Left to Right:

Dr. Travis Langley, John Russo, Scott Kenemore, Brendan Riley, John Sloboda, Michael Witwer.

Everyone is aware of the phenomenon of zombies in pop culture and their continued growth and reinvention.  In a panel at Wizard World Chicago this Friday afternoon, Dr. Travis Langley, author of The Psychology of the Walking Dead, lead a panel discussing the growing popularity of zombies.  Joining Dr. Langley was John Russo (Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead), Scott Kenemore (The Zen of Zombie), Brendan Riley (Zombies in Popular Media at Columbia College Chicago), John Sloboda (The Walking Dead artist), and Michael Witwer (Empire of Imagination).

Russo, who was present for the birth of the zombie genre revealed some insight into how zombies (initially called ghouls) were first created. Russo revealed that the catalyst  was actually an idea he had, and that George Romero adopted the idea and together they developed it into the movie Night of the Living Dead.  Russo stated that the idea had originally come about when he had conceived of a story that had to do with aliens coming to earth to eat humans, although these particular aliens preferred their human meat rotted.  After tossing the idea back and forth, Russo and Romero developed the concept into the one seen in Night of the Living Dead where recently deceased humans come back to life and eat the flesh of the living.

As the panel progressed the topic of ‘fast’ zombies vs. ‘slow’ zombies came up.  The panel consensus seemed to be that fast zombies formed a type of terror that represents a near invincible force and slow zombies represent a more self-inflicted fate. The more endurable version of the zombie legacy seems to exist with the classic version of slow zombies, mainly because there is no good reason that you should die from a ‘slow’ zombie unless you put yourself in that compromised position that leads to your death.  Kenemore essentially summed it up with much laughter when he said, “If you die from a slow zombie it’s because you suck.”

Sloboda also commented that he thought that another reason why zombies are popular in culture is because people fear the idea of losing control of their body, and that the idea can even be expressed in modern technology such as when your Twitter or Facebook account get hacked and you lose control of your digital persona.    Russo interjected that another reason why shows like the Walking Dead are so popular is because they essentially test human character, that when faced with peril humans must transcend their selfish needs and work together in order to survive.  Langley further expounded on this by highlighting moments that test our character, for example how people came together after the atrocity of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Bringing up terrorism made me think of a question of my own so when presented the chance I asked Dr. Langely if he thought zombies in popular culture exemplified the idea of an uncompromising enemy, something we perceive in acts of terrorism and extremism.  Langley commented that viewing enemies as ‘uncompromising’ is a way in which people justify the killing of their enemy. In the case of zombies it’s safer to say that they qualify as uncompromising as their sense of self-awareness is questionable, but to view other humans as uncompromising can be a dangerous and more morally questionable observation to make.  I would add that viewing all human qualities as uncompromising can become a tempting and potentially self-consuming practice and makes the error of oversimplifying human complexities.

While writing this article during panels I became curious how younger patrons might view the ‘zombie’ question, so I briefly talked to two young ladies at the conference who were sitting near me while I was writing this article.

Izabella, a boisterous teenager who liked to yell at cosplayers walking by and complained to her friend Levi when they ignored her, told me, “I think it has to do with government stuff…and what they were doing to people at the time the movie [Night of the Living Dead] was made. Then the black guy dies at the end, the black guy always dies.”

When I asked Izabella if she thinks those are still relevant themes in current zombie films, she said “Yes.”

Levi, her more quiet and dry-witted friend said that she thought zombies are popular because we live in a “dog-eat-dog world.”

Both were interesting responses, and reflect fears that many people have about society as a whole.  Zombies, while generic in form, are unique in their dead shambling state because zombies become a blank canvas for society to draw their worries upon.  Maybe in this respect zombies are exactly what our contemporary culture needs, a mirror to reflect our fears so that we can see our own frailties and plan a future that does not succumb to them.

By Jason Czaplicki /  @Czaple



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