I'll be home alone this Halloween as my brother Patrick is in Washington, DC, attending and participating in a couple of panels at ANIME USA. That doesn't bother me, since I was living solo before he moved in last April. But this being Halloween I still have to put up with the usual features of the season, including a widespread belief in zombies.
Once confined to a fringe of the horror fan crowd, even after the release of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, it can be argued that the phenom has to do with the popularity of AMC's "Walking Dead" series. I've scanned the Net but the explanations given -- the rise of goth culture, the tendency to dehumanize/depersonalize one's enemies -- seem pretty weak to me.
So I've come up with my own explanation and hereby submit it to the Net myself:
We live in a time when optimism about the future has been well-nigh obliterated. We went through the same period of outlook adjustment between the explosion of the A-Bomb in 1945 and the Summer of Love in 1966, a period which coincided with the Cold War. The optimism of the turn of the 20th century which persisted to some extent even through the Great Depression was effectively canceled out. We could still believe in technological progress but felt mankind itself to be on the downhill side, "surely, but not slowly, slipping back to all fours," to borrow the words of James Thurber. Our current political state of conflict is but one symptom of this negativity, which isn't dispelled by a casual glance at the problems which appear to be insurmountable: poverty, unemployment, race relations, homelessness.
I believe my brother Pat is right in his contention that popular culture is inherently conservative no matter how wild its expression in a particular instance, which is the theme of his writings about how manga and anime represent Japanese culture and draw inspiration from it rather than attempt to subvert it. I therefore propose that our current fascination with the undead represents an editorial cartoon depiction of the unsolvable problems we face as a society; despite our trying to solve them/kill them off, they just keep coming at us. They never go away, which is what the dead are supposed to do once they're buried.
Of course the flip side of the zombie phenom is just as true: death itself doesn't go away. On the organic level it spreads systematically which is why it's scientifically impossible for zombies to actually exist. Short of achieving the fantasy of obliterating death, we can forestall it through healthier lifestyles or make our peace with its inevitability and find some measure of meaning in it through religion. Until then we have to endure depictions of zombies as mindless munching machines, no matter how ridiculous it gets. The reviewer for the New York Times who covered "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" said it best: "if you liked all the zombie comedies that came before, well, here’s another one."