The Power of Zombie Literature

Heading into the last days of Survival Horror Month, allow me a comment on a topic that has dominated these pages the last couple weeks—zombies.

Why do we so enjoy the undead reanimating and chomping the hell out of us? Where’s the attraction? Vampires are charming. Werewolves are powerful and savage. And Zombies? Well…they sort of ooze stuff all over the place and leave bits and pieces of themselves in their wake. I don’t see a zombie worming his way into the Edward vs. Jacob debate.

Perhaps we might find the solution to this question in the success of the undying George Romero’s classic, Night of the Living Dead. Let’s think…what was going on in the late sixties? Hmmm….the  conflict in Vietnam, riots in our urban areas, and a Cold War which kept heating up and threatening to ignite into Armageddon.  Of course the apocalypse became an attractive theme for some writers and film makers. From this perspective, the zombie represented the world gone wrong, the upheaval of the natural order of things. In the zombie apocalypse, all the institutions of authority that we trusted since childhood were rendered powerless to help. Even the natural order of things, the balance of life and death itself turned topsy-turvy.

Given it’s timeliness in the late sixties, how is zombie literature  still able to sustain itself? Once we paint a picture of a nihilistic landscape, what else is there? How can such literature continue to hold our interest when all it seems to offer is a bleak one-note wail?

Well, if we first push aside the gore, the collapsed civilization, and the emptiness of a deserted city street, we are left with something which is central to American literature since the colonial days—the triumph of the individual.


Think about it. Cut off from all help and support, the survivor of the zombie apocalypse must rely on his wits and personal attributes.

Even if he eventually succumbs to the hungry horde, he does so fighting.  Let me argue that the zombie apocalypse is actually one of the most hopeful of all horror subgenres. The flesh may be comsumed, but the heroic spirit remains.

2 comments to The Power of Zombie Literature

  • The genre can easily be used to depict the social problems and political agendas of the day. For example in Land of the Dead George Romero shows “George Bush’s America” where the upper class is being used like serfs to prop up and maintain the lifestyles of the wealthy by using the fear of zombies (aka terrorism) to motivate them. In my own work “Uprising” (available at I delve into the way politicians use any threat to promote their own agendas and how fast they’ll join with radical protest groups in order to win more kickbacks and votes.

  • Stewart Sternberg

    Hey Chris, you’re right of course, about the social commentary, but I think that is also true in many of the science fiction and fantasy classics. I was on a panel once with Michelle West, who put forward that since there are few taboos remaining in sf-f , and we can include horror, that little genre fiction these days are political in nature. Of course, we disagreed. That being said, what I wanted to put across strongly above was the optimistic tone of zombie lit, the individual fighting against all odds.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting..and thanks for linking your book here.