveniently irrelevant; and all you ever wanted is just lying around waiting for you to pick it up, including everything you need to fight off the Army of Darkness.

But let’s face it: if that were true of everyone, there wouldn’t be a zombie apocalypse, would there? You couldn’t even get a decent zombie panic going with those kinds of numbers, let alone a full-blown Armageddon. Statistically, you and I and most of the people we know are likely to be eating brains with the rest of them pretty early on. Not as nice to think about as dropping zombies with well-aimed bullets and well-formed quips, but there it is.

(MORE: Zombie 101: Colson Whitehead’s Primer on the Apocalypse)

We’re all special and unique to ourselves and to those who love us, which is as it should be. Just like the inexorably shrinking casts of your average zombie story, we need each other to deal with the undifferentiated masses teeming beyond our walls. But the faceless strangers out there are thinking the same thing about themselves — and the converse about you. When enough people realize this, zombie stories may lose some of their deathgrip on us. But as a fan, I’m hoping that doesn’t happen any time soon.

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