Think of a teeming metropolis like New York City. Now double that in size. If every single person who lived there, every hot-dog vendor, third-grader and euphoric Mets fan, was in fact a flesh-eating zombie, that would roughly equal the 17.3 million people that tuned into last October’s fifth-season premiere of AMC’S The Walking Dead, the most-watched episode of anything in cable history. Those are blockbuster numbers and they occurred week after week. The demand for the show has become so huge that a prequel spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, debuts this Sunday.
Culturally speaking, the zombie apocalypse has been fought and won — and we are its red meat. Consider this an obituary for humankind, or at least for those painfully uncool monsters like Dracula, sent packing for Transylvania. Not only have zombies prevailed on the battlegrounds of movies and television, they’ve swarmed comics and the best-seller list, invaded videogames and the App Store, shambled on the front lines of fan-based activism in the streets. Even the authorities we’d trust in an emergency, those hazmat-suited scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have gotten in on the action, raising preparedness for real catastrophes via a fun, zombie-related 2011 blog post. The resulting traffic crashed their site.
These new superfans — the zombie-come-latelies — have turned horror’s most suggestive subgenre, loaded with sociopolitical subtext, into a bona-fide phenomenon, one that’s 10 times more interesting (and gory) than Twilight ever was. Worse things have happened on the way to the mainstream. But the further we stray from the now-iconic figure’s origins, the more they’re worth exploring. The zombies are us, yet not us. You may ask: Who died and made us lumbering, rotting experts on the recently deceased? Years of study and target practice. Here are the four main eras of zombie pop-mythology.