I've been expecting it for years, honestly. About the time Zombieland came out -- October 2009, in case you don't recall -- I figured the genre had reached its apogee and it was all downhill from there. I mean, the movie was all but a parody of the genre! It was so self-reflexive and silly, it seemed there was nowhere to go from there. But somehow, the walking dead just got more and more popular, and instead of marking the point where zombies began to retreat back to their niche, it just marked yet another milestone on the seemingly unending ascent toward total pop-cultural domination.
For some, the backlash has already started. There are plenty of haters out there, berating zombie lovers on Facebook and Twitter anytime we dare to enthuse about a zombie crawl or a new movie. On the other hand, the biggest-budget zombie movie ever made -- Brad Pitt's World War Z -- cleared enough of a profit to start the gears turning for a sequel, and the fourth season premiere of The Walking Dead sucked in a reported sixteen million viewers.
To put that in context, that's not only a record for the series, but also for parent network AMC. Yes, it even beat the series finale of Breaking Bad -- by about six million viewers. In other words, the season premiere of a middling-decent zombie show just kicked the living shit out of the finale of arguably the greatest show ever. It's generating numbers on the level of NFL football, America's perennial obsession. Oh, and they're planning a spin-off Walking Dead series to cash in on this explosive popularity. So, haters aside, maybe that backlash isn't here just yet.
Why not? Why haven't we turned on zombies the way we turned on those Jersey Shore fuckwits, or poor Miley? Why has this particular pop-cultural obsession just grown and grown for the better part of a decade? Here's why: because zombies are a perfect barometer of our culture. Grotesque, profane and incessantly violent, zombies are a funhouse mirror reflecting back our culture's ugliest and most prominent traits. Our anti-intellectualism is their mindless, instinct-driven state. Our embrace of violence to solve any problem is their single-minded desire to eat the living, no matter the personal cost. Our chest-beating tribalism is the perfect binary state of the zombie apocalypse -- the living versus the dead, with no middle ground.
It's no coincidence that the explosion of zombie culture followed in the footsteps of 9/11. Through them, we work out our anxieties about the threat of sudden, violent death. Our apocalyptic fears are given a target and a solution -- shoot them in the head! Our fear of the possible collapse of society is ameliorated to a degree when we see good, honest people surviving the zombie apocalypse. Perversely, the end of everything in an orgy of cannibalistic violence gives us a reason to think that maybe things aren't so fucked-up after all.
We see our own reality reflected in the situations and tropes of the zombie apocalypse. When we watched Katrina destroy a major U.S. city while the government flailed about ineffectually, zombie fiction gave us hope that, sure, the world is fucked, but I might survive, if I'm smart enough and lucky enough and have a plan worked out and plenty of ammo on hand. Even the government shutdown is easy to see in the world of zombies -- too many zombie movies hinge on the fact that the survivors just can't set aside their differences and work together against a common enemy, thus ending up dooming themselves to violent death at the hands of the ravenous hordes outside. Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?
So that's why there's no backlash. Until we let go of our anxiety about the insatiable Other coming to devour us, until we reject violence as the go-to solution, until we learn to work together to save everyone instead of promoting a personal agenda at all costs, zombies serve too well a cultural shorthand to lose their pole position. When we grow up a little bit as a species and embrace cooperation and peaceful coexistence, then we can let go of zombies.
In other words, don't hold your breath, zombie haters. This could take a while.