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Zombie Zeitgeist: Why Walking Dead & the Zombie Mania Are a Sign of the Times

The Walking Dead season 3 premieres on AMC Sunday. On one hand, it’s as unlikely a pop-culture breakout as we’ve ever seen, this third season of a weekly hour-long television show based on a long-running comic book that’s set after a zombie apocalypse. On the other, it’s no-braaains-er; zombies are more popular than ever. It’s a sign of the times.

Walking Dead’s second season averaged 7 million televisual viewers. An estimated additional 2 million fans downloads the show via unauthorized channels. And it was iTunes’ tenth-most legally downloaded show of 2011**. A full nine million people tuned in to the March season finale. Nine. Million. Viewers. Are watching a zombie drama on the prestige cable network that hosts the erudite sensation Mad Men. That’s like a Slayer album selling as much as the Eagles’ greatest hits.

The legions of the undead have been growing exponentially for the past decade. Vampire chic comes and goes regularly, but this unprecedented zombie mania has been perplexing pop-culture pundits for years now. They have their theories. I think I figured it out.

The Neverending Night of the Living Dead

The undead are trending, but they’re nothing new. Supernatural stories have been around as long as people have. Horror has an elemental appeal, partially because fear is an important motivating force. All animals have survival instincts, and fear feeds them. But fear of the dead—as opposed to fear of dying—is one of the traits that distinguish us from lesser animals.

Generally speaking, if an animal dies, other quadrupeds note the corpse, move on, and continue with their lives. You’ve seen flies buzzing around a fly strip or windowsill that’s littered with fly corpses, right? What is death to them? Apparently, it’s not a big deal. They certainly don’t talk about it. But have you ever seen a person going about his business, oblivious to a nearby pile of bodies? Humans, we get a look at a corpse, and next thing you know, we’re formulating rituals, incantations, and folklore.

Postmortem animus piques our imagination, as it did long before Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, George Romero, and Robert Kirkman spun their masterworks. If life has one certainty, it’s this: Man is mortal. We will all die. And that shit lasts forever. Questions of afterlife and reincarnation aside, once people die, they remain stone-cold dead forever.

But, as Stephen King wrote, sometimes they come back. There’s a whole genre of true-life tales about people who returned to life after submerging in ice-cold water or flatlining during an open-heart procedure. Last fall, archaeologists discovered an 8th century Irish burial site in which the corpses had big rocks stuffed into their mouths, presumably to hobble their choppers if the interred remains awoke, rose, and were hungry. Why knows what made that precaution necessary? And, if reports are to be believed, some 2,000 years ago, one guy reportedly returned to life a full three days after he died. It fascinates us, the idea that there might be exceptions to this inescapable, universal truth.

But, generally speaking, returning from the dead just doesn’t happen. Unless you’re in a zombie story. Or unless you’re a disciple of the pop-cult. If you take regular strolls through the walled city of popular culture, you are surrounded by the undead, in one form or another.

28 Years Later, or, Songs of the Living Dead

Why are zombies all the rage? The answer occurred to me last summer, as I was reviewing a CD by a band called Sublime With Rome.

In the review, I recounted the band’s history:  The group’s marquee players were two-thirds of a rock band called Sublime. Sublime was a 1990s act that released its self-titled major-label debut in ‘96. Sadly, Sublime’s brilliant singer-lyricist-guitarist, Brad Nowell, had bad habits. He fatally overdosed before that record was even released. Their singer dead, the group disbanded. Defunct, Sublime reached new heights. The band sold around five million copies of its posthumously released album. And it didn’t stop there.

In 2009, Sublime regrouped with Rome Ramirez, a new singer who was a serviceable simulacrum of the late, great Nowell. After a legal challenge from Nowell’s family, the group rechristened itself Sublime With Rome. Sublime With Rome toured, playing best-of Sublime sets. After some time on the concert circuit, the outfit started writing new material. Eventually, they reunited with the guy who produced their big album. And 16 years after Sublime’s posthumous major-label debut, the rejiggered band recorded a CD full of tunes that sound like watered-down leftovers from the big LP.

And though this argument singles out the Sublimes, let’s be fair: Getting a band back together is not without precedent. Groups from the 1950s and 1960s like the Coasters and the Beach Boys still tour, many of them with substantially altered lineups. Lynyrd Skynyrd still records and tours. Hell, the Glenn Miller Orchestra is the road (seriously). We love music from our golden years. We love comebacks. What was the breakout, buzz-generating performance from the Coachella festival? The Tupac hologram.

More recently, another iconic 1990s band, Alice in Chains, reunited more than a decade after the death of their lead singer, with a new vocalist in tow. The new Alice in Chains singer was a reasonably close replacement for the group’s untamable original frontman. And the album was no great embarrassment to the name (unlike, say, the Jane’s Addiction relapse albums). Compared to the Alice in Chains disc, the Sublime With Rome album felt hollow. After all, Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell had previously written two-thirds of the band’s songs and sung its wight-touch background vocals.

But Sublime With Rome attempted to replace Sublime’s triple-threat lyricist-singer-guitarist with a gifted kid who is ultimately a pale emulator. This new incarnation as Sublime With Rome, I concluded, was Sublime without its soul. Like Day of the Dead‘s Bub the zombie, it was this diminished thing going through the motions of its lost life.

And what kind of album were these albums? How to describe them? They weren’t exactly reunion albums; the bands hadn’t gone their separate ways and later reconvened, classic lineup intact. No, these were not reunion albums; they were resurrection albums. The Sublime With Rome album was not without its merits, so I tempered restrained myself from calling it “zombie Sublime.” And then it occurred to me:

No wonder zombies are popular now: Even when something dies, it never stays dead. In this era, nothing ever goes away.

Pop Culture A.D.

Look at the very movement Sublime and Alice in Chains represent: 1990s alternative rock. It never left the airwaves. Alt-rock is the new classic rock. (In fact, alt-rock is older now than the Beatles were when the term “classic rock” was coined.) You’ll be hearing Sublime’s “Date Rape” and Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song” when you’re 80—probably on the same radio stations that are playing them now. (Assuming radio still exists then.) Alt-rock went straight from contemporary to oldies.

In 1997, The Onion ran this shocking headline: “U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out Of Past.’” As with the best Onion headlines, it may have been fabricated, but it was true.

As the millennium turned, it was an interesting time to be alive, because everything that had ever been in was in — again, if not still. If you dug swing dancing and zoot suits, you could don your favorite retro gear and go find a place to Lindy Hop. If you were into hot rods and rockabilly, you could get decked out like Fonzie and ogle some kittens in the right bar.

Since the 21st century arrived in all its ontological vagueness, the cultural space-time continuum has only grown more permeable. If you thought zoot suits were a laughable throwback, what do you make of steampunk, the movement that combines futuristic technology and Victorian fashion?

It’s a minor miracle that acid washed jeans, bonnets, and Bobby sox haven’t resurfaced as a day-to-day presence yet. (Some modern hardcore kid is probably ironing one or more of them in preparation for a show tonight.) From pierced modern primitives to Messianic Jews, a modern citizen can choose from a winding smorgasbord comprising millennia of culture, artifacts and trends. We are surrounded by everything that anybody can remember.

And as signifiers from so many dead movements stack up around us, what’s popular with all the hip kids (read: the coveted Adults 18-49 demographic)? Zombies. And vampires. Everywhere we look, some defunct thing has risen and resumed its long slouch toward Burning Man.

Maybe that’s not the entirety of why zombies are popular. I’m sure nobody looks at revived trends like 8-bit, 1992-style videogames and thinks, “You know what? That makes me want to check out some zombie comics—wait, there’s a TV show? I’ll watch that instead.” Culture doesn’t work that way; it preys on our subconscious. Zombies, vampires, the undead — they’re in the air. It’s the zeitgeist.

THE PAST IS FOREVER PRESENT

Why the past’s violent intrusion in our present? Sometimes we won’t let go of it. Sometimes forces larger than us unleash it on us.

And circa 2010, why is undead horror a popular trend? This immediate and eternal return, I believe it scares us.

As we’re swimming in a few hundred years of culture, everything is equally present and accessible. The waning days of the alt-rock era coincided with the arrival of the internet and another watershed moment in American pop culture.

After Generation X, we’ve entered a state of perpetual adolescence. We don’t want to let go of the things that once made us happy. And now, radio isn’t the only place where the oldies live on. With YouTube, the cloud, and cheap 2-TB hard drives at our fingertips, we no longer have to relinquish our media collections every time we move. Now we don’t require vast physical space to store the movies and albums and comics that fill our minds. Like a pet zombie, we can keep the past on a leash.

It’s all there for the taking, and as we chose our pop-culture pastimes, preference has become more an issue than accessibility. Patton Oswald’s essay “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die” examines the internet age of mashups and infinite archiving. The comedian and pop-cult sage observes, “We’re on the brink of Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” If popular culture has not, as Oswalt warns, become self-aware, then its programmers sure as shite have.

And this is the thought that haunts us in the back of our brain: Everything that ever was is equally valid and valueless. And present. Pop culture used to wash out with the tides. But now, in an age of infinite retrieval, there’s nothing intrinsically hip or special about the new hotness we adore. Podcasts, proliferating cable stations, movies, comics — there’s more cool new stuff than there are hours in the day. It’s a golden age. We’re deluged with cool content. We know we’re missing something.

Our favorite pop culture products make us feel special. Even though we can hold on to them forever, now we can’t ignore the fact that they’ll be obsolete in record time. It’s a cursed eternal life.

Note the growing trend — some would say epidemic — of tattoos. What are tattoos if not a brand to mark a belief? Each band logo, tribal tat and memorial banner declares, “As I feel now, so shall it always be, forever and ever, amen”?

But now we know we’re mere inches away from the unfathomable infinity beneath the surface.

We say we want new hotness, but we’ll settle for more of the same. The Illuminati behind the culture business know it. Sublime exploiting their back catalog is a cynical reanimation, but that’s crumbs on the table. Reanimation isn’t just a music thing.

I Walked With A Studio Executive, or, Living Dead of the Living Dead

Alt-rock isn’t the only walking, stalking, decaying matter that has us in its cold grasp. We can feel death and obsolescence coming for us all.

Our $2,000 computer that flies through the internet? In three years, evolving code and increasing bandwidth demands will render it an Easel. The smart phone that we carry everywhere, our lifeline to the world around us? Better not buy a two-year contract for it. Today’s solution is tomorrow’s liability. We’re always fighting against rapidly accelerating cycles, whether it’s technology or entertainment.

The fossilization of alt-rock radio was made possible, in part, by the corporate takeover and streamlining of commercial radio. And if you think Clear Channel has a conservative strategy with its 850+ radio stations, imagine how not-risky a movie studio like Universal is, when 20-some movies account for its 2011 new-release business?

Movies, perhaps the most glorious creative medium in human history, are being drained by stories that just won’t die.

Hollywood loves resurrections, whether they’re a plot point or business model. Tinseltown is infamously in the thrall of sequels and reboots. 2011 saw a full 27 sequels to major movies.

Even the myriad manifestations of the meta motif find yesteryear clinging to life by feeding on today’s limited resources.

Hollywood wasn’t content to restage Psycho for a shot-for-shot recreation. Now Fox Searchlight is mounting Hitchcock, a bio pic about Albert Hitchcock’s time making the horror classic. And HBO is about to serve up The Girl, another bio-film about the filmmaker — this coming from the network that produced a movie about the making of Citizen Kane. Instead of producing a new suspense-horror classic, respectable studios are making movies about the making of suspense-horror classics.

And it’s hard to blame them for their sequel mania, when big tentpole movies go limp.

What can we blame for the waterlogged disaster that is the Battleship movie if not nostalgia gone amok? Mary Shelley herself could not have conceived the horror of a board game’s essence grafted into the corpus of a Michael Bay-style movie. The Battleship game may still be a perennial favorite, but the $220 million Battleship movie is certainly an abomination tantamount to graverobbing.

Hollywood suits won’t let the past rest in peace. This summer, the Spider-Man franchise/brand/intellectual property/whatever returned from the grave after a mere five years sub-terra. Granted, it did respectable box-office numbers, and while it qualified as a blockbuster, it didn’t seem to genuinely excite audiences on a mass scale. And for a $250 million budget, it should have.

If not hypnotized by the Ghost of Box Office Past, maybe Sony and Universal would have dumped that money into an innovative tentpole movie. Or maybe they would have if the Frankenstein paradigm weren’t the mode of the moment. Either of those reanimated IPs could have paid for eight Loopers and four Scott Pilgrim vs. the Worlds. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the movies with staying power usually aren’t the ones that scored the month’s biggest weekend grosses.

Universal decided it could pony up a quarter billion dollars for Battleship, but not fund an epic multi-media series based on Stephen King’s bestselling Dark Tower books that would have made the vastly successful Lord of the Rings movies look like a miniseries.

The past is preying on us from within and without. It’s clambering for our money — if not flesh — and if we’re looking backward, then the creative landscape of the future becomes a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland littered with relics from the olden times.

Some spent commodity is always taking a bite out of our collective ass.

One day, something you love will become a resource-sucking liability.

The past won’t go away, and the present and future are just making the problem worse. All of our yesterdays are moving at us in a horde.

No wonder we’re worried about Grandma clawing her way out of the coffin, starved, with no memory of the great times we once had.

Because nothing goes away forever. Not anymore.

And the welcome return of the weekly Walking Dead? The show isn’t a fantasy. It’s a parable.




  • Quiet Wyatt

    A very interesting thesis, Mr. Ferris! Good food for thought.

    What comes to my mind after reading this is a different nuance about our fear of the past. To me, what’s most horrifying about a zombie isn’t its fleshly decay nor murderous appetite, but the way it simultaneously *is* and *isn’t* someone you once knew. It’s a wretched mockery of someone you loved, the same body (container) but missing its soul. Stephen King got to the heart of this in Pet Sematary, where the dead always come back changed for the worse.

    The pop culture analogy then applies to both sequels and nostalgic resurrections. Sequels are nearly always failed attempts to recapture the magic of the original; sometimes they’re so transparently shameless in imitating everything good about the original that they actually retroactively taint the original with their stink (Austin Powers 2 and The Hangover 2 come to mind). They’re monstrous facsimiles of something we liked or loved, but *off* just enough that the illusion collapses, leaving an aftertaste of failure and shame. Nostalgic resurrections like Battleship are much the same, as you well described.

    At least in the case of Battleship, though, the movie is so far removed from its inspiration that it doesn’t forever ruin the experience of playing the game. It seems to me that sequels and remakes are more dangerous, as they usually try to emulate the originals too closely, making their failure more horrific/painful/embarassing. Hmm… am I actually arguing for cloning as a metaphor rather than zombies? I’m not sure. You’ve got me thinking, though.

  • http://www.popdose.com/ DwDunphy

    A massive piece of work here, D.X. Good stuff!

  • KingP

    Or. . . .perhaps because of our ubiquitous technology have we ourselves become the zombies, clumsily shuffling through an existence that has become a pale imitation of “real life;” one that we try to realize vicariously via our gadgets? Eh?

  • Ferris

    Cheers, mates. I like the zombie avatar theory. Thanks for reading!