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George Romero, who popularized zombie movies in the 1960s and ‘70s, “saw zombies as not just a frightening enemy,” according to Antonio Thompson, “but as a vehicle to criticize what he saw as the ills of society.…
The updated annihilation narrative no doubt explains much of the popularity of zombie stories (and also another resurgent genre: the invasion from outer space) and we shouldn’t expect any single answer to questions about cultural cause and effect. But seems to be the exception to the 21st-century zombie story, a throwback to an earlier vision of the lumbering dead.
It’s really only in the past decade that zombies have moved beyond the reach of the traditional horror subgenre and become a story that large numbers of nonhorror fans consume.
At this basic metaphorical level, “zombie economics,” for example, can describe socialist or free-market thinking, depending on which side you believe holds the monopoly on functioning synapses.
Zombie symbolism can be political at other levels, too, but what the zombies stand for varies across stories and also across eras.
Liberal economics, wanton consumerism, or an overregulated and brain-dead citizenry — zombies can epitomize whatever alleged mindlessness the critic most strongly objects to.
The Colorless Hordes But the popularity of the insult doesn’t explain the success of the stories in bookstores or at the box office.
, sees at least one version of the zombie narrative as an update of the “annihilation narrative,” in which “hordes of hostile savages lay siege to a fortress inhabited by a virtuous population of defenders, generally portrayed by white people.” But because today “it would be politically incorrect to portray white conquerors mowing down non-whites …
we turn to the undead as a stand-in for the unwashed hordes who threatened us in the days of yore.” The heroes in “are no longer necessarily white people,” Mc Maken writes, but are nevertheless agents of what white people traditionally represented in 20th century film, namely, order, civilization, safety, and enlightened rule; and these things were in turn provided by the nation-state and its army of military and scientific experts.
They don’t expect the undead to swarm our cities, but they do notice that zombie invasion scenarios have spread through 21st-century popular culture like a pandemic, from tongue-in-cheek literary send-ups like (with the highest-rated first season of any series in cable history). Some scholars, like the University of Virginia’s Paul Cantor, seek to decrypt our newfound fascination with the undead, to discern the hopes and fears of popular culture.
For others, the zombie craze offers a way to communicate their own prior concerns to an audience already drawn to visions of the shambling hoards.