I’ve been asked many times over the years, “Why zombies? What’s the fascination?” Usually I think the question is aimed squarely at me and my longtime interest/obsession with these undead entities, but it’s also a fair question for anyone. Why zombies? What’s the appeal? I think it all boils down to the fact that they’re the underdog of the monster world. They play into our neuroses and self-doubt. There’s nothing sexy or appealing about them. Lots of people fantasize about being other horror mainstays: vampires, of course. Werewolves. But zombies? No. I’ve never met anyone who said, “Yeah, man, a zombie is what I’d like to be. They’re so cool.”
Even if you go back to the pre-George A. Romero traditional voodoo zombie—the ones under the spell of dark magic man mojo—no one says, “Sign me up for that.” Being a brainless slave to a cruel puppeteer? No. No one wants that (which doesn’t mean many of us aren’t that already). And post-Romero, well, that’s the reanimated dead hankering for live human flesh. Shambling piles of rotting, ambulatory meat. They stink. They have no minds, to speak of. Sure, there are revisionist takes on zombie lore. Ones where the zombies still can think and speak, but even in those, they’re still decomposing. Okay, they can sing for their supper (“Braaaaaaains!”), but is that so great?
Zombies, à la Romero, are us. That’s what makes them resonate. We don’t wish we were them because we already are, sort of. Zombies had no choice in becoming zombies. It just happened via bad luck. A stray bite and pow: you’re infected and there’s no cure. When I did my comical zombie graphic novel, Recess Pieces (Dark Horse Comics, 2006), my self-directed diktat was that I would only draw the undead as confused, never mean or angry. They were to have a permanent “What happened?” look on their bewildered faces. In the original 1978 Dawn of the Dead, during the montage of shots of them through the department store window, there’s one that looks pissed off and he’s the one I don’t accept. All the rest look perma-gobsmacked; they are totally befuddled by their own reality.
Zombies are everyone’s problem, including their own. They are muddlers and nothing more. There’s no advancement. You look at vampires, and even though I wrote a book (Bottomfeeder) about one who’s pretty much fated to mediocrity, he still has options. If you’re going to be undead, that’s the way to go. Sure, the sun’s no picnic, but other than that it’s pretty sweet: you don’t age, you still get laid, and weight-gain isn’t an issue on that all-liquid diet. Even if it’s lousy, it’s still pretty sweet compared to zombiehood.
Romero has played with his own formula from time to time, adding little glimmers of inchoate reason in his undead: Bub, the “smart” zombie in Day of the Dead; Big Daddy, the gas station attendant zombie in Land of the Dead. But even they are pretty addled. I liked Bub, but at no point did I think, “It would be awesome to be him.” Zombies are all impulse and no malice. They’re not devouring you to be jerks. It’s just what they do. It’s all they do, aside from stumble around bumping into one another.
It’s almost impossible for me in a crowd situation not to think of zombies. I feel like one every time I’m in the subway, being jostled, mashed up against my fellow travelers (though my other default frame of reference is the workers shuffling off to their mindless labors in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but that’s another column. Or not.). The two mindsets most common in these circumstances are profoundly human stress (and anger and more stress), or bovine acquiescence. And that, my friends, is the state of the zombie. It’s kind of Zen-like.
So, when they’ve cornered you and there’s nowhere to run, ask them nicely, “Hey, just leave enough of me to join you guys.” It’s not ideal, but they is us and we be them.
Bob Fingerman is the award-winning creator of such critically acclaimed graphic novels as Beg the Question, White Like She and Recess Pieces, as well as the novel Bottomfeeder. In Bottomfeeder, Fingerman took on the vampire genre, tossing away the typical gothic and romantic trappings in favor of portraying the down to earth story of a working class Queens-bred vampire. In Recess Pieces he whipped up a bloody maelstrom of adorable moppets and the living dead set within the confines of a school. He wrote the script for Dark Horse’s Zombie World: Winter’s Dregs. His most recent graphic novel was From the Ashes, a “speculative memoir” set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of New York City. His newest novel, Pariah, came out August 2010, from Tor, and is crammed full of zombies. He also has a story in the eagerly anticipated The Living Dead 2 anthology.