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America's fascination with zombies is alive and well


Published:   |   Updated: June 20, 2013 at 01:08 PM

The undead are very much alive and walking - on the streets, in pubs, at parties, at universities, in parks, on TV and on the movie screen.

No longer playing third-string behind vampires and werewolves, zombies have captured our collective imaginations.

The inspiration for the top Halloween costume for a couple of years, zombies also have become the number one likeness on practice targets at gun ranges, the basis for pop culture and philosophy courses at several universities, and the stars of a popular TV show, a new big budget movie and a hit video game.

Across the country, including the Tampa area, people dress in tattered clothes and bloody makeup to stagger their way through zombie pub crawls, zombie 5K races and zombie walks (like freaky flash mobs).

From an annual downtown Zombiefest in Lakeland (Oct. 12) to a recent "May-hem" zombie walk in Orlando to zombie weddings (a Pasco couple tied the knot in 2009), the living dead seem to be living it up.

This weekend, zombie lovers may be turning out in droves for the long-awaited big-budget zombie flick, "World War Z," starring Brad Pitt as a United Nations troubleshooter trying to stop a zombie pandemic from wiping out humankind.

Based upon a popular science-fiction novel by Max Brooks, "World War Z" reportedly has become the most expensive film ever made with a budget way over $200 million.

The film's debut follows the March season finale of AMC's cable series "The Walking Dead" which wrapped up a third season. The gritty, gruesome drama follows a rag-tag group of human survivors after a zombie apocalypse. The season finale pulled in 12.4 million viewers to become the most-watched drama program in basic cable history.

Why zombies? Why now?

Sarah Lauro, an English professor at Clemson University, says while people may have fun dressing up and playing zombie, the fascination runs deeper than playful fantasy.

Lauro, who has spent a decade studying zombies in pop culture, says interest in zombies increases during times of economic strife or social unrest.

"We have to ask ourselves 'why are people attracted to zombies now?' " she said in a telephone interview. "Part of it may be that we feel threatened by so many things that an apocalypse seems plausible. And part of it may be that we feel trapped in our 9-to-5 jobs, or trapped by a bad economy, so we are like the walking dead."

She says zombies were popular in pop culture in the 1930s during the Great Depression and again in the 1960s and '70s during Vietnam and racial violence in the South. Their current rise could be traced to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she says.

She points to the success of AMC's cable series "The Walking Dead" and "World War Z" as obvious allegories for our times. But will "World War Z" be as memorable or as groundbreaking as George Romero's 1968 "Night of the Living Dead," produced for a measly $144,000?

Romero redefined the zombie horror genre, says Lauro. "The original zombie myth originated in Haiti and has its roots in slavery."

The zombies in early Hollywood films and horror novels were under the control of a witch doctor. Today's fictional zombies are victims of some mysterious cause that spreads like an infectious disease - which what occurs in "World War Z," opening today.

Lauro says if the economy gets better and people start feeling more optimistic about the future,interest in zombies might fade but they will never go away. "Just about every film student makes a zombie film at one point and the genre can be used as an allegory for some many social issues," she says.

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