Please explain the zombie fad.
March 31, 2010 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Where and when did all this zombie silliness start? Why?
posted by space_cookie to Society & Culture (44 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

Though if you mean more recently, then perhaps sometime around the release of World War Z, or maybe Left 4 Dead?
posted by Grither at 10:14 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

It was their turn. Vampires were hot for a while, then got sort of overexposed. Ranging a little farther afield, remember the trucker/CB radio craze?

People try to explain zombies all over the place. For some reason they work pretty well as receptors of projected symbologies. Notice how Romero has used them as a sort of racial metaphor at the end of Night of the Living Dead, to satirize mass consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead, and as overly baroque political allegory in Land of the Dead.

But really, these things come along, they get popular, they get overexposed, and they go away for a while. Nothing really special about zombies.

(Unless it has something to do with the fact that if you're going to make a zero-budget horror flick with a camcorder and some friends, zombies are probably the easiest and cheapest to pull off. No moldy old castles or fancy lab equipment or spaceships required. But I still think it's mostly random.)
posted by Naberius at 10:17 AM on March 31, 2010

I think the current and possibly winding down zombie trend started far before World War Z and Left 4 Dead. I think it started back up with 28 Days Later (2002), and then the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004).
posted by utsutsu at 10:18 AM on March 31, 2010 [6 favorites]

Around the same time the A-Team silliness and so forth started. Which is to say, about 15-20 years after the children who non-ironically enjoyed something grow up to be (nominal) adults who pretend to ironically enjoy that same thing while actually secretly non-ironically enjoying it.
posted by DU at 10:20 AM on March 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you ask me, the current zombie fad started when the recent pirate fad became passé...

I dig zombies, but not zombies themselves - rather, I've always enjoyed post-apocalyptic fiction and there's a whole of that in the zombie sub-genre (compare that to something like vampire fiction, which is rarely pot-apocalyptic). And it's very ripe for armchair social commentary.
posted by terpia at 10:20 AM on March 31, 2010

I'm skipping a lot of historic steps here. But, in brief:

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968).

2. Sam Raimi makes Evil Dead (1981). Some people in Detroit see it. It gains traction as a cult classic. Those people are generally pretty young and impressionable.

3. Evil Dead 2 (1987). Even bigger cult classic. Lots of people in high school see it and think it's awesome and hilariously stupid (which it is).

4. Army of Darkness (1993). The people who saw Evil Dead 2 when they were in High School are now in college and they're geeky about it and obsessed like only college students can be.

5. Those people go on to be the adults creating content for mainstream stuff like video games, etc. They hash and rehash the stuff they were into when they were young and "cool." In other words, zombie stuff.
posted by The World Famous at 10:21 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think there's anyone pretending to ironically enjoy zombie flicks and other zombie related media.

Because zombies are awesome. For reals.
posted by utsutsu at 10:21 AM on March 31, 2010 [6 favorites]

And this too, shall pass.

When it comes to zombie movies, I'm somewhat of a purist - Romero. Period.
I enjoy others in the genre, but always look forward to what George has to say.
With me the guts and gore were always secondary to what he was trying to show us in the blood spattered mirror.
@Naberius touched on this, and I agree - that's what makes a great zombie movie, the social commentary.
As I see it, no one has stepped up to take Romero's mantle; when he's gone, I doubt there shall be another, and that makes me very, very sad.**

**But I have my fingers crossed that some young turk will get it right and continue the story.
posted by willmize at 10:23 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I too, love Romero, but was majorly disappointed in Survival of the Dead and I loved Diary. I hope the leaked copy I saw is somehow different than the official release.
posted by utsutsu at 10:25 AM on March 31, 2010

28 Days Later was a huge hit even for a horror movie and was, pretty fuckin' rad so then it was zombie everything for a while mostly kept up by stuff like Shaun Of The Dead and World War Z, so there was a lot of high quality zombie stuff around it was selling so now omg zombie everything. It'll pass.
posted by The Whelk at 10:31 AM on March 31, 2010

Also, seconding The World Famous - people who loved the Raimi films grew up and wanted to make their own. I've said before, the zombie story is both really straightforward and very malleable - so you can lots and lots of different types of zombie stories without having to explain much. World War Z is basically "Well, what WOULD happen if zombies invaded the Paris underground or the Amazon or or or.."
posted by The Whelk at 10:33 AM on March 31, 2010

And yes, Zombie stories can be made really cheaply and you don't need a reason per say. You can hole everyone up in a house or another closed location and go from there. It's kind of perfect for first time horror/suspense directors and it got really popular.
posted by The Whelk at 10:35 AM on March 31, 2010

I think The World Famous's timeline, above, is spot-on, with the added note that every time a new iteration of Evil Dead came out, a new, younger crowd got exposed to it at the same time that the older crowds got it reinforced as an old favorite.

In addition, I will say that as a high-schooler in the mid-nineties, when my friends and I could get ahold of a video camera and wanted to make a stupid horror movie, zombies were the easiest of all subjects: they allow for massive grotesquerie if you have a few meat trimmings and ketchup in the fridge, they require no additional special effects, and they create instant suspense without the authors having to explain anything: the story is THEY WILL EAT US OH NO RUN.

So I think a large part of the current zombie-success is based around the ease with which they can be depicted (both graphically and plot-wise) in a narrative; a Cthulhu-type curse or coven of vampires begs for a backstory that requires good writing, a giant robot battle require painstaking construction. Zombies came into fashion with the democratization of video media because they're so thoroughly easy from every angle; just slap some shitty makeup on a guy, have him groan and lurch, and BAM, you got yourself a horror movie.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:36 AM on March 31, 2010

I'd bet the Resident Evil games had something to do with it too.
posted by naju at 10:39 AM on March 31, 2010

Also, 1996 arcade game House of the Dead, and all of it's sequels, including Typing of the Dead.

One of the reasons zombies are a perfect paring with arcade and console games is that it's nearly always politically okay to kill them. Even post-Columbine, what parent could object to their kids shooting the undead?
posted by tula at 10:39 AM on March 31, 2010

It's a geek thing, hence an internet thing...

My google-fu is failing me but, it goes something like this:
Vampires = the cool, in-crowd, kids
Werewolves = jocks
Zombies = Geeks (misunderstood and value you for your brains).
posted by crenquis at 10:40 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think Raimi's getting too much credit, especially when the Evil Dead aren't even Romeroesque zombies. It's the Return of the Living Dead zombie flicks that gave us the whole "Brains! Braaaains!" schtick and continued the Romero approach (albeit tweaked a bit) for a new generation.

Also you could consider the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" as proto-Living Dead.
posted by kimota at 10:43 AM on March 31, 2010

I'd bet the Resident Evil games had something to do with it too.

Agreed, I'd bet computer games generally contributed a lot. There were some shambling un-dead critters in the first Quake game, complete with zombie-moans.
posted by jquinby at 10:45 AM on March 31, 2010

I bet you'd be pissed to find out you missed out on this, a screening of Night Of the Living Dead with live actors doing all the dialogue and live music for the score.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 11:06 AM on March 31, 2010

Here's a deep (ha) pseudo-psychological explanation as to why:

1) because people have an extreme underlying fear of disease and senseless death, and zombies pretty much embody that fear.

and, it might just be me, but:

2) have you ever noticed that zombie movies have this whole adult never-never land thing going on? I'm really thinking about Zombieland specifically, in that apparently going through the zombie apocalypse is like getting to be a kid without any adult supervision: you get to break things and do whatever you want. It's like the ultimate removal of all responsibility.

3) zombies are the ultimate "them", so there's a villain in the story that is totally beyond any sort of empathy and requires no character development. Not like all the sparkly vampires and emo werewolves you get these days.

It's possible that I've spent too much time thinking about this.
posted by _cave at 11:07 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think the current and possibly winding down zombie trend started far before World War Z and Left 4 Dead. I think it started back up with 28 Days Later (2002), and then the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004).

Yeah, 28 Days Letter, definitely. My now-husband and I were first dating when that came out, and we saw it on a date and then had an epic argument in a bar about whether people-with-diseases-with-zombielike-symptoms-but-who-were-still-alive were, or were not, actually zombies, as that was one of the first major works of the zombie genre to feature living zombies. Back then, I successfully argued that they weren't (a zombie by definition is dead), but it wouldn't be worth arguing anymore based on how well-established living zombies are as a trope now.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:24 AM on March 31, 2010

First, zombies ain't silly.

Second, I'm going to agree that the recent trend seemed to really start in the early 00's with 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil movie.

Zombies make an excellent foundation for social commentary, as has already been mentioned with regards to the Romero movies (though I am sorry, but as much as I wanted to, I can't bring myself to like Diary). You may notice that in most zombie flicks, the behavior of at least some of the survivors is far more disgusting than the behavior of the zombies.
posted by tastybrains at 11:40 AM on March 31, 2010

I think Raimi's getting too much credit, especially when the Evil Dead aren't even Romeroesque zombies.

I don't think Raimi deserves credit for the current hipness of zombie stuff. He does, however, deserve credit for turning a generation of geeks on to zombie stuff in the '80s and and early '90s. Those people, having been convinced to explore more about zombie media, learned about the more Romeroesque zombie tropes, and then went on to be the trendmakers of the current generation.

Zombies didn't become popular because 28 Days Later or some other movie or game was particularly well done as opposed to some other trope of the time. They became popular because they're what has been advanced as "cool" by a generation of new adults in charge of media.
posted by The World Famous at 11:43 AM on March 31, 2010

Because zombies are awesome. For reals.

It's true. Zombies are not only awsome, but made of awsome. It's been proven with Science! by (mefi's own) herrdoctor.
posted by bonehead at 11:53 AM on March 31, 2010

Zombies are the new vampires. Seriously. The 1954 Science Fiction novel "I Am Legend" featured slow moving, dimwitted vampires that exhibit many of the symptoms we come to associate with Zombies nowadays, and many of the tropes too (guy locked in his house fighting off zombies, loneliness).

Before Zombies became "the undead," they were people whose souls had been taken over by a voodoo priest, causing them to live a sort of half-life - not fully alive, not really dead. Over time, they morphed into creatures that rose from the dead. White Zombie (the movie) is one such story, and it inspired the band of the same name.

Vampires nowadays are too "cool" or too metrosexual (before Twilight there was Anne Rice) to be the sort of nameless, faceless things that keep you up at night.

I'm going to go ahead and blame 2 things for the current Zombie craze. (pointing to movies from the 80's is all well & good, it lays the groundwork, but why did it pick up so much recently?)

1. 9/11. Yeah, September 11th 2001. We needed a new boogie man. Vampires were all Anne Rice before they even went sparkly. Zombies were the perfect nameless, faceless enemy. Plenty of other 9/11 inspired movies happened around the same time. Stephen Spielberg admitted to putting 9/11 imagery in his 2005 film War of the Worlds (see trivia). We need a way to process our emotions about this event, and Zombies are a good surrogate for terrorists.

2. The Zombie Survival Handbook (2003), which preceded World War Z by a few years. It was immensely popular, and I can see it really taking hold in the minds of people who create (video game makers, movie makers entertainment) and inspiring them to create something Zombie.

Seminal Zombie Moments (IMDB movies with over 50,000 ratings, plus a few other things thrown in):

1992 - Army of Darkness
1998 - Beetle Juice
2002 - Resident Evil
2002 - 28 Days Later
2003 - Zombie Survival Handbook (book)
2003 - First multi-national Zombie Walk
2004 - Dawn of the Dead
2004 - Shaun of the Dead
2007 - Planet Terror
2007 - 28 Weeks later
2007 - Grind House
2007 - I Am Legend
2009 - Zombie Land

I've put together this list of zombies on IMDb by year by way of supporting evidence. It takes about 2 years to get a movie off the ground, and I believe 2003 was the result of Hollywood greenlighting a lot of Zombie projects in 2001/2002, and it just exploded from there.
posted by MesoFilter at 12:11 PM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't forget The Serpent And The Rainbow.
posted by The World Famous at 12:19 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

To be fair, zombies started fading away a couple of years ago and now it's vampire time. Expect vampires vampires vampired everywhere
posted by madeinitaly at 12:43 PM on March 31, 2010

The Evil Dead movies are not zombie movies in any particular sense. Deadites are pretty much a mash of horror tropes thrown together with gleeful irreverence. That whole tangent is pretty senile. You may as well say fuck it and throw Scream in your timeline.

Also, Beetlejuice (again, not a zombie movie) came out in '88, not '98.
posted by furiousthought at 1:05 PM on March 31, 2010

Also, Beetlejuice (again, not a zombie movie) came out in '88, not '98.

My bad re: the year. But don't look at me for including it - someone on IMDB tagged it with "zombie" and it had over 50,000 ratings.
posted by MesoFilter at 1:11 PM on March 31, 2010

Great question, great answers. Here's some rampant speculation from an author's point of view:

- Zombies are the other (as mentioned upthread) and their presence claws away all of our higher-level social cruft to expose our the marvels and monsters that humans create. Like any kind of disaster fiction, the zombie forces humans to extremes. You see the lows of humanity (starving survivors turn to cannibalism and become their enemy: driven mad by insane hunger) as well as the highs (humanity uniting across affiliation).

- The zombie is a disaster that can have an avatar, which is necessary for MAXIMUM DRAMA. Even if the enemy is a tornado or an earthquake, it seems to suck/blow at the exact wrong time - as if it was on purpose! It's the reason why I thought The Road (Cormac McCarthy's book) was a textureless mess. The disaster was so amorphous and irrelevant that it couldn't challenge the protagonist in a meaningful way.

- Zombies make us seem really smart. They are brutal, physical creatures who can tear us limb from limb unless we climb a ladder. It's almost like a puzzle to get away from them, and authors love to show how smart we are.

- Because zombies terrify us they offer moments of intense dramatic release. A good laugh repels fear. Case in point: putting toy masks on zombies in the Xbox game Dead Rising. This is good for writers. Drama requires build-up and release or else it becomes The Road.

- They have a flexibile background. It's generally accepted that zombies happen for a variety of reasons, from bacteria to necromancers, which is a buffet for a writer. To indicate that a vampire occurs because of a reason that doesn't involve drinking blood may require more fleshing out before the reader will accept it. The caveat, as with all buffets, is that if you mix n' match wrong you get a mouthful of ice cream on fried chicken, which I've done both literally as well as metaphorically and it rarely turns out as well as I'd hoped.

So the real question is, why wouldn't you write about zombies?
posted by burnfirewalls at 1:56 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Zombies are a good target. I don't like violent movies, but Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead make it easy; they're no longer human, they're infected, and they must be killed to save humanity.

It's always been an easy costume; rip up some clothes, smear ketchup, act undead, and say Brainssssss.
posted by theora55 at 2:04 PM on March 31, 2010

Best answer: I don't mean offense to anyone, but when these waves go by they're composed of people saying, "No, X really is awesome! It's because it's so awesome!" It's one of those ironically anti-ironic postures that's supposed to disarm irony but ironically bolsters it. Or whatever.

We had this during the (God help us) LOLbacon wave, which must be arriving in, I don't know, Spokane any day now. People would eagerly chime in with "IT'S BECAUSE BACON IS AWESOME!! IT'S BACON COME ON!!" Then, just as quickly, they didn't. So clearly it wasn't really because bacon was awesome.

Anyway, to try to answer your question, I don't think there's a trigger or a deep symbolic resonance at work here. I think zombies became a fad, only what happens to fads now is they become cliches so rapidly that you can play multiple recursive games with how you adopt them. Some people seem to enjoy these games, which is fine; hobbies are fine. It's like imagining you could go back to 1976 and ironically like disco, and then unironically like disco, only in a different way than other people who really did unironically like disco.
posted by argybarg at 2:21 PM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

For me, I've always been a horror movie nerd. Watching Night of the Living Dead, Zombi and other gorefests when I was ten or twelve years old. Those movies made a big impression on me and, I imagine, a lot of other people who are now in their late 30s and having a big say in defining what's prevalent in mass media.

Flying saucers were all the rage in the 50s, so we got Close Encounters and a huge alien fad in the 70s. Same thing.

The more interesting question is what led to the original zombie craze--and that's probably been answered upthread with various reasons why Romero created Night of the Living Dead.

And as far as what keeps the craze going, zombies are at once scary as hell and ripe for comedy.
posted by Kafkaesque at 2:49 PM on March 31, 2010

Best answer: Zombies are an apocalyptic scenario. Eschatology has always been a huge arm of entertainment, but after the USSR went away, a global-scale apocalyptic war became decreasingly plausible. Natural disasters filled that hole in the 1990s, but as an apocalyptic scenario they lack an important characteristic, that's the collapse of social organization. One of the appeals of atomic horror was to provide the catharsis of "society crumbled, and now there's no law, it's me and my shotgun against the world" (A Boy and His Dog, Mad Max), but disaster movies went on the other direction, "let's bring everyone together and we can beat this!", and that's just sappy.

90s-style eschatology went into increasingly ridiculous directions (asteroids, aliens, 2012) but never seemed to find itself. 28 Days Later dug back to Night of The Living dead and brought an apocalyptic scenario that's contemporary and yet just unreal enough to trigger suspension of disbelief. Where a contemporary movie where the US and Russia trade nukes sounds ridiculous because "come on, that's not how it works in real life", a movie with zombies is not subject to that kind of analysis, it's not real life, period. And with that premise they also brought back the social dynamics of a group where everyone distrusts each other, brought together because their own social networks collapsed. If you want an extreme example of this group dynamic, watch Carriers - It's not that great of a movie, but it's a perfect example to show the separation between social dynamics of a zombie apocalypse and the part about killing zombies.

So, yeah, Zombies are the "Red Dawn" of the 21st century.
posted by qvantamon at 3:15 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am 52 and I have always loved zombies and thought they were pretty much always popular. They seem to have been around forever. I just watched the 1932 movie White Zombie which is considered the first zombie movie made. People have always had a fascination with animate corpses.
posted by fifilaru at 3:27 PM on March 31, 2010

I think the key to this upswing in zombie popularity that we have seen in recent years is the idea of a zombie survival plan.
I believe the Zombie Survival Guide was one of, if not the first, mainstream media that posited the idea of being prepared for an outbreak, and that has become a very common thought exercise. It is easy to insert the idea of facing zombies into dally life (unlike most other classic monsters) and therefore injecting a bit of excitement/ fantasy into normal life.
posted by Widepath at 3:32 PM on March 31, 2010

Sure they've always been popular, but I'd say the recent reemergence started with new creativity that resparked the idea in 2002 with 28 Days Later (scary fast zombies in a beautiful artsy film!), and then 2004 with Shaun of the Dead (romzomcom!).

I think it has definitely been played out - with Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, the zombie marches, and Zombie Land (while fantastic) probably being the height of zombies-everywhere.

Now I would say it is dying down. Left For Dead was immensely popular, but I don't know anyone who cares about LFD2, and the quality of zombie-related things seems to be going down a bit.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:41 PM on March 31, 2010

Also - I don't think zombies are scary because they're monsters. I mean, yeah, that's obviously part of it. But moreover, zombie movies are about human reactions: one mistake (poor planning, bad choice of hideout, being with shitty cowardly friends) will cost you your life in a grisly way. People in zombie movies die when other people fuck up stupidly, it's not like they're vampires who are intelligently stalking you and you must match wits with them.

You see an obsession today with people preparing for the apocalypse, a lot of resurgence of self-reliance like canning. Might come from the same place.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:45 PM on March 31, 2010

You might be interested in lectures from Sean Hoade's cultural studies course on zombies at the University of Alabama. You can download the lectures from iTunes U, or you can listen to them on LastFM.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:09 PM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I came by to mention White Zombie too.. an interesting movie if you haven't seen it...

and... to say that I was a zombie extra in the 2004 Dawn remake, cuz I ALWAYS say that in ANY zombie thread...
posted by HuronBob at 7:10 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. 9/11. Yeah, September 11th 2001. We needed a new boogie man. Vampires were all Anne Rice before they even went sparkly. Zombies were the perfect nameless, faceless enemy. Plenty of other 9/11 inspired movies happened around the same time. Stephen Spielberg admitted to putting 9/11 imagery in his 2005 film War of the Worlds (see trivia). We need a way to process our emotions about this event, and Zombies are a good surrogate for terrorists.

Also our fears about biological warfare (an idea which seemed really terrifying to me around the release of 28 Days Later, as I recall). In other words, nebulous, mindless and general-target threats which we have no control over.
posted by lhall at 12:26 PM on April 1, 2010

As another data point, I think my generation (Y) was primed for this interest/expression by things like 'Outbreak' coming out when we were children. I was also terrified, as a kid, by a teacher telling us the story of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'.
posted by lhall at 12:30 PM on April 1, 2010

Great stuff.

- Also our fears about biological warfare | Zombies are the "Red Dawn" of the 21st century.

Every generation has its end-of-days scenario. Not in the "Ancient Mayan Calendar/Ragnarok/Biblical" kind of way, but every generation. For a previous generation it was Russia & The Bomb. For this generation it's Global Warming, killer viruses, economic collapse and all the artificial stuff in our foods. Zombies are a twist on our current end of days scenario.

- Zombies make us seem really smart.

Right, and what's the one thing humans have over other creatures? Smarts. It's not just the authors tapping into this so they can be clever, but humans no longer have to worry about being hunted by wild animals or fantasize about getting a bear or buffalo to prove how manly we can be. Zombies are a surrogate "wild animals." When a civilization discovers us 2000 years after the zombie apocalypse, they'll discover paintings of zombies on the walls of once mighty skyscrapers.
posted by MesoFilter at 5:27 PM on April 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all so much, these were a blast to read.
posted by space_cookie at 8:21 PM on April 1, 2010

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