When Night Shade Books and I put the first The Living Dead anthology together a couple years ago, we had the sense that zombies would be big, but I don’t think any of us realized just how big they would become.
When the book actually came out in September of 2008, it seemed like the timing was perfect, that we would be hitting right at the crest of the zombie’s popularity. But now it looks like they’ve only become more popular in the intervening period, spreading throughout an unsuspecting population like zombiism itself.
In the last couple years there have been a slew of new zombie entertainments released, across all media. There have been new movies (Quarantine, REC2, Deadgirl, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead, Dead Snow, Zombie Strippers, Zombieland); video games (Plants vs. Zombies, Dead Rising 2, Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2); and a veritable horde of books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and its sequel, books from several of the contributors to this anthology, and even a Star Wars zombie novel called Death Troopers). Plus, a film adaptation is in the works for Max Brooks’s World War Z, and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is being made into a television series.
And all of that’s just off the top of my head—if I wanted to make an extensive list, I’m sure it could be ten times longer. If you were inclined to have zombies in all of your entertainment, I expect you’d have very little trouble finding things to watch, play, or read, all of them chock-full of zombie mayhem.
So with that in mind, where to start? Well, you should pick up The Living Dead and The Living Dead 2—obviously!—but after that, you should start by consuming the Unholy Trilogy—George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. Once you’ve seen those, what then? Well, I listed some recent zombie entertainments above, but my list is hardly comprehensive, and is limited to the last few years. So again I’ve turned to my Living Dead 2 contributors for help and asked them: What are your favorite examples of zombie fiction?
Kelley Armstrong, Author of “Last Stand”
Brian Keene’s The Rising because it takes a familiar concept—the zombie apocalypse—and manages to make it seem fresh and original. David Wellington’s Monster Island because, again, we see the zombie apocalypse taken in a new direction, with page-turning results.
Amelia Beamer, Author of “Pirates vs. Zombies”
Night of the Living Dead, because it’s unflinching. Shaun of the Dead, because it’s funny. For short stories, it’s hard to beat Kelly Link’s “The Hortlak” and “Some Zombie Contingency Plans,” which are wrenching and funny at the same time. For nonfiction, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, by Wade Davis.
Gary Braunbeck, Author of “We Now Pause For Station Identification”
Dan Simmons’s “The River Styx Runs Upstream” and “This Year’s Class Picture” are standouts because he concentrates on the emotional pain experienced by the survivors, thus making the acts of violence toward the end all the more powerful and heartbreaking. Ed Bryant’s award-winning “A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned” manages to be terrifying, funny, grotesque, romantic, and heart-wrenching all at the same time—not an easy feat; it’s the type of story that, once you’ve read it, you find yourself wishing you’d written it instead. Joe Lansdale’s “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks” has achieved the status of “modern-day classic”—a term that, when you think about it, is utterly meaningless, but doesn’t detract one whit from the balls-to-the-wall brilliance of the novella, which is the kind of story only Lansdale could have written. The same goes for David J. Schow’s “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy”—a nasty, viciously satirical piece of work, with a cadence that reads like it was written by Jack Kerouac while he listening to Tangerine Dream; Poppy Z. Brite’s “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” an exquisite tale that makes death, decay, and putrescence utterly and disturbingly seductive; in short, if it’s a story wherein a new spin is given to the traditional zombie tale, I’m all over it.
S. G. Browne, Author of “Zombie Gigolo”
Although this might sound a bit incestuous, I would have to say I tend to lean toward zombie anthologies, like The Book of the Dead or the original The Living Dead. I enjoy them because of the diverse takes on the zombie mythology I can find all in one place.
Adam-Troy Castro, Author of “Anteroom”
Movies: A french film called They Came Back (in which zombies don’t want to eat you, but may need to occupy your spare bedroom), the spoof films Shaun of the Dead, Cemetery Man, The Mad, and Dead Alive.
Books: The novels The Orpheus Process by Daniel H. Gower; World War Z by Max Brooks; The Rising, City of the Dead and Dead Sea by Brian Keene.
Short Stories: “Eat Me” by Robert R. McCammon and “Pillar of Fire” by Ray Bradbury, and the playlet “A Plague on Both Your Houses” by Scott Edelman.
Scott Edelman, Author of “The Human Race”
My favorite zombie story is Adam-Troy Castro’s “Dead Like Me,” which was published in The Living Dead. In it, a man must pass for one of the walking dead in order to keep living, which means he must sacrifice everything that makes life worth living. A heartbreaking, brilliantly executed story.
Bob Fingerman, Author of “The Summer Place”
Skipping movies, in prose I haven’t read a ton, but I really enjoyed Brian Keene’s The Rising, City of the Dead, and Dead Sea. Dave Wellington’s Monster trilogy was really cool. My favorite is probably Walter Greatshell’s Xombies (rereleased as Xombies: Apocalypse Blues). All of those are really fresh and fun reads. I also enjoyed Philip Nutman’s Wet Work.
John Skipp & Cody Goodfellow, Authors of “The Price of a Slice”
JS: Obviously, I love every story I ever purchased, and it’s a rainbow spectrum, more than sixty in all. Makes it real hard to pick twenty or thirty, much less two or three.
The most impressive zombie novel I’ve read to date is World War Z, by Max Brooks. Also a big fan of Brian Keene’s revisionist The Rising, although it seems more like demonic Lovecraftian corpse-possession than actual zombiedom to me.
I think Douglas Winter is the poet laureate of zombie fiction. Elizabeth Massie’s “Abed” is probably still the hardest-punching zombie short story I’ve ever read, and it broke my heart that I couldn’t include it in Zombies. But it just punched too hard, knocking out teeth in a way Black Dog and Leventhal couldn’t swallow.
But if I had to pick one short story that, to me, nails the quintessence, it would be “Dead Like Me” by Adam-Troy Castro. Lays it all out, and kills me every time.
CG: I grew up with zombies in comics, mostly, and my favorite zombie is still Swamp Thing. In my head, every zombie I write about still looks like it was drawn by Berni Wrightson (don’t add the E!).
Beyond the Romero and Raimi zombies we both so love so well, I like works that force zombies to evolve and show more initiative, and anything that questions our treatment of death itself. Dead And Buried is a great, though flawed, examination of our compulsion to insulate ourselves from the truth of death. And Return Of The Living Dead still stands apart, for its zombie Rapture being a call to all flesh, no matter how decayed, brainless, dissected or laminated.
Although I’ll still sit still for anything where people eat people, I’m really partial to Body-Snatcher movies (Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers, Invaders From Mars, Slither), where what takes us over is an arguable improvement on the original…
Steven Gould, Author of “Tameshigiri”
I was particularly charmed by the recent film Zombieland. Also, the classic Dawn of the Dead. Zombies in a mall is just like real life.
Mira Grant, Author of “Everglades”
Let’s mix-and-match literature and film, just for the sake of balance. I loved The Living Dead, of course, since it managed to collect a lot of my favorite stories about the undead; I also really, really enjoyed World War Z, Patient Zero, and Monster Island. All four of those were intellectual approaches to the zombie issue, for the most part, and they all had their strengths; I’m a big virus nut, so I really appreciated the science in Patient Zero, and the human psychology in WWZ.
Moving on to film, I love Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 for being zombie chick flicks, Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead for being zombie date movies, and Slither for being my favorite zombie movie of all time. And, in the final category of “no, really,” Evil Dead the Musical. Nothing makes me happy like a man with a chainsaw hand belting out songs about destroying the forces of undead evil.
Walter Greatshell, Author of “The Mexican Bus”
Like everyone else, including George Romero, I was influenced by I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, which is really the first zombie novel. When I wrote Xombies in 2001 (currently in re-release as Xombies: Apocalypse Blues), Matheson was the only zombie author I knew of, and he had written his book forty years earlier. That’s why it was a little frustrating to me to get caught up in the zombie craze—I tend to hate genre fiction. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Xombies in the first place: to undermine those narrow categories. But I’ll admit I’ve enjoyed some of the zombie projects that have come out, particularly ones that take the concept in a fresh direction and don’t just rip off Romero. More than anything, I want to read authors who make it personal, who aren’t afraid of surprising or challenging their readers, and who ignore publishing trends. If I was a new writer, just starting out, the last thing I would want to write about would be zombies. Or vampires. It’s a big, beautiful world out there!
Simon R. Green, Author of “He Said, Laughing”
I must have seen every zombie movie there is, but there’s still nothing to match Fulci’s Zombie films. They’re just so off the wall gonzo.
Bret Hammond, Author of “Rural Dead”
I love the Romero movies and obviously (from the story) I’m a huge fan of Max Brooks. I also am an avid reader of The Walking Dead comics and a few other works (Dying to Live by Kim Paffenroth was a lot of fun).
Rory Harper, Author of “Therapeutic Intervention”
I like Brian Keene’s The Rising and City of the Dead, because the zombies are intelligent, even though they’re a departure from the Romero concept. I’ve read a fair number of the Permuted Press books, and enjoyed them—they’re workman-like and entertaining, and sometimes better than that. World War Z, of course, because it paints on a broader canvas, and I’d love to see more of that. Stephen King’s Cell started off good, before it got into that other storyline that I’m not going to mention, because it would be a spoiler. I also enjoyed Xombies: Apocalypse Blues, at least partly because, having a daughter that I totally adore, I’m a sucker for smart young girls as protagonists.
I have the nagging feeling that there’s something a lot deeper than we’ve already seen, that can be done with the idea of a zombie apocalypse. I’m not sure what it is. I haven’t yet read anything that rises to the level of the classics of other types of apocalypses. I’m in the middle of The Walking Dead, Compendium One right now, and am deeply impressed by it. It’s practically literature. I still think that the best zombie fiction is yet to be written.
Brian Keene, Author of “Lost Canyon of the Dead”
I’m a big fan of David Wellington’s trilogy, Jim Starlin’s Among Madmen, and Simon Clark’s Blood Crazy. I think all of them focus more on the people and how the zombies impact them than they do on the zombies themselves, and that makes for compelling fiction that the reader can get emotionally invested in.
David Barr Kirtley, Author of “The Skull-Faced City”
My favorite examples of zombies lately have been in the graphic novel format. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead continues to amaze, and the recent zombie/superhero crossover Marvel Zombies was original and creepy.
Jamie Lackey, Author of “The Other Side”
Night of the Living Dead is a classic. 28 Days Later is one of my favorite zombie movies, and Zombieland was a lot of fun.
Sarah Langan, Author of “Are You Trying to Tell Me This is Heaven?”
Dave Wellington’s Monster Island series is great. It creates a new mythology.
Seth Lindberg, Author of “Twenty-Three Snapshots of San Francisco”
I have a soft spot for Max Brooks’s World War Z and the Brian Keene’s The Rising as novels, both for the unusual formats they take and the empathy they have with their characters. As short stories go, Steve Eller’s “Consumption” and Michael Swanwick’s “The Dead” are way, way up there.
Matt London, Author of “Mouja”
I’m a fan of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, about her trips to Haiti. She interviews the family members of real zombies, helpless people who were poisoned by psychotropic drugs. For me, reality is much scarier than fiction.
As for movies, I’m a fan of the original Night of the Living Dead more than any of its sequels or remakes. You’ve got nearly ten uninterrupted minutes of Duane Jones barricading the house and listening to the radio. No on-screen dialogue. It’s a massive info dump, and yet it’s gripping. That’s just brilliant filmmaking. Also, I loved Slither because it combined a lot of zombie tropes with grotesque body horror, another subgenre that fascinates me and features heavily in my writing.
Catherine MacLeod, Author of “Zombie Season”
My favorite zombie story is “Death and Suffrage” by Dale Bailey, because he just wrote the hell out of it. I also like Stephen King’s “Home Delivery,” and the novel Night of the Living Dead. I tried to watch the movie, but spent so much time with my hands over my face I can’t honestly say I’ve seen it.
Paul McAuley, Author of “The Thought War”
White Zombie, for Bela Lugosi and a totally OTT story. Night of the Living Dead, for low key dread, an early example of serious gore, and for introducing the idea that a catastrophe might not be survivable. HG Wells’s Things to Come, with its zombie-like wandering sickness, a template for all kinds of science thrillers about viral epidemics. Joe Landsdale’s Dead in the West for, well, being a Joe Lansdale story about zombies and cowboys. The graphic novel version is pretty good too. And Shaun of the Dead was great fun and a fine homage to the zombie canon.
Joe McKinney, Author of “Dating in the Dead World”
Metaphorically speaking, zombies are blank slates. That’s been said enough times by now that just about everybody gets it. You can make the subtext of a zombie story about anything you want. George Romero did that with racism in the original Night of the Living Dead, for example. I love zombie fiction because it’s so flexible that way. They can be symbols of profound loss and grief, and our inability to completely process those emotions, as they are in Dan Simmons’s “This Year’s Class Picture,” or cautionary warnings about the dangers of conformity, as in Adam Troy-Castro’s “Dead Like Me,” or even joyful symbols of the redemptive power of love, as in Joe Hill’s “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead.” They are, potentially, all over the map, just waiting for a message to get imprinted.
Mark McLaughlin & Kyra M. Schon, Authors of “Arlene Schabowski Of The Undead”
KS: Lest it seem like pandering, I love Mark’s zombie stories the best. His zombies are smart and sassy and stylish.
MM: Thanks, Kyra! I do think zombies would have a lot of attitude, since they’ve beaten death. That would make anyone a little cocky.
My favorite zombie stories? Articles in the tabloids about old celebrities who’ve had way too much plastic surgery!
David Moody, Author of “Who We Used to Be”
I’m a sucker for pretty much ANY zombie fiction, although I’m not a fan of voodoo and witchcraft—I’d rather my dead bodies were reanimated by something more tangible and believable like radiation from a satellite, a mutated virus etc.! I prefer stories which stay away from the clichés which many genre entries often steer themselves towards (for example, when a survivor gets bitten and hides their wound but you know they’re going to turn at the worst possible moment…). The book which has undoubtedly had the biggest impact on my own zombie fiction is not even a zombie book! It’s The Day of the Triffids. Despite the fact that it’s more than fifty years old, for my money it’s still one of the best and most thought-provoking portrayals of the human race being decimated by a cataclysmic event and having to cope with the aftermath. Substitute the walking plants for the living dead and you’ve got a chilling story which still competes with the very best zombie tales!
Kim Paffenroth, Julia Sevin & R.J. Sevin, Authors of “Thin Them Out”
RJS: I love Glen Vasey’s short story “Choices,” Poppy Brite’s “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” and “This Year’s Class Picture,” by Dan Simmons, among others; I Am Legend, of course, the epicenter of this sub-genre; Phil Nutman’s Wet Work, and Tim Lebbon’s Naming of Parts.
KP: Dave Wellington’s Monster Island. Great, straightforward action story, throws in some interesting twists, and gives us a very likable protagonist. For a completely untypical zombie story, try Gary Braunbeck’s “We Now Pause for Station Identification.” For the genre, it’s an exceptionally and unexpectedly emotional story that again shows how you can take zombies in different directions.
Marc Paoletti, Author of “Category Five”
My favorite zombie story of all time has to be “The Old Man and the Dead” by Mort Castle, not only because Ernest Hemingway is featured (a favorite author), but because the story is so, well, true. “Like Pavlov’s Dogs” by Steven Boyett also jumps to mind—a tragic, poignant ensemble piece with an ending that affected me for days.
Steven Popkes, Author of “The Crocodiles”
In my opinion, the best work on zombies has been in film. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, of course. Zombieland more recently.
But there has been some very interesting short fiction I’ve seen about people who are living dead but outside of the normal label of “zombie.” And, of course, there’s World War Z. As I said, zombies aren’t interesting; people interacting with them are.
I think a lot of the better zombie fiction is playing against type, satirizing or extending the concept. Let’s face it, pretty much everything you can say about the original zombie concept was explored in Romero’s first zombie movie. Once you have that down, there’s not much more to be said.
The interesting material takes the original idea and responds to it or reconsiders it. Probably one of the better treatments of this was the reimagining of Shadowman, in Acclaim Comics. Shadowman brings zombies back to their voodoo roots and made it interesting.
Cherie Priest, Author of “Reluctance”
I loved 28 Days Later, even though some people say it’s not true zombie fic (I would disagree, at least from a thematic standpoint); Night of the Living Dead remains a gateway classic that’s sparse and desperate, yet quite exquisitely contained; and I love the Resident Evil franchise—games and movies alike—for its grim-yet-flashy style, and its adventurous brutality.
Carrie Ryan, Author of “Flotsam & Jetsam”
When I first saw Night of the Living Dead I hated it because I just couldn’t understand why the stupid characters couldn’t work together to save themselves. And then I heard George Romero talk about the movie and explain that was his whole point—to show that even when faced with the most dire consequences, human beings continued to screw things up by not working together. This made the film absolutely brilliant to me. I also love Shaun of the Dead because it covers such a huge range of emotions—you go from laughing hysterically to terrified to sobbing. The graphic novel, The Walking Dead, is also a favorite because it asks the question that fascinates me: how do you continue to survive?
Paula R. Stiles, Author of “Zombieville”
Mostly films and television and they may seem unusual: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (though they’re technically plants, they’re still zombie-like and relentless), the original Dawn of the Dead (love the commentary on mindless consumerism), Shaun of the Dead (a great Brit-culture spoof that’s also scary), Five Million Years to Earth (AKA the Quatermass Experiment, scary as hell when the mobs are taking out anyone who isn’t brainwashed by the Martians).
Also the Supernatural episodes “Croatoan” and “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things.” I love the use of the Lost Colony mystery in “Croatoan,” and how these ordinary people can seem smiling and normal even as they’re lifting their knives, how we never do find out exactly what happened. I also love how one of the brothers, Dean, is really almost as much a monster as any of the Monsters of the Week in both episodes. In “Croatoan,” he’s gone all I Am Legend (he even says he feels like Heston in The Omega Man) on the zombies, even to the point of shooting people before they’ve “turned.”
In “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things,” Dean has just been brought back practically from the dead. Physically, he came back fully, not so much emotionally. The zombie girl of the episode was brought back part-way by Ancient Greek necromancy, but continues to rot and has turned from a sweet kid into a homicidal maniac. Both of them have this sexual edge to their rage and he’s downright obsessed with hunting her in a very disturbing way. So, you’ve got this more-successful zombie fanatically hunting a less-successful zombie throughout the episode and the both of them scaring (or killing, in the case of the girl) all their loved ones. It’s like Pet Sematary on crack. I think you could say the message is: “If you love someone, don’t bring them back from the dead. It’ll really screw them up!”
And I can’t believe they got that staking scene at the end past the censors.
Karina Sumner-Smith, Author of “When the Zombies Win”
I was captivated by Max Brooks’ World War Z, in no small part because it was so unexpected. What I thought would be a fun, B-movie of a book had a lot more depth and complexity—it was, truly, a war memorial. While I’d enjoyed works that focused on the shock and horror of zombies, I found that this was the first novel-length work of zombie fiction in which I’d found a powerful emotional resonance.
Genevieve Valentine, Author of “And the Next, and the Next”
28 Days Later is a prime example, because it nearly subverts the zombie metaphor by making the zombies an obstacle and making other humans the real monsters. (Rare is the movie where the respite from zombies is more frightening than fighting them.) It also paints them as victims, which gives them a sympathetic undertone, especially when they’re set up alongside a manor house full of soldiers intent on forcibly repopulating the world. It’s a visceral movie with a pretty deft hand, and one of the best uses of zombies ever.
David Wellington, Author of “Good People”
Night of the Living Dead is in many ways the urtext of zombie stories, and it’s still my favorite. Wait—that’s a movie! As for fiction, I’ve always loved Brian Keene’s stuff.
Brenna Yovanoff, Author of “Obedience”
There are a lot of zombie movies that I really love. One of my absolute favorites is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, because there’s a very raw, human quality to the story, but I also love Mark Henry’s Amanda Feral books, which take a completely unconventional view of what it means to be a zombie. I love that he’s flipped the expectations for both zombie fiction and women’s fiction, and basically delivered chick-lit for people who love tons of gore and really dirty jokes.
So there you have it. Love any of the things we mentioned? Hate any of them? Furious that no one mentioned your favorite? Sound off in the comments!
If you’d like to see more from these authors, each of them have also been interviewed more extensively about their stories in The Living Dead 2 over on the anthology’s website. There, you can also read eight free stories from the anthology, along with other bonus content.
John Joseph Adams is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), The Living Dead 2, By Blood We Live, Federations, The Way of the Wizard, and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Barnes & Noble.com named him “the reigning king of the anthology world,” and his books have been named to numerous best of the year lists. He is also the fiction editor of the science fiction magazine Lightspeed and the co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.