Zombies are disgusting, rotting, mindless beasts with a violently insatiable taste for the brains of the living and yet we just can't get enough of them - for good reason, experts say.
Vampires, werewolves and ghosts are all very nice but when it comes to maintaining an enduring love affair with the American public, none of them can hold a candle to the lowly zombie. From the early 30s Bela Lugosi classic White Zombie to the upcoming Woody Harrelson romp Zombieland, we've been exposed to all manner of the risen dead and we keep coming back for more. According to so-called "zombie experts," that's because the zombie's greatest limitation - their complete lack of individual thought, personality or other defining characteristics - means they can be used to reflect whatever happens to be troubling society at any given moment in time.
"You can't shoot the financial meltdown in the head - you can do that with a zombie," said Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z author Max Brooks. "All the other problems are too big. As much as Al Gore tries, you can't picture global warming. You can't picture the meltdown of our financial institutions. But you can picture a slouching zombie coming down the street."
The blank mind of the zombie offers a "blank canvas" for writers and movie makers, added Georgia Tech graduate fellow Andrew Wood, who is currently writing a book on zombies in popular culture. "Since the zombie doesn't have the long literary tradition of the vampire or a number of other monsters, it allows artists a degree of autonomy to conceptualize the zombie any way they see fit," she said.
The most obvious manifestation of that flexibility is the popularization of the "fast zombie" seen in movies like 28 Days Later and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, which dramatically altered the perception of zombies as slow, shuffling creatures - "the walking dead" - established decades ago by movies including, rather ironically, the original Dawn of the Dead. But we've also seen it in other, more subtle ways: The zombie obsession with getting into the mall in Dawn and even the famous "Philip in the Jaguar" scene in Shaun of the Dead.
Zombies also let us deal with our fears in a safe and non-offensive way, Brooks added. "It's safe to do something like a zombie walk - it isn't so fun to do a swine flu walk," he said. "If, at a party, you bring up how you'd survive a zombie attack, you'd be the life of the party. But if you say, 'What would you do if super-AIDS came to America?' you'd clear the room."
The popularity of zombies waxes and wanes but Brooks said he expects they'll remain a pop culture fixture, in one form or another, for a long time to come. "In the early 2000s, I had all but pronounced the genre dead - there hadn't been a big studio movie in more than 10 years," he said. "I've gone out of that business. I've pulled up my shingle for pronouncing the death knell of the zombie."