Why are zombies so popular?

zombiewalkWhy are zombies so popular?  The Walking Dead, a well-received comic book, now a successful television program, was watched by 16.1 million people last week.  Holy cow.  That was a record for cable and rivals network programs too.  The ratings are up from earlier in the season and you might say that the program is getting even more popular.  Why is that?  It is a fairly violent show, has pretty much pigeoned holed itself into a mature audience, and has no star names whatsoever.  It was just a comic book and not even a mainstream comic book, but one published by Image comics, a clearly an inferior competitor to Marvel or DC.  These detractors seem to have no influence on the widespread appeal of zombies or the apocalypse setting whatsoever.

The apocalypse genre is minimalistic and may account for some of its appeal.  Things we take for granted are given full stage and conflicts arise because of these things.  People hunt for foot, camp in the wilderness, fix things, and do other types of survivalist activities have a sort of Survivor thing going on.  The show is also the opposite of regular network social dramas, business adventures, court room dramas, or a group of friends talking about nothing.  Zombies may be the anti-Friends movement.  The environment usually used is new and interesting, unlike most network staples and includes themes like Man versus Monster, another appealing thrill.

There have been zombie movies for a long time in film and culture.  It seems to be the most simple story of competition against rage, evil, or an unstoppable force.  This genre translates easily to the audience.  We can see that zombies are bad, look terrible and eat disgusting things, therefore they must be destroyed.  When the main characters accomplish this, our natural reaction is to cheer. 

There are some social aspects to the show and most zombie films or shows I’ve seen stress the characters over the monsters, because there just isn’t much to discuss in terms of a zombie monster.  They wander, eat flesh, and groan.  And look gross.  That’s it.  The Walking Dead builds characters.  Everyone seems equal in the zombie apocalypse, so that snotty accountant better pick up a gun, the same as everyone else.  That sort of thing can be appealing, I suppose.  However, more to the point, I think there is an unspoken fascination with conflict with the zombies to find out if people survive.  Therefore, death is on the forefront and a great concern, because the stakes are raised.  This can not be said of most television shows.  The only thing I could equate it to might be a cop drama or a realistic show like that, which puts the characters in real danger.  Real fictional danger, that is.

I believe George Romero recently gave his opinion of The Walking Dead and said he didn’t care for the social drama of the show.  To him, the social aspects and the personal conflicts were secondary to the action.  However, survival is more than a series of demonstrations and fights.  It is about getting along.  Again, this is different from anything on television.   This human appeal is the same reason we watch shows like The Ultimate Fighter, the reality show for the next UFC contract.  Do we really want to just see the fights? No, but that has some appeal.  We want to see people interact and have conflicts, like any reality show.  It’s real.

Blood, gore, and scary elements are not the most appealing things in the world, but they don’t stop people from watching The Walking Dead.  The horror genre itself is not the biggest money-maker in the world either.  I imagine studio executives have a clear picture of how much any horror movie could make way before they even make it, mostly because of its content.   It doesn’t seem to be hurting the television program or most movies that come out featuring zombies.  I know many of them had inherent audiences built-in already, such as any George Romero movie, so it is predictable.  Many people even think of zombie movies as “that thing Romero does.”  The Walking Dead had an average 20,000 reader per month publication history before becoming a television series.

In the end, I think these elements make zombies a humanistic genre that is appealing.  And yes, it is now really a genre on to itself.  However, it is certainly capable of retreads and bad production, like anything else.  But I think a good zombie movie is realistically going to do better at the box office than any usual horror movie and I could name more than a handful of movie attempts that have probably been pretty poor attempts to capitalize on the zombie craze.  Even lesser known things are becoming source material for movies if they involve zombies.  I had heard of the World War Z book, but some of my friends couldn’t have the faintest clue what The World War Z was before the movie.  Movies are the most graphically appealing thing that can grab us and entertain us with visceral action or moments of sadness, which zombies apparently do well. 

I’m not sure how long the zombie movie craze or zombie genre will be around, but perhaps it will evolve into something different.  I think also we will be seeing more apocalypse, fantasy, or monster type things coming to television as they try AMC’s formula for success.  Zombies may represent Man versus Monster, but they also represents Man versus Nature, which is a battle that is increasingly popular, be it as a Discovery Channel trip across the Savannah or a bloody fight against an endless zombie horde.