13 January 2009

Better Off Undead? The Mysterious Popularity of Zombie Movies

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Member of the Living (for now)…

To prep for a video I’m producing, I watched Undead or Alive, the 2007 comedy-horror flick about zombies in the old west. It’s moderately entertaining, with Chris Kattan as a cowboy wannabe and Navi Rawat as the intellectual kung-fu fighting Native-American babe.

The hitch in this giddyap?

The zombies themselves. Although they have more dialogue than most zombies (better agents, perhaps?), they’re still just another iteration of the lumbering brain eaters who have populated every zombie flick since Night of the Living Dead. Not exactly scary. I’d be more terrified to find a stray pitbull approaching me on a city street. Or Ann Coulter.

And yet…

The lust for zombie movies appears to be unabated. See the mandatory MBA-droid chart below. Note the surge during the holidays. That’s what spending time with the relatives will do to you. There’s even a phenomenon called Zombie Walks where hundreds of people dress up as zombies to walk stiffly through the downtowns of major cities, terrifying ordinary citizens before going to work as oil executives. The hunger is definitely out there.

They just keep a' comin'...

They just keep a’ comin’…

Although the films rarely hit the silver screen, with most going straight to DVD, there’s a continuous demand for them. And now the Internet has made undead action available at the click of a mouse. I recently wrote about The Outbreak, an interactive zombie movie that I helped promote. This online film scored over 1,000,000 unique views outside of YouTube in just eight months, and my post on The Outbreak still gets hits from people searching “new zombie movies.”

Why do people dig zombie movies so much?

These flicks almost always have the same plot: a group of humans tries to escape zombies who run slower than a sloth wearing army boots in a pool of molasses. The zombies want to eat human brains, but for some reason leave most of their victims only partially eaten, and those in turn become zombies. Although still made of human flesh, the zombies suddenly have the ability to bash through wooden doors and walls with their bare hands. They can only be killed by decapitation. And finally, most everyone in the movie becomes a zombie, including the hero’s best friend. Whence the popularity?

Being a crack investigative marketing-and-media reporter, I decided to hunt for the source of zombie fever. And like any hardcore journalist in the 21st century, I began by Googling. That virtual divining rod directed me to the sci-fi site i09 and an article by Annalee Newitz in her column “Chart Porn.” Entitled “War and Social Upheaval Cause Spikes in Zombie Movie Production,” the article includes a nifty little chart to illustrate her findings. Newitz points out that “there are distinctive spikes in zombie popularity — and they always seem to fall slightly after a huge political or social event has caused mass fear, chaos, or suffering.”

The problem — as Newitz herself notes — is that correlation is not causation: just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t mean they’re related. For example, just because a football team called the “Patriots” was caught cheating during the jingoistic Bush administration doesn’t mean there was a connection… or was there? So why would tough times necessarily engender movies about flesh-eating undead? Why not more movies about Bigfoot or Minnesota’s famous Lizard People?

More explanatory was a comment on the article by IsaiahGrimlock (great name):

“Well there’s the whole Bolshevism V. Class structure, mindless hordes of any kind always distress upper classes (recent Land of the Dead bears that out rather literally), but what about plain old xenophobia as a natural or ingrained stress response to overpopulation? Besides more movies being made, you don’t seem to recognize that Zombie movies are a therapeutic exercise whereupon an excuse to kill your neighbours is magically granted… Plus, nerd factor – socially awkward people feel better about Zombie movies, since the loners tend to do better.”

Hmmm. I did meet a lot of nerdy execs in Silicon Valley who could pass for undead, but I don’t recall zombie movies being particularly popular among them. They preferred to watch spreadsheets.

Another commentator on this article, Taed, noted that the prevalence of zombie flicks “might actually correlate better to Republican Presidents… Note the seemingly low spells during the Carter and Clinton years.” I like that theory. It seems to me that many people — Congress and the media in particular — walked around brain dead through most of the Bush administration, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11. And there are those who argue that Reagan was one of the greatest presidents ever — a definite sign of cerebral necrosis — and others who think Sarah Palin would make a great president. Now that is a terrifying thought.

But does that mean zombie movies will disappear now that the notably cerebral Obama is El Presidente? Will he banish the zombies to follow Dick Cheney back into the darkness?

Time to Bring in the Zombie Expert…

Jed Rowen is my friend. So stop messing with me. Really.

Jed Rowen is my friend. So stop messing with me. Really.

Finally, I asked my buddy Jed Rowen for some inside info. Jed’s not a zombie, but he frequently plays one on film, including such flicks as Zombie Farm, Zombie Nation, and Zombie Ninja Gangbangers.

Jed credits the fact that we mortals “have a fascination with death — an insatiable appetite for the morbid,” adding that “zombie movies are a great visual experience: they’re frenetic and funny and always worth the price of admission.”

Spoken like a great zombie rep.

At the least, this is one industry that doesn’t need a bailout — as long as there’s a steady supply of human spectators… and brains…

Update 4/9/9: Time Magazine declares that “Zombies are the New Vampires”.

Update 5/18/9: In its typical more-literary-than-thou fashion, the L.A. Weekly also tries to get to the source of zombie fever (much more interesting than swine flu) with “This Zombie Moment: Hunting for What Lies Beneath the Undead Zeitgeist.”

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

6 Responses

  1. OK, my buddy Dane just sent me something that’s even scarier than zombie films and even more inexplicably popular: Fred (no relation), the #1 most subscribed video producer on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/fred). Simply ghastly.

  2. Three words for you: Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  3. oh come on, Ann Coulter is the cute and cuddly type! if you were to meet her in a dark alley, she would at worst regale you with rambling, pointless, vituperative, anti-Democratic propaganda, just like her website….

    Freddy’s comment: But what if she then rips open my skull and sucks out my brain? It’s clear that she’s done just that to her millions of fans…

  4. I think its more related to the Fantasy or the post apocolyptic world. That always excited people.

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