In fact, I hit zombie overload about four years back. Around that time, I’d read a number of zombie novels, short stories, and novellas, and they all became a mushy blur of Romero-rehash and biohazard blah. (And most weren’t written very well). Of course, there were some standouts – World War Z by Max Brooks, The Rising by Brian Keene, Dead City by Joe McKinney – but most just felt dull. In truth, I prefer my zombies on screen. They shuffle around, chomp, get their heads splashed like old melons, and after 90 minutes, I’m pleased and ready to move on to something else. Night of the Living Dead is one of my all-time favorite films and still has the power to creep me out something fierce. Dawn of the Dead is a flat-out classic. I am devoted to Darabont’s The Walking Dead (based on the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman). I dig zombies in motion, but I am less-than-a-fan of them on the page. These days, that makes me an outcast in the writing world, where it seems every other book is Dead-this or Dead-that. Since popularity isn’t all that inspiring for me, I’m okay with that, but I can’t help but wonder why zombies have become such a cultural phenomenon.
Curious as I am, I have asked John Skipp to drop some knowledge on me. His groundbreaking anthology Book of the Dead, co-edited with Craig Spector, appeared on the publishing scene in 1989 when there were very few zombies shuffling around in print (In fact, Skipp tells me the only Romero-esque zombies in print were the novelizations of Romero’s groundbreaking films).
Lee Thomas So tell me, Skipp, why now? What’s going on culturally that makes zombies so compelling and so relevant?
John Skipp Well, I could rattle off the Top 20 Guesses that people like to throw around. You’ve undoubtedly heard them all ad nauseum, just like the basic zombie stories you’re already tired of.
I guess I see it like this: it’s been a long war of attrition. Modern flesh-eating zombies-next-door have been fucking cool since George Romero first thought ’em up and shot ’em, back in 1968. He sparked a meme that has never stopped spreading. An outsider meme, relentlessly growing ever since.
At its heart is a critique of modern civilization, in which “Mankind” is reduced to shambling drones, brainlessly consuming and destroying all they touch. It’s a powerful critique that can be played at least two ways: 1) “The monster is us”, or 2) “Everyone on Earth is an asshole but me.”
You gotta remember: Night of the Living Dead came to popularity as a midnight movie and on the drive-in circuit, where it was embraced not just by horror movie nuts, but by the counterculture and trailer park undergrounds. It stirred survivalist issues and civil rights issues together in a bucket of end-of-the-world meat, with a gun, under a backdrop of Vietnam and political assassination at home. The whole culture was exploding, and here were these guys, chewing your face off in the driveway. Why is that powerful? You tell me! (laughs)
If the question is, why have zombies gotten so popular lately, my answer would be, BECAUSE WE’RE REALLY FUCKING SLOW. But give us 40-50 years, and chances were good that we’d catch up eventually. (laughs again)
LT: You touched on a couple of thematic points: “The monster is us” and “Everyone on Earth is an asshole but me.” And I agree. I figure the zombie thing is hot right now because we’ve reached a point of self-loathing on a cultural level and the levels of entitlement we feel are such that we feel persecuted on all fronts – whether consciously or not. That noted, when you take those two themes – and maybe add the consumerism angle – and use them a few hundred times with little to no variation – except maybe a clever new “origin” story for the outbreak – you’re in pretty shallow water. For me, this is all amusing, because in the way-back, when I read your Book of the Dead, I wondered why there weren’t more zombie books around because the stories in that showed what could be done with the premise and just rocked, generally. My wonderment is pretty well burned to shit about now. After the 8-year onslaught of zombie fic and film, I figure it’s all about covered now. I’m judging an award this year and I’ve read literally dozens of zombie works – short and long. And that’s in one year. Now, I’ve heard the explanation: “These stories aren’t really about the zombies; they’re about the characters, the character dynamics, our culture. The zombies are just an outside catalyst for the story.” Okay, that’s true of most horror stories. The monster represents something other and the story is really about how the characters deal with the other. Cool. Groovy. But as a reader it strikes me as intellectually lazy (or simply riding the bandwagon) because there are any number of ways to isolate characters, or to bring about an apocalyptic scenario without resorting to the shambling munchers.
To be fair, the huge zombie popularity of the era means that everybody feels entitled to take a crack at it, whether they personally give a shit about zombies or not. It’s the thing to do, and everybody’s doin’ it. So yeah, that would help account for why you’re drowning in mediocrity.
That said, I think you can tell the difference between a zombie story written by someone who’s really into it – genuinely excited by the possibilities, and inspired by the implications – and somebody who’s just along for the ride.
Book of the Dead was full of writers who were really into it, who couldn’t wait to not just explore but expand the possibilities that Romero opened up. That’s why the whole intro was about the pioneer spirit.
Now the land is massively settled. So the question is, who is still exploring, and who’s just kicking back on their literary Barcoloungers, squirting out the easy stuff?
LT: For the record, I have written a few zombie stories over the years, so I’m not fighting an artier-than-thou battle with anyone. The last time was a couple years back for a buddy who was putting together a charity antho – and yeah, I was burnt on the whole thing then – so I’ve spent some time on the bandwagon. It would be my shame (if I found shame useful).
With popularity comes saturation and simplification. The definition of “zombie” keeps getting broader and currently covers just about any pack of assholes who have their kill on – dead or alive. The recent remake of I Am Legend was touted in the media as a zombie flick. WTF? (Ironic when you consider how I Am Legend inspired Romero’s original). But the vocabulary is easy and it’s currently in vogue, so just about everything is getting slapped with the Z tag, and it’s annoying.
The way I see it, we have a symbol that was once subversive and meaningful that has now been mainstreamed, commercialized, and castrated (with some exception). Zombies are referenced in everything from children’s television to gay porn (which is, you know, hot! but still… ). Here’s the thing, we both saw the “death of horror” that followed the boom in the 80s. You were in the biz, and I was an interested party watching from afar. Before the fall, horror was everywhere; much in the same way zombies are now. Books that weren’t necessarily horror got the tag to push copies. Blah. Blah. Blah. We all know the history. Are we nearing the same kind of heat death with zombies? What happens when the walkers go tits-up for serious? I’ve heard arguments that it won’t happen, but cultural trends burn hot, burn fast, and usually leave a stain that’s hard to get out.
JS: You’ve got a couple of questions in there, so let me try to sort them. Yes, this everybody-into-the-increasingly-muddy-pool publishing cycle will drown itself, probably sooner than later. But the zombies are here to stay. They’ve officially joined the big boys at the VIP Monster Club: like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons, and serial killers, they’ve passed the point of no return, and will keep getting trotted out forever, whether you like it or not.
But here’s the thing: they’ve got a lot of catching up to do, and many of the coolest possibilities are just beginning to get tickled. For all the glut and sameness, there are some really great, inspired, innovative, refreshing, revealing stories getting told.
I’m not burned out, because I don’t make it a point to read every fucking zombie story that comes down the pike. And all it takes is ONE GOOD ONE to break through, and keep the field alive. All you need is a little discernment.
Bottom line: zombies are fun to play with, and I totally get that. As bandwagons go, it’s got a lot to offer. It’s up to the author to rise to the challenge.
And occasionally, one of them does.
LT: I always thought zombies sat at the big-boy table, though generally underrepresented, and I liked that. It seemed to be the one beastie that was all ours, and not some pan-genre plaything. Now, they’ve taken over the dinner party and eaten all the guests.
JS: A couple things. Number one – and I’m showing my advanced age here – but zombies weren’t always at the big boy table. Old-school zombies
– voodoo slaves and victims of mesmerists and such – were barely allowed to wash the big boy’s cars. They were the bottom of the heap, man. They were slaves, and background noise. Even ghouls – the closest revenants to zombies, and the ones that inspired Romero more – were somewhere back behind mummies, blobs, and giant insects on the monster evolutionary chart.
Then Romero filmically changed all that. And until Book of the Dead came out in 1989, the only post-Romero fiction in existence was the pair of novelizations for Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. And neither of them were very good.
So the fiction started when I said to George Romero – in a stoned moment that I will forever thank God for – “Hey, man. We’ve been meeting all these great horror writers, who love your mythos almost as much as I do. What if we got a bunch of ’em to write stories set in your universe, showing everything else that happened when the dead got back up?”
And he said, “Well, if you don’t use any characters or scenes from the movies, then Richard Rubenstein (his then-producer) won’t sue you. But I frankly don’t think anybody would be interested. If you pull it off, I will eat my hat.”
So I sent out a bunch of letters. And within two weeks, Stephen King was in with “Home Delivery”. Then David J. Schow brought “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy”, and Joe R. Lansdale brought “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks”. And from there, it was on.
That was 20 years ago. And like I said, we’re verrrrry slow. It wasn’t until Keene wrote The Rising that an actual zombie novel broke through. And it wasn’t until Max Brooks and World War Z that zombies hit the New York Times bestseller list. Both excellent books, by the way.
So I credit Keene with the second wave, and Brooks with taking it over the top, with big props to Kirkman and pals with The Walking Dead comics, which I also dearly love. Put all that together with 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead, and we are where we are today.
Oh, and by the way, Romero ate a Steelers cap with spaghetti sauce. Which totally counts.
LT: You are absolutely correct that zombies – the Haitian variety – were not always major players, and I screwed up by not defining our terms – and it is generational, because I was starting with the Romero breed (which weren’t even called zombies by the creator), as they seem more representational of the current definition. That noted, since so many variations on the theme are getting tagged with the label Z, it was a bozo move on my part not to include the progenitors of the “species.”
Now that we have a definition, I’ll have to put this on pause. I will be back with Skipp in a couple of weeks to finish up the discussion, which includes some fresh takes on the zombie phenom, including spores, bizarros, and a woman named Rose, who sings and dances her way through the apocalypse.
For those who can’t get enough zombies – the World Horror Convention 2011 is having a mega-zombie panel, moderated by Joe McKinney. Come on down to Austin and get you some.
End of part one. Next time, I will be continuing my chat with horror master John Skipp, as we look at what’s to become of the zombie.
John Skipp is a New York Times bestselling author, editor, zombie godfather, compulsive collaborator, musical pornographer, black-humored optimist and all-around Renaissance mutant. His early novels from the 1980s and 90s pioneered the graphic, subversive, high-energy form known as splatterpunk. His anthology Book of the Dead was the beginning of modern post-Romero zombie literature. His work ranges from hardcore horror to whacked-out Bizarro to scathing social satire, all brought together with his trademark cinematic pace and intimate, unflinching, unmistakable voice. From young agitator to hilarious elder statesman, Skipp remains one of genre fiction’s most colorful characters.