To paraphrase The Communist Manifesto, a specter is haunting Hollywood. Actually, two of them: zombies and vampires. The undead.
Not only do people want to watch the undead, as demonstrated by the ongoing flood of films about vampires and zombies and the big box office they pull in, they want to be the undead. “Zombie walks” — in which thousands of participants gather, made-up as ambulant, flesh-eating corpses (some reputedly entering a trance-like, zomboid state) — have sprung up over the past decade or so, dawning first in Sacramento in 2001, and then spreading to marches in Greater Boston (notably in Somerville, as well as last October’s invasion of Newbury Street) and dozens of other metropolises worldwide, including Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toronto, various British cities, Shanghai, and Brisbane, Australia.
Not even George A. Romero, who as much as anyone can take credit for the zombie phenomenon — spawning it as he did back in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead — can explain why they do this. “I don’t get it,” he remarked about these undead wannabes when I interviewed him recently about his newly released sixth film in his zombie franchise, Survival of the Dead, which opens next week. “You just want to say, ‘Get a life.’ ”
Rather than getting a life for themselves, however, other fans go as far as wanting their newborn children to be undead, as well. An article in the May 8 New York Times reports that the name growing most rapidly in popularity for boys these days is Cullen, the name of the vampire clan in Stephenie Meyer’s four-book Twilight series. It goes without saying that these happy parents will also be lining up on June 30 to see The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, the series’ third cinematic adaptation, the two previous films having already grossed more than $1.1 billion worldwide.
What’s the appeal of such memento mori, such models of soulless rapacity? Fear and desire would be my first guesses. And sex and death. You can’t get much more basic than that: we dread and desire both extinction and reproduction (or so Freud would have it), and such powerful psychic forces shape the waking nightmares that we call entertainment.
Sex and death, along with taxes, we always have with us, and consequently both vampires and zombies (and mummies and Frankenstein’s monster fit in there somewhere, too, I suppose) have persisted throughout the history of cinema. But Freud doesn’t shed much light on why they are more popular at certain times and not others, or why sometimes one revenant has the edge over the other. Or why both movie monsters have proliferated in the past few years as abundantly as have subprime mortgages in Goldman Sachs’s portfolios.
Maybe Karl Marx, wrong about so much in the real world, could offer some clarification in the realm of make-believe. Could vampires, like the filthy rich, parasitic, aristocratic, and charismatic Cullens, be representatives of the capitalist class? And zombies, those lumpen, lurching, mass-consuming legions, could they stand for labor and the proletariat? If so, vampire movies would embody the audience’s anger and fascination with the money men responsible for the recent economic collapse. And zombie movies would touch on the dread of — and wish for — an uprising of the working against those same exploiters.