Here at the end of a week where London has been torn by riots and the economy has some people feeling like they’re on the Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens, I thought it time to ponder one of the really big questions of our time: why zombies? And why now?

Peter Leithart asks that question, partly to poke fun at the answer film critic Terrence Rafferty offers, but also to seek answers himself:

I’ve asked myself that question a lot over the last few years, what with the spate of books and films featuring zombies.  Terrence Rafferty asks the same question in a recent NYT piece.  He points out that the insatiable, relentless zombies of today are relatively new: “The title creature of Jacques Tourneur’s weirdly lyrical 1943 movie, ‘I Walked With a Zombie,’ doesn’t eat flesh and is entirely unthreatening to the living beings around her; all that’s horrifying is the unnatural, unassimilable fact of her existence….

Since “Night of the Living Dead,” things have changed: “The thing about these newly empowered 21st-century zombies is that they keep coming at you, relentlessly, wave upon wave of necrotic, mindlessly voracious semi-­beings. According to the current convention, the individual reanimatee can be dispatched by shooting or stabbing it in the brain, but the strength of this inexorably advancing zombie population is in its numbers: the ambulatory dead are, you might say, a fast-­growing demographic. This sort of creature is an extremely convenient monster for low-budget filmmakers like Romero, who had the wit to realize that with zombies he wouldn’t have to break the bank on highly skilled professional actors. Anybody can shamble along looking vacant.”

This is true, but there’s more going on here. I mean, anyone can make a low-budget horror movie without real professionals, and in the case of The Blair Witch Project, make a ton of money doing so. More recently, Paranormal Activity was made for $15,000, and made $107,000,000! Even George Romero made a world-wide gross of $30,000,000 on a $114,000 budget. But it’s not just about dollars and cents. Romero has had some very definite things to say in his zombie movies (hence the use of an African-American, Duane Jones, as his heroic lead in Night, and his setting of Dawn of the Dead largely in a suburban shopping mall, for just two examples). And it certainly doesn’t answer the question of why there’s an audience for such movies. Leithart goes on to quote Rafferty’s idea:

But why the zombie craze now?  Rafferty has a theory:

“You have to wonder whether our 21st-century fascination with these hungry hordes has something to do with a general anxiety, particularly in the West, about the planet’s dwindling resources: a sense that there are too many people out there, with too many urgent needs, and that eventually these encroaching masses, dimly understood but somehow ominous in their collective appetites, will simply consume us. At this awful, pinched moment of history we look into the future and see a tsunami of want bearing down on us, darkening the sky. The zombie is clearly the right monster for this glum mood, but it’s a little disturbing to think that these nonhuman creatures, with their slack, gaping maws, might be serving as metaphors for actual people — undocumented immigrants, say, or the entire populations of developing nations — whose only offense, in most cases, is that their mouths and bellies demand to be filled.”

Oh, I see: The zombie craze unveils America’s inner racist.  But then doesn’t everything for a critic like Rafferty, or any critic at the NYT?  I have to say I’m unconvinced.  Rafferty asks the right question, but I’m still looking for a persuasive answer.

So am I. Rafferty’s answer is accurate, I’m sure, for the viewer who goes into every movie seeking a political message, and while his suggestion is not completely out in left field, it falls far short of explaining the fascination for the average viewer, who would be deeply offended by the notion that he or she is a fan of zombie movies because of a fear of immigrants or resource-consuming Third Worlders. This is just another example of the disdain that some among the literati have for the Great Unwashed, whom they see as a mass of racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic cretins who go to movies rather than read books because the latter involves too much exercise for their lips. In fact, one could turn it around, and suggest that to the extent Rafferty or others of his class are interested in zombies, it’s because they see them as “metaphors for actual people,” namely, the Great Unwashed who are sucking up resources and destroying the planet, etc., etc.

So, anyway…what’s the real reason for the interest in the walking dead? As one of those who pleads guilty to the charge of being a zombie fan (mine goes way beyond Romero movies to several dozen novels and short stories I’ve read, as well as a novel I’m going to write if I can ever find the time…I’ve already got it plotted out–really!), here’s my answer:

I think that zombies are but one manifestation of a greater fear, the fear of mindless, purposeless, irrational disaster. By that, I mean the terrible things that befall us, but that have no explanation, or at least no motivation, and that aren’t directed at us personally, but happen seemingly randomly. There is no way to stop them, no way to fight against them, and, worst of all, no way to avoid them. They are simply part of the condition we all share in, which is living in a fallen world.

Let me get a bit more specific. Zombies are not the only genre in which we see this same fear expressed. Tales of world-wide natural disaster–think novels such as Lucifer’s Hammer or No Blade of Grass, movies such as Deep Impact or When Worlds Collide–speak to this fear of nature turning on us for absolutely no reason, and killing us simply because we exist in this world. Nuclear war stories, though they depict universal catastrophe caused by human agents, are for the most part the same kind of story: they focus on the effects of the bombs, and on the struggle to survive in a suddenly hostile world where the biggest killer, radiation, is something that can’t be seen, heard or touched, and that cares not one whit about its victims. (On the Beach, in both its paper and film incarnations, depicts this relentlessly.) In both of these sub-genres of science fiction, there is a killer that is impersonal, unmotivated, and utterly ruthless, even as it also completely indifferent to its victims, indeed, is incapable of even acknowledging their existence as it kills.

Even in a sub-genre that seems to cut against this grain, the alien invasion, the same kind of dynamic is at work. Think about the aliens in films such as Independence Day, War of the Worlds, or Signs. We know virtually nothing about them, we have little or no idea why they are invading, they make no effort to communicate before they do so, and they treat human beings simply as sub-organisms to be exterminated. (Remember the question Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore asks the alien in Independence Day? “What do you want us to do?” The answer: “Die.”)

Zombies speak to this kind of fear. The walking dead are totally mindless, have no regard for their victims, do not in any way acknowledge their humanity, and consider them to be nothing more than fodder for their inexplicable hunger. A zombie that is about to bite into my face doesn’t care that I’m a father, a husband, a neighbor–heck, the zombie that is about to bite into my face might be my daughter, my wife, or the lady who lives next door, and she doesn’t care about any of that. To the zombie, I am not human, I certainly am not me, I am simply meat.

I’m certainly not discounting other possible interpretations, or suggesting that a mixture of several wouldn’t present a fuller picture. But I think this starts to get to it. Of course, for some people, it’s just that zombies are cool monsters who do scary things.