If there's a social hierarchy among monsters, zombies are not at the top of the list. They may not even be on the list. They're not cool like werewolves. There's no Warren Zevon song about them. They're not classy like Dracula and Frankenstein, who can trace their lineage back to respectable 19th century novels. All zombies have is a bunch of George Romero movies.
But the lowly zombie is making its move. For the past few years, vampires have been the It monster, what with Twilight and all, but that's changing. Diablo Cody, of Juno fame, is producing a movie called Breathers: A Zombie's Lament, based on a new novel about life (if that's the word) as one of the walking dead. Later this year, Woody Harrelson and Abigail Breslin will star in the zom-com Zombieland. Max Brooks' best-selling zombie novel World War Z is being filmed by Marc Forster, the guy who directed Quantum of Solace. In comic books, the Marvel Zombies series features rotting, brain-eating versions of Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk. The zombie video game Resident Evil 5 shipped 4 million copies during its first two weeks on the market. Michael Jackson's zombie video Thriller is coming to Broadway. (See the top 25 horror movies of all time.)
Apparently no one is safe from the shambling, newly marketable armies of the dead not even Jane Austen. Seth Grahame-Smith is the author of a new novel called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, about a strangely familiar English family called the Bennets that is struggling to marry off five daughters while at the same time fighting off wave after wave of relentless, remorseless undead since, as the novel's classic first line tells us, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains."
It's surprising how easily Austen's novel succumbs to the conventions of a zombie flick. Much of Austen's work is about using wit and charm and good manners to avoid talking about ugly realities like sex and money. In Grahame-Smith's version, zombies are just another one of those ugly realities. "What was so fun about the book is the politeness of it all," says Grahame-Smith, who's a freelance writer in Los Angeles. "They don't even like to say the word zombie, even though their country is besieged by zombies. They're everywhere, and people are literally being torn apart before their very eyes, and other than the very few, like Elizabeth Bennet, who face this problem head on, they would almost rather not talk about it."
It's not easy to put your finger on what's appealing about zombies. Vampires you can understand. They're good-looking and sophisticated and well dressed. They're immortal. Some of them have castles. You can imagine wanting to be a vampire or at least wanting to sleep with one. Nobody wants to sleep with zombies. They're hideous and mindless. They don't have superpowers. Their only assets are their infectiousness, single-minded perseverance and virtual unkillability. (See pictures of vampires' 90 years on screen.)
Nevertheless, they seem to be telling us something about the zeitgeist. Once you start looking, you see them everywhere. Who hasn't had a high school acquaintance come back from the dead as a Facebook friend or a follower on Twitter? And what monster could be better suited to our current level of ecological anxiety? Zombies are biodegradable, locally sourced and sustainable they're made of 100% recycled human. And look out for those zombie banks, President Obama!
Let's not forget that Night of the Living Dead, the founding film of the modern zombie tradition, made its appearance in 1968 as a commentary on the Vietnam War, evoking its extreme violence and the surreal dehumanization of the combatants. Now we're locked in another prolonged, sweaty, morally ambiguous overseas conflict, and surprise look who's at the door again wanting to borrow a cup of brains. "We live in an age when it's very easy to be afraid of everything that's going on," Grahame-Smith says. "There are these large groups of faceless people somewhere in the world who mean to do us harm and cannot be reasoned with. Zombies are sort of familiar territory."
If there's something new about today's zombie, it's his relatability. Sure, he's an abomination and a crime against all that is good and holy. But he exemplifies some real American values too. He's plucky and tenacious you can cut off his limbs and he'll keep on coming atcha. And he's humble. You won't find zombies swanning around and putting on airs like some other monsters I could mention. They're monsters of the people. It was the beginning of the end for vampires when Lehman Brothers went under, those bloodsucking parasites. Down with vampires. Long live (or is it die?) the zombie: the official monster of the recession.