Zombies: The New Vampires

It wasn’t long ago when audiences packed theaters for vampire-themed movies. Much of that popularity came from young readers devouring books like Twilight. How quickly trends change. With the new release of the film World War Z this summer, zombies will all but secure the top spot as the new vampires.

Don't Open, Dead Inside
Don’t Open, Dead Inside

How did this happen? For this edition of Monday Mayhem, my series devoted to all things crazy and insane, I’d like to explore the rise of the zombie from a knuckle-dragging goon to a sophisticated eating machine.

Disclaimer: If anything my regular readers know about me is, I’m a zombie purist. I’m a huge fan of George A. Romero, the father of modern zombie behavioral science. Have that in mind when reading this post, since I’ll probably offer my opinion on more than one occasion—or not.

At one time, vampires ruled the earth. Bookstore shelves couldn’t keep up with the insatiable demand to carry the latest and greatest vampire series. Every Halloween the most popular costumes had to have fangs and pale white makeup kits. Theaters featured vampires making dinner meat out of humans, vampires killing werewolves, and vampires falling in love. Topics on radio shows included: Whenever you hear thunder, do you wonder if vampires are playing baseball?

What happened to the vampire?

by Baby Doll
Zombie at the Door

Zombies are what happened to vampires. Just like their genetic makeup, zombies crept into mainstream popularity and are now eating away at every form of media. The movie Warm Bodies is the latest entry to the genre, which film critics loved as the zombie equivalent to Twilight. The steady growth of zombie fandom hasn’t relented one bit either. Shows like The Walking Dead and In the Flesh have captured the imagination of viewers everywhere. Sites devoted to the undead have sprung up throughout the world. Commercials have even gotten in on the act. Zombies apparently love BMW, Ford and Doritos.

How did this all happen?

In the 1920s, H. P. Lovecraft wrote a short story called Herbert West—Reanimator. Inspired by Frankenstein, Lovecraft’s mad doctor believed he could bring life back from the dead, which he did. The caveat being the creatures reanimated came back as starved cannibals, killing and eating everyone in sight. Sounds familiar, huh?

In 1954, Richard Matheson wrote I Am Legend. Although devoted to vampirism, the common story elements with modern day zombies are evident. A virus infects humans who then infect other humans with their bites. In the 2007 movie by the same name, Will Smith fights dark seekers, which blurs the lines between vampires and zombies even further. Although never spoken of as vampires, if one were to view dark seekers simply by their behavior, one would think they are zombies (feed off humans, affected by a virus, etc.).

However, it wasn’t until 1968 when director George A. Romero released The Night of the Living Dead that zombies became what they are today—single-minded eating machines. These are the same zombies featured in the show The Walking Dead (born from the dead, crave human flesh and will die with a blow to the head—as I’d written in my post The Three Commandments).

This gradual escalation of zombie popularity has yet to abate. Once we see a full-scale acceptance of the zombie genre, that’s when a true zombie apocalypse will have taken place.

Have we seen the last of vampires? Do you think someone will write about a family of zombies?

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36 thoughts on “Zombies: The New Vampires

  1. Hm. Late to the party – The story of my life. According to early Central / Eastern European vampire lore, vampires & zombies were not too dissimilar. Vampires could come out to play during the day & feast on the flesh & blood of the living. They smelled bad & looked decidedly ” over – ripe “. Bela Lugosi & later actors made vampires ” sexy “. Not so for zombies, who continue to lurch awkwardly, stink to high heaven, & hang out in loose groups.
    No single cause for zombieism ( ? ). Maybe an errant mutant viruses, toxic chemicals, radiation. Why not those little darlings of some science – fiction series, nanites ? They could rebuild connections in the central nervous system ( On a basic level ), keep muscles from decaying too quickly, etc.

    I have seen ” In The Flesh “, thanks to BBC America, & enjoy its unique take on the zombie mythos – People who return from the dead, & after a period of mindlessness, can become rehabilitated & reintroduced into society as long as they get their injections.

  2. I watched an old Japanese zombie movie ‘Wild Zero’ that was pretty entertaining. There’s a married couple turned zombie that stay in love to ‘eat face’. That’s sort of a zombie family…

  3. my mother took me to the original “Dawn of the Dead” at the drive in. From that moment in 1978, my 8 year old mind connected with zombies. i tend to stray away from movies that feature just one zombie, or like a “my boyfriend is a teenage zombie” type movie. I’m more of an apocalypse man myself.

  4. All in it’s time. Back in the 80s and early 90s there were werewolves everywhere; The Howling, An American Werewolf In London, The Company of Wolves, Werewolf the Series. They got ,stale so vampires took over. Now it’s zombies. But next year … Godzilla!!!!

  5. I think vampires and zombies will always be around. I still haven’t seen the latest zombie movies that came out. Not enough time or money to get to see them all!!

  6. My 4yr old is always talking about zombies, she must be on the pulse lol. I can just about watch Shaun of the Dead but it’s pushing it for me to watch Dawn of the Dead – way too scary. So is your book really scary then?

    • Ha, Shaun of the Dead is such a great movie and so much fun. Dawn of the Dead is not a movie for the faint-of-heart. My book scary? I’m hoping it will rattle a few cages, but we’ll see when it releases this fall!

  7. Vampires may die down for a while but they will be back. Zombies have been consistently popular for 60 years and will always be there because of the basic fear of death they represent 😀

  8. Nice write-up! Although I have to say I think World War Z is going to hurt the genre more than it will help — the production has been troubled, author Max Brooks was so dissatisfied he took his name off of the film, and from what I’ve read, if not for the success of Walking Dead, the film might’ve been scrapped altogether. I’ve seen that trailer and while I’m okay with changing the approach (and let’s face it, World War Z, the novel, was awesome and should’ve been adapted more directly as a faux-documentary), those ridiculous fast and fake CGI zombies are NOT going to win over a hardcore zombie audience. My hopes were dashed the exact moment I saw that ridiculous shot of the almost amorphous blob of flesh with arms and legs trying to scale that massive retaining wall. It’ll probably do okay for the opening weekend as people give it the benefit of the doubt, but once word of mouth gets out . . . this is a cash grab, pure and simple, and once it bombs, they’ll think twice about putting that much cash into a large scale zombie film.

  9. I read an interesting article in “The Straight Dope” that deals with the vampire vs. zombie popularity battle. In it, the author claims that while vampires are popular because they simply repressed sexuality evidencing itself, zombie popularity comes from an individual’s feelings of helpless against the “hordes” of government, society, etc. that are pushing an agenda separate from the person’s. I don’t know if I agree with the article, but it did point out that spikes in zombie popularity coincide with times of political upheaval or war. I personally think that Twilight just put a stake through the heart of any coolness vampires had gained over the years, and “the Walking Dead” capitalized by bringing badass-ness and moral ambiguity back to the undead…

  10. Reblogged this on SandraBranum's Blog and commented:
    I don’t like zombies. I think it’s because of science and modern technology. We now have genetically altered food and some sort of laboratory created “life.” The misstep of creating some form of zombie is not that farfetched anymore.

  11. I don’t like zombies. I think it’s because of science and modern technology. We now have genetically altered food and some sort of laboratory created “life.” The misstep of creating some form of zombie is not that farfetched anymore. I’m reblogging this because it’s getting more relevant everyday.

  12. I realized that zombies were hitting mainstream about a year ago. I was in the video game/DVD area at WalMart and two pre-teen boys walked by discussing their actions should the apocalypse break out while they were walking through the store. They even pointed at me and were figuring out how best to take me out should I turn.

    It’s not over by a long shot, I do love the fact that we have zombie TV shows, they basically write themselves, survivors surviving, zombies zombiying, it can go on for years and years of programming.
    As shown on Buffy though, Vampires can have a shelf life that expires after too many storylines where they’re written into love affairs with people.

    I don’t know, I’m just happy that it’s not all reality TV.
    Thanks for another fantastic rebloggable post.

    • If you like horror/zombies and hate Reality TV, you’ve got to watch ‘Dead Set’ (if you haven’t already). It’s a British mini-series that is both a zombie story as well as a parody of shows like Big Brother – truly original and brilliant!

      • Definitely check ‘Dead Set’ out if you can get hold of it in the US. You might miss some of the more British references but it’s an amazing and very unusual series.

        The guy who wrote it (Charlie Brooker) produces some very dark stuff and this one is no different. The amazing thing is that they actually managed to use the real set used for the UK version of Big Brother for parts of it and some of the presenters. The ending is very much a critique of modern culture and it’s obsession with reality tv, consumer culture etc as well as being a great ending.

        Anyway, all this is kind of getting away from the subject of Jack’s post but it is another great example of zombies creeping into more popular culture.

  13. Nah, I really doubt vampires will ever get out of style. Especially since, we can always fall back on Dracula. Just as much as zombies won’t die off either. A family of zombies?Hmm..now that would be kind of interesting. Warm Bodies actually has that in the book for a little bit. I found it slightly on the weird side..but then in general the concept of that book was bizarre in a good way.

  14. There’s an increase in academic interest in zombie culture, and they’ve started drawing parallels between devastating social situations (SARS, Hurricane Katrina, economic collapse) and an increasing interest in zombies. “[T]he monster always reflects the audience for whom it is created,” says one academic http://www.academia.edu/2076353/The_Sociology_of_Zombie_Popular_Culture, so perhaps it feels as though there’s a pervasive and never-ending feeling of getting preyed upon that directs us toward zombies. There’s also a pretty well-documented rise in pop culture interest in things like ghosts and religious interaction (angels and such) during troubling times, and you can see that in the abundance of shows like “Ghost Hunters” on the air right now. The “Twilight” series managed to water down the popular concept of vampirism to the point that it’s not quite as terrifying as it could be, and I haven’t seen any studies on this but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the sexualized nature of the vampire + current sexual attitudes = also why they’re falling from the top horror spot. While it wasn’t the greatest movie, my favorite vampires in recent memory were in “30 Days of Night”. They were just there for the food. There’s nothing sexualized about zombies, they’re just relentless, mindless eating machines, and that’s scary business. They’re not even necessarily evil, they just are what they are. (and I haven’t seen “Warm Bodies” but know the plot, where zombies can not only become sentient but re-human, and fall in love, which I think misses the point of zombie literature)

    • This a good point. I remember reading somewhere how vampires do well when the economy booms but zombies do better during a recession. There’s this whole socio-pop-culture thing going on that allows certain genres to rise based on economic health. Maybe one day I’ll take the time to write my version of the article I read!

  15. I think the key turning point for zombies in popular culture will be the release of World War Z this summer (which, incidently, I was an extra in!). If it’s really popular and goes down well with critics and audiences alike, and more importantly makes a stack of cash, you can expect zombies to go stratospheric with every publisher, script writer and TV channel scrambling around to get their own pieces of the ‘zombie’ pie.

    If it bombs (and I’m still not convinced yet that it won’t – although the latest trailer which is out today looks pretty good), the zombies growing challenge to vampires is likely to fizzle and die simply because these same people won’t be running around desperatly trying to find the next big zombie hit but instead will stick to the vampires that they know that can bank on.

    It’s depressing that everything comes down to money, but I guess that’s the world we live in – at least until the dead start to rise!

    • It’s already on. Walking Dead rules in TV land and Comics land. Zombies never went out of style in movies. And in games ‘add zombie mode’ is an extremely profitable gimmick.

      World War Z will be arriving to the world that is 100% ready for it. Popculture is at its zombie peak. The undead are in vogue.

  16. If you haven’t yet, then you should read the series Deadlocked written by A.R Wise, available on Amazon. I think the first two books are free but it is really good. Got me hooked on the whole zombie thing.

  17. When I think of vampires, I think of super smart, super fast, super good looking creatures who have the ability to screw with our heads, making us believe things that aren’t true. In a vampire apocalypse, we’d all be toast.
    Zombies, on the other hand, are slower than us, dumber than us, and way uglier than us. Their only weapon is in sheer numbers as they overwhelm us. We have a chance in the zombie apocalypse, which I think is one of the reasons for their current popularity. We can plan and plot how we’ll survive, which we can’t with vampires.

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