It can be hard to agree on what constitutes a “seminal work.” Not many pieces of media are influential enough to leave a noticeable and lasting impact on our culture, and of course the ones that do usually had influences of their own.
But few singular releases have done more to affect a genre than George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which forever changed horror by introducing the modern zombie to the world.
Reanimated and rotting, these cannibalistic corpses have shambled their way into virtually every facet of horror-based entertainment since their 1968 debut. Onscreen, they’ve had a steady presence over their 4 1/2 decade history filled with the continuation of Romero’s Living Dead series and a legion of imitators. By now, the zombie movie is a full-blown sub-genre, composed of films such as 28 Days Later, Zack Snyder’s remade Dawn of the Dead, and even comedies such as Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.
But in recent years, other forms of media have really seen the trend proliferate. Nowhere are zombies more ubiquitous than in video games, which — given their ability to provide hundreds of easily programmable cannon fodder enemies that make for deeply satisfying, guilt-free eradication — are a natural home for the undead. It would be one thing if zombies were contained to popular franchises like Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising that are entirely built around concepts of the undead, but the popularity of gunning down mindless, reanimated foes hasn’t stopped there.
It seems that many video game developers have taken the position that there’s nothing quite so marketable as adding zombies to a game that didn’t have them before. Rockstar Studio’s Old West shooter Red Dead Redemption now has an “Undead Nightmare” expansion and the already popular Call of Duty series combines the two most common video game adversaries with its “Nazi Zombies” mode, now a mainstay of the franchise.
No matter how many gamers insist they’re tired of zombies on blogs or online polls, the trend continues because these games sell; Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and The Last of Us are two of the most anticipated game releases in the coming weeks, and sure enough both have their fair share of walking corpses.
But for the clearest example of zombies at their popularity peak, we need to look no further than television, specifically AMC’s The Walking Dead, which premiered on Halloween 2010. At the time it might have seemed like a risky move to produce an ongoing television series about the zombie apocalypse — a setting rarely fleshed out beyond standalone films. But after the success of Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comic book series, AMC, a network that had set a precedent for taking gambles on unconventional premises with Breaking Bad and Mad Men, took a risk that has paid off better than they ever could have expected.
The Walking Dead’s third season premiere broke records last Sunday when it garnered a staggering 10.9 million viewers. Those are higher ratings than any series this fall, and not just for those airing on cable channels but on major networks as well. And that’s with the extra handicap of DISH customers losing access to AMC; with The Walking Dead, the station has now proved that much of the perceived commercial disparity between broadcast and cable networks is a thing of the past. Television might never be the same, and it’s all because of zombies.
So what makes them so appealing, anyway? What is it about the undead that captures our attention? It might very well go back to the very basic notion of “the other,” the need to define ourselves as human against an inhuman point of comparison. To that end, what’s more convenient than the zombie? They have the body of humans, but they lack anything approximating recognizable intelligence or what might be called a soul.
Beyond that base psychological effect, the whole notion of the zombie apocalypse inspires a huge amount of active engagement from fans in response to one simple question: What would they do if the dead rose from their graves with an appetite for human flesh? While it might be ridiculous to plan for a zombie outbreak, the notion remains irresistible. Every piece of media with zombies causes audiences to put themselves in that position and to try to do better, to last longer.
It plays into the simple need to survive, triggering that unspoken belief that we could transform into an action hero at a moment’s notice. Books like The Zombie Survival Guide and the newly released This Book is Full of Spiders address this desire directly by taking place in a metafictional world where everyone is already wary of attacking zombies and reacts to the outbreak accordingly.
It’s a fantasy that’s spilling into the real world with “zombie runs,” events where everyone dresses up like a corpse and stumbles around, moaning for brains or human flesh. USC has one coming on Nov. 4 — sponsored by the Lutheran Campus Ministry of all organizations. A couple hundred would-be zombies will descend upon the campus and force everyone to realize that while the undead might not be real, their appeal is plenty infectious enough.
Michael Chasin is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column “Fandomination” runs Fridays.