It seems like only yesterday that zombies held the top spot in the pop-culture pyramid. With Shaun of the Dead's shambling undead parodying the mindless grind of modern life, and 28 Days Later's quarantined safe zones offering a thinly-veiled criticism of the military, zombies were the go-to metaphor for pop culture junkies. Now, however, they are fighting for position against an army of big-screen bloodsuckers.
This isn't the first time that certain monsters, or horror films in general, have waxed and waned in popularity. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King explores these cycles, as well as horror's ability to address deeper terrors: "fears which are often political, economic, and psychological. [They] are so deeply buried and yet so vital that we may tap them like artesian wells -- saying one thing out loud while we express something else in a whisper." In other words, monster flicks use Count Dracula and the Mummy to address into their audiences' cultural, political and economic terrors; in the process, each generation reaches for the monster that best reflects its underlying fears.
Zombies: Consuming Anything, Everything
While vampires have a literary and cultural heritage dating back to at least the early 1800's, the modern zombie didn't emerge until 1968, the year in which George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead hit theaters. Cross-breeding the faceless mob of 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a enslaved worker of voodoo mythology, Romero created the indelible image of a mindless, inexorable mob, bent on overwhelming humans and eating them alive.
In the beginning, Romero's zombies covered much the same ground as the Body Snatchers, offering a metaphor for the hordes of faceless communists who were arrayed against the United States. However, by the time Romero's Dawn of the Dead appeared in 1978, the monsters had transformed into a symbol of empty consumerism. In that film, zombies terrorize a mall, wandering through stores in a mindless search for something -- anything -- to consume.
Ironically, the same year brought a sequel to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This time, the alien monsters took over San Francisco, the capital of the era's "I'm ok, you're ok" self-help trend. In the process, the "pod people" became a symbol of empty-headed calm and the loss of identity.
While zombies were finding their footing in the seventies, vampires beat a retreat. In fact, until 1979's Salem's Lot, the decade's bloodsucker cinema was dominated by films that were either youth-oriented (Drak Pack, Monster Squad) or shamelessly exploitational (Blackula, Deafula). Bloodsuckers didn't really get back on their feet until the late 1980's.
In the 1980's, zombie-themed movies thrived, more than doubling their 1970's numbers. In 1989, the living dead hit a high point, with fifteen films in wide release. By the next year, however, they were old hat; in fact, 1990 witnessed a mere four zombie flicks, one of which was a poorly-received remake of Night of the Living Dead. Over the course of the following decade, zombies became a running joke, with half-hearted sequels like Return of the Living Dead III appearing alongside cartoonish comedies like My Boyfriend's Back.
Vampires: Guilty Consumption
In 1987, just as zombies were coming down from their mid-eighties peak, The Lost Boys gave vampires fresh relevance, offering a vision of fanged fiends that was sexy, edgy, and exciting. Three years later, as the zombie genre devolved into slapstick and comedy, vampires were enjoying a renaissance: by the end of the decade, they were the undisputed winners in the cultural sweepstakes, as hugely popular films like Blade, Interview With the Vampire, and From Dusk Till Dawn demonstrated a fresh, intelligent, and energetic vision of the monsters. In 1999, bloodsuckers reached a peak with 18 movies in theaters or on television; in the same year, there were five zombie movies and TV programs.
Before long, however, vampires and zombies again changed places. While there were only five zombie programs in 1999, there were nine in 2000. By 2003, there were fourteen and, over the next six years, they continued to rapidly increase. Almost fifty are scheduled for release this year. In the process, the walking dead of earlier decades have transformed into the running dead, with movies like 28 Days Later, 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake, and the Resident Evil franchise featuring zombies that combine hunger and speed in a frightening metaphor for America's frenzied mass consumption.
In the same period, vampires have had a steady, if restrained, following. They dipped below zombies from 2003 to 2005, drew slightly ahead in 2006, and dipped again in 2007 and 2008. This year, however, vampires have drawn almost even again, with the 43 vampire movies and TV shows dueling against 46 zombie programs.
Boom and Bust
The shifting fortunes of bloodsuckers and brain eaters demonstrates King's analysis of the link between economics, politics and cinema. Looking back over the political and cultural history of the last three decades, it is easy to draw a link between the mass consumption of the Reagan era and the hunger of the decade's zombies; later, the early 1990's recession and lowered expectations may have inspired a flock of vampire flicks.
The connection carries out through the Bush years, when a wave of zombies coincided with a frenzied consumer boom, while the late Bush/Obama recession seems to be coinciding with a growing cadre of vampires. In many ways, the fluctuation between vampire flicks and zombie movies seems to function as a sort of national conversation on consumption. If the rampaging zombie represents unrestrained, exuberant consumerism, then the sadness of the bloodsucker could function as a form of buyer's remorse. Put another way, the early 2000's zombie ate up the equity line of credit and maxed out the cards, while the 2009-2010 vampire is left with the bill and a lingering sense of guilt.
As the continued -- albeit reduced -- slate of zombie films demonstrates, cultural and economic trends don't match up exactly. This may be partially attributable to the fact that movies are a seriously lagging indicator; after all, 2008 and 2009's zombie boom reflects a lot of movies that were planned in 2006 and 2007. Similarly, the emergent wave of vampire programs seems likely to outlast the recession. Beyond this, the symbols themselves have a tendency to shift. While this year's Zombieland is, obviously, a zombie flick, the addition of the moody, thoughtful Jesse Eisenberg brings it in line with the self-doubt and guilt that usually accompany vampire movies.
Given the number of films in the hopper, it seems likely that vampires are here to stay, at least for the time being. Conversely, if the trend toward zombie slapstick is any indication, the walking dead may be poised for a major drop over the next year or two. The question is: what monster best represents the rebirth that accompanies the end of a recession. Werewolves, anyone?