It’s hard to believe that we can trace the concept of zombies as relentless waves of the undead hungering for human flesh to something as recent as 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. In that landmark film, director George Romero gave us something new: zombies as an unstoppable tide of mindless death.
For centuries, folklore has been populated by a variety of revenants and ghouls — many of whom would eat you as soon as look at you — but I guess if you’re a developing civilization battling the Black Death, Mongol hordes, or the like, it’s overkill to add a large-scale imaginary threat. Maybe it took the boom years after World War II, the rise of consumer culture, the cultural shifts that filled the ’60s, or technological upheavals for zombie hordes to gain their resonance.
Whatever the case, we’re definitely in a zombie renaissance of movies and books featuring the undead. Heck, I’m half convinced there are zombie children behind the monotonous singing on my toddler’s favorite children’s CD.
That all sounds a bit high-falutin’, I know. Goodness knows when I was 18, it was all about the guts and brains. Even now, a game of Left for Dead 2 reduces me to a primal state of “Gah! Zombie! More zombies! Shootshootshootshoot!Aah!Reload!” But it didn’t take long to realize that when Romero filled a shopping mall with zombies in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, he was trying to make a point. In Romero’s case, you can definitely see an evolution of zombies: first as mindless killing machines, then as shells with some vestige of memory, and ultimately as creatures with basic thought processes.
While most movie treatments of zombies might not go so far as to flirt with the idea — as Romero does in 2005’s Land of the Dead — that zombies might have as much right to survive as humanity, the best zombie films try to offer a little more than your standard scenes of hapless victims being pulled apart. Shaun of the Dead was a loving homage to zombie movies, but it also had something to say about the zombie-like way we go through our daily grind. Perhaps the most ambitious and controversial zombie treatment in recent years is “Homecoming”, a Joe Dante-directed 2005 episode of Masters of Horror, in which soldiers killed in a controversial war rise from their graves with the intention of voting for anyone who will stop the war.
If it seems like all the top zombie tales are on the screen (despite “Homecoming” being based on Dale Bailey’s short story “Death and Suffrage”), that may partly be due to the effectiveness of the camera sweeping across a landscape, only to see shambling zombies stretching to the horizon. The very recent appearance of “fast zombies”, as seen in films like 28 Days Later and Zombieland, also work best on a visual level — although to be fair, both of those films feel compelled to explain the quickness of their “zombies” by noting that they’re infected humans, not necessarily walking corpses. It may also be due to the arguable fact that the zombie genre hasn’t yet had its literary equivalent to Frankenstein, Dracula, or Interview With a Vampire.
That doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t a wealth of short stories exploring every possible angle of the zombie world, as two collections, The Living Dead and The New Dead, amply show.
The Living Dead, edited by John Joseph Adams (assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)is primarily a reprint anthology packed with big names like Dan Simmons, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, and George R.R. Martin. The New Dead, by contrast, finds editor Christopher Golden collecting new stories exclusive to the anthology.
Both of them come out swinging with their first stories. The Living Dead‘s opener, Simmons’ “This Year’s Class Pictures”, occurs years after “the Tribulations” and centers on a school teacher named Ms. Geiss. Ms. Geiss corrals, teaches, and protects a brood of zombie children because it’s all she knows how to do. An action-packed read, it’s also surprisingly heartwarming by tale’s end. For its part, The New Dead kicks off with John Connolly’s “Lazarus”, a less than uplifting imagining of Lazarus’s days after Jesus resurrected him.
Naturally, the struggles of survivors are a large part of these collections, depicting various levels of morality and capability. The Living Dead offers up King’s “Home Delivery”, a not-quite-apocalyptic scenario — thanks to the no-nonsense residents of a small island in Maine — that concerns itself more with the growing confidence and pregnancy of its central character, Maddie Pace. Nancy Holder’s “Passion Play” depicts a priest’s rebellion as zombies are mutilated in passion plays, an atrocity that brings God’s wrath down upon the assembled throngs.
Adam Troy-Castro’s “Dead Like Me” posits that zombies are attracted to human thought, so the only way to survive is to shut down completely, becoming much like a zombie yourself. In The New Dead‘s corner, Jonathan Maberry’s “Family Business” intertwines a complicated relationship between two brothers with the ethics of being a zombie bounty hunter out in “the Ruins”. Tim Lebbon’s “In the Dust” portrays a trio of survivors quarantined inside a small village as the world slowly goes to hell around them.
These tales lean towards the apocalyptic, although in some cases, such as Rick Hautala’s “Ghost Trap”, nothing seems to have changed in the wake of a half-remembered plague. Several stories address the incorporation of zombies into society, typically as servants of one sort or another.
That same mixture exists in the tales told from the zombie’s point of view. “The Skull-Faced Boy” mixes the dawn of the zombie apocalypse with complicated teenage emotions, told from the perspective of a young man who’s just died and is thus fresh and in complete possession of his faculties as his undead friend trains a zombie army to sweep over humanity. More often than not, though, these zombies are merely trying to make sense of the new state in which they’ve found themselves.
Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “The Third Dead Body” is a complex tale of identity in which a murdered prostitute rises from her shallow grave and makes the long trip back to her murderer. Catherine Cheek’s “She’s Taking Her Tits to the Grave” takes a more light-hearted tone, but finds real emotional heft at the end.
Of course, sometimes a zombie story just needs to be a cracklin’ good read, and you can’t do much better than Joe R. Lansdale’s “Deadman’s Road”. The story features Reverend Jebidiah Rains, “a man who would have shot a leg out from under Moses and spat in the face of the Holy Ghost and scalped him, tossing his celestial hair to the four winds”. Just the sort of man, his head full of arcane power and his pistol full of bullets, who you want riding with you in the dead of night on Deadman’s Road, where travelers disappear at the hands of a man who was plenty evil before he died.
Likewise, Joe Hill’s “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” quickly transcends its conceit — a story told via a surly teen’s Twitter messages — into a horrific tale of zombie violence. So yeah, it’s nice for a zombie story to re-imagine the world, or to shine a light on our own, but sometimes it’s just about the fun of a story that’s not afraid to drape a moonlit forest with a man’s intestines.
If one collection has an edge over the other, I suppose it’s The Living Dead, since it holds roughly twice as many stories, and has thirty years of quality zombies stories to choose from. That’s not to take anything away from The New Dead, though, which offers some exciting new voices among its own grizzled veterans.
Both volumes find their writers sizing up the basic appeal of the zombie story: the ability to remake the world in some new charnel-house image. There are stories about rich Type A personalities trying to beat the reaper (Kelley Armstrong’s “Life Sentence” and Mike Carey’s “Second Wind”), tales that dip back into the Voodoo tradition (Gaiman’s “Bitter Grounds”, Andy Duncan’s “Zora and the Zombie”, and Holly Newstein’s “Delice”), and a couple of very un-Stand By Me stories where young children find corpses (James A. Moore’s “Kids and Their Toys” and Darrell Schweitzer’s “The Dead Kid” — both unsettling, but one definitely more uplifting than the other).
Consistently, both collections find their writers more than equal to the task.