The Living Dead
by John Joseph Adams
"You know Macumba? Voodoo. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, 'When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.'"
—Ken Foree as "Peter" in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead
When I first started assembling this anthology, I thought to myself: This is not going to be the sort of book that begins with an origin of the word zombie. Because that's not the point, is it? Zombie fiction is about the unburied dead returning to life and seeking human victims. It's about battling a frightening, implacable foe and imagining what it would be like to survive the end of the world and trying to figure out what to do when the dead won't stay dead.
Regardless of where the word actually comes from, today the word "zombie" generally refers to the sort of shambling reanimated corpses as depicted in George A. Romero's landmark film Night of the Living Dead. In his short fiction collection Zombie Jam, author David J. Schow explains the influence of Romero: "The plain fact is that the aptly-christened 'Romero zombies' have infiltrated the culture to the extent that even people who have never experienced the movies 'know' what zombies are in shortform: They're dead, they walk, they want to eat you, and they usually outnumber you."
Most of the stories in this book are either inspired by Romero's "unholy trilogy"—Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead—or are a reaction to it. That influence is obvious in much of the fiction contained herein, and authors frequently cite seeing Romero's films as pivotal moments in their youth (and, indeed, their lives).
So why are we so drawn to zombie fiction? What's so appealing about the idea of the living dead?
John Langan, author of "How the Day Runs Down" (pg. 469), says that zombies—the post-Romero zombie that has defined our current concept of the beast—have the virtue of simplicity. "While you can trace aspects of their behavior to a host of monsters that have come before (like vampires, they rise from the dead; like ghouls and werewolves, they eat our flesh; like Frankenstein's monster, they're reanimated corpses; like most monsters, they have a particular weakness that will kill them immediately), they boil all that down to the basics: they're back from the dead, they want to eat us, they can be killed with a shot to the head," he says. "I suspect that part of their effectiveness lies in the way they present us to ourselves, by which I mean, if you think about a monster like the vampire or the werewolf, you can see them as aspects of human behavior magnified and embodied; i.e. the vampire's connection to various kinds of (taboo) eroticism has been explored ad infinitum, while the werewolf's link to animal violence has also been recognized. With the zombie, what you get is us, pretty much as we are, maybe with a little damage, and we consume one another. No eroticism, no animal violence, just a single, overwhelming appetite. That's simultaneously very straightforward and very disturbing."
David Barr Kirtley, author of "The Skull-Faced Boy" (pg. 331), says that there are two reasons we find zombies appealing. "One, I think there's an enormous segment of our brain that's evolved for running away from packs of predators, and zombie stories give us a rare opportunity to take this primal part of our psyches out for a spin," he says. "And, two, zombies are a great metaphor. The great mass of humanity often comes across to us as unreasoningly hostile and driven to consumption, and the image of the zombie captures this perfectly."
The popularity of zombies comes from the fact that the vampire that we all loved got lost, says "The Age of Sorrow" (pg. 343) author Nancy Kilpatrick. "A lot of us miss the old resuscitated corpse, the ugly vampire, the mindless one that can't be reasoned with," she says. "I think zombies were there already and evolved from the Haitian Voodoo zombie to the Romero zombie that evolved further over the course of his film series so that the cause of zombification became different and rather than being bland slaves, they turned into full-blown predators, en masse. Most of us miss the predatory vampire. Zombies I think have ascended in popularity because they not only fill that archetypal void, but they also reflect society's fear of something overtaking us, making us less-than-human, or the victim of that less-than-human. It's especially traumatizing