restricted access Is Dead the New Alive?
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Is Dead the New Alive?

Decisions, decisions. In the old days, extruders of zombie narratives had to choose between going with voodoo zombies or Romero zombies, but that was pretty much (dare I say it) a no-brainer: while the legacies of West African cults, slavery, and colonialism had legitimate purchase on the public imaginary, Romero’s shambling flesh eaters had a timeless topicality that spoke with much more immediacy to the world of 1968 and its successive worlds up to the present. And those Romero-style zombies—created by mysterious radiation from outer space, biological warfare weapon run amok, medical experiment gone bad, or some combination of the above? Whatever the cause, does the zombie plague spread only through bite, through blood, and other bodily fluids, or is the zombie agent always already everywhere, like original sin, and everyone carries the nasty, the virus patiently waiting for the host’s death before kicking into high gear mayhem-spreading? Then there was the choice of fast zombies or slow zombies, with a persuasive case to be made on both sides about which speed was scarier. And now the choices are even more complicated with the option of super-fast zombies that seem more like urban ninjas than the walking, shambling, or running undead. And then there’s that dead/undead question: are zombies Lazarus in mass production, the definitively dead, the neurotoxin-driven sham dead, or the 28 Days Later (2002) definitively not dead but crazed and homicidally hungry for human flesh anyway? Can we resist making our zombies a little humorous while scary, a lot humorous while scary, or just completely ridiculous and who cares whether they are the least bit scary? Are movies like Return of the Living Dead (1985), Fido (2006), Shaun of the Dead (2004), and Juan of the Dead (2011) funny movies that are differing degrees of scary or scary movies that are differing degrees of funny?

Of course, before worrying about the specs for the zombies they will construct, creators of zombie narratives, whether in literature, comics, film, TV, video games, or whatever narrative form zombie mania has not yet infected, have to ask themselves whether it’s worth their time to extrude another zombie story in the first place. Since the answer to that question seems stuck on “yes,” we might ask why. Jonathan Maberry, the very capable author of (so far) three zombie novels, The Dead of Night (2011), Rot and Ruin (2011), and Dust and Decay (2012) recently did just that, asking a Who’s Who of writers about all things zombie why they found the genre so attractive. Maberry posted the resulting “Virtual Panel Discussion” on his blog, and the participating authors were pretty much in agreement that 1) as Max Brooks put it, zombies “are a ‘safe’ way of exploring our apocalyptic anxieties”; 2) we now have a lot of apocalyptic anxieties to explore; 3) we know what to do to solve the zombie problem, while terrorism, global warming, and economic disaster seem a lot tougher to solve; 4) the zombie is the Swiss Army Knife of monsters, offering a metaphor for almost any use; and 5) it’s about time for a monster suited to the times, the long runs of Frankenstein’s creature and Dracula having both suffered from over-use inflation (Twilight [2008]) and shelf-life problems. The Centers for Disease Control and other institutions that employ statistical modeling have figured out that zombies are more “real” than numbers. Theories of International Politics and Zombies (2011) suggests that zombies can bring life to deadly dull foreign policy wonking. Aim For The Head: An Anthology of Zombie Poetry (2011) puts a whole new spin on not going gentle into that good night. And Zombie Haiku (2008) is yet another lively proof that the novel is not dead, while Colson Whitehead’s brilliant Zone One (2012) argues that “best zombie novel ever” is NOT damning by faint praise.

But let’s turn from issues faced by creators of zombie fictions to issues more relevant to those of us who consume (are consumed by?) those fictions. Why do we need zombies, as apparently we must? Certainly...