Ghosts are passé. Vampires have to have kung fu powers or teen angst to earn our attention. But zombies are one form of undead we've come to love more and more.
Recent zombie treatments have departed somewhat from the classic, lurching zombie archetype. For example, in Left 4 Dead, the "infected" are quite fast and have specialized abilities. But the word "zombie" continues to bring to mind the slow-moving, horde-forming, uniformly relentless flesh-eaters from the movies.
Why do such mindless monsters fascinate us so much? Ghosts and vampires at least exhibit human longing and suffering. Zombies just moan, shuffle and munch. The first Google result for "zombie fascination" leads to a page of the Zombie Survival & Defense Wiki that asks this question. One of the offered answers is that zombies reduce the world to a simple kill-or-be-killed state that society and technology, or even emotion and reason, cannot overcome.
I like this theory because of how well it explains the "bad guys," including zombies, in countless games. It doesn't matter whether you're shooting robots in Berzerk or zombies in Burn Zombie Burn; mindless, relentless, numerous targets provide run-and-gun gameplay that hasn't gone out of style.
Such games that pit one against many are, in a way, more believable when featuring zombies rather than intelligent and sophisticated enemies. You wouldn't expect the average person to last long against an army of soldiers, cyborgs, or vampires. But the slowness and stupidity of zombies give him or her a fighting chance. And maybe zombies are a more sympathetic foe. Vampires are powerful, arrogant and intelligent; zombies are clumsy, helpless, and have no idea how they got that way. On a typical day, do you feel more like the former or the latter? With their bulging eyes, green skin, and wayward limbs, zombies are even kind of cute.
Other reasons proposed on the Wiki for zombie appeal include the thrill of social upheaval and the chance to examine the meaning of life. Those are fine reasons, but I have another: zombies represent our fear of environmental threats. The root cause of a zombie problem is usually a pathogen, probably a man-made one. People are not only responsible for the genesis of the pathogen; they are also incapable of preventing its spread.
Real-world pathogens haunt our consciences because of our complacency in spreading them and our incompetence in stopping them. The Black Death spread far and quickly because of living conditions that facilitated its transmission and ignorance as to its nature. Today, confined animal feeding operations have been blamed for helping to spread the swine flu epidemic if not starting it outright. The H1N1 virus remains a concern despite advanced efforts to contain it.
Primal and uncontrollable, zombies carry out nature's wrath. They are the agents of Mother Earth, getting back at us for our environmental misdeeds. They are climate change personified, forcing us to give up our lavish and wasteful homes and lifestyles and go back to basics in order to survive. They also represent our fear of overpopulation; the resource needs of other people are so great that they may eventually eat us alive. Knowing how wasteful we have been in the West, we're worried about the teeming hordes in the East that now want cell phones and cars. We see a lifestyle-or-death struggle on the horizon pitting us, virtuous, sophisticated, and full of life, against them, barbaric, burdensome, and multiplying irresponsibly.
However, the earth has a way of reestablishing balance. If humanity becomes overwhelmed by zombiekind, other living organisms won't necessarily sit on the sidelines. The game Plants vs. Zombies offers hope that nature can correct a calamity as terrible as a zombie plague. If climate change is Mother Earth's attempt to reclaim what we've taken from other species, then Mother Earth may intervene on our behalf when a threat become too great for us to handle.
Writing this post has helped me understand our fascination with zombies. By being such primitive and primal reflections of us, they offer an intriguing perspective on our nature and environment. Like a devoted zombie fan, though, I am probably overthinking it. Zombies might represent an environmental problem much simpler than what I've raised above. We're pushing the capacities of our cemeteries, our "human landfills," and the dead just want a more sustainable place to rest.