An easy way to explain the contemporary popularity of the zombie genre is to focus solely on the gratuitous, repetitive, splatter violence.
Entertainments that have storylines with just enough narrative plotting to establish a few base characters for audiences to choose as cathartic avatars, and to string together the orgiastic killing frenzies.
Monsters stripped of all humanity, and even the quality of life itself, as reanimated dead, made existentially threatening by their relentless, unreasoning, and unalterable quest to kill humans and eat their brains.
Monsters whose shockingly violent ‘murder’ does not require any hint of empathy, mercy, guilt, or remorse. Situations mostly couched in the context of a post-apocalyptic anarchy, with no one left to enforce or care about rules of civilized behaviour, thus freeing up the usual mass media constraints on ethical behaviour for characters not cast as villains.
No need for any of that in zombie fictions. No constraints at all. Not even the one about happy endings. A fictional genre that seems to have as much to do with the conventions of first person shooter video games as filmic narratives.
If that explanation is all that seems necessary, no need to read past this point.
What will happen here, though, is a bit of sleight of hand to look a little deeper and speculate a little farther afield.
Online trade rag Deadline had this to say about audience response to the season two premiere of the still immensely popular AMC cable TV show The Walking Dead:
4.8 million viewers in Adults 18-49
4.2 million viewers in Adults 25-54
7.3 million total viewers for premiere
11 million total viewers for the night
The 18-49 and 25-54 tallies broke basic cable’s previous records posted by the premiere of USA Network’s The Dead Zone in June 2002 (4.0 million in 18-49, 4.1 million in 25-54). Compared with Walking Dead‘s highly rated series premiere last year (5.2 million total viewers, 3.5 million in 18-49), the Season 2 opener was up a whopping 38% in total viewers, 36% in 18-49 and 35% in 25-54. With the 9 PM airing and the 10:30 PM and 12:30 AM encores, the Walking Dead premiere drew a total of 11 million viewers. 
American Census Bureau figures about educational attainment says that 87 per cent of US citizens have completed high school, 40 per cent have an Associate Diploma or Bachelor’s degree, 30 per have a BA, and 11 per cent have an MA or a PhD. 
Overlaying that figure onto the audience numbers for The Walking Dead, and making the gratuitous assumption that it is a representative sample, 2.75 million people in that audience had better than high school education, including around a million people with Master’s or PhD qualifications. Halve these numbers and you still have about two million people we can considered to be educated and not impervious to culture, literature, and independently analytical thought. What is it, then, that educated, literary audiences regard as appealing about zombie entertainments? What themes and metaphors might they recognise and engage with?
To discover such clues it serves to consider that very few stories are truly original, with most of them being traceable to ancient myths and legends that serve as patterns for telling repetitive stories with which individuals and societies explain to themselves their circumstances, the contradictions in life, and the conflicts they face.
Golems and Ghouls
The Jewish myth of the Golem, a creature made of inanimate materials, but given the spark of life by dark magic, to exact vengeance at the behest of its creator, appears to be the earliest archetype of the contemporary filmic zombie.
The origins of this myth can be traced back to the Talmud, thought to have been transcribed from oral traditions between 200 CE and 500 CE, but the more well-known contemporary embellishments on the Golem story appear to date to the 16th century, crediting the real Czech Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel with creating a Golem to protect Jews from anti-Semitic pogroms, which were endemic in Christian Europe.
The inevitable Christian reaction was that such a creature was a blasphemy in being created by man as an arrogation to man of the power of the divine – to create life itself from void. It is therefore seen as menacing and fearful. With vengeance as its purpose, and the absence of a god-given soul, it cannot be defeated by appeals to conscience, mercy, or even death, since it never had a natural life to begin with.
Outside the realm of any salvation, since it is a transgressor on the human path of being judged by god or man, it fears no damnation or ostracism. It is the rider of the pale horse in Revelations.
The Golem might be seen to reappear in Western fictions as cautionary tales about clones, such as Frank Herbert’s Tleilaxu Ghola in his ‘artificial’ Dune mythology of the 1960s and ‘70s, in which a cloned ‘creature’ is given a purpose by its creators that may be vengeance, but that remains highly unpredictable because it has some of the memories of its progenitor, yet is prone to manipulation by hypnotic trance. Herbert’s Ghola is definitively outside the realm of any Judaeo-Christian salvation or damnation, thus unable to be controlled or stopped from whatever its dark or nefarious path might be.
Demonic or possessed flesh eating fiends appear to have their origins in Arabian, and possibly Indian culture pre-dating the 10th century, found in the Arabian Nights, or 1001 Nights tales, popularised only much later in translations such as Sir Richard Francis Burton’s 1885 The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night.
There are long cultural silences in the Western world about the fear of undead agents of vengeance, which were no doubt eclipsed by far more immediate and horrifying tales of live agents of despair, torture, rape, and murder, not to speak of the invented agents of Lucifer, like witches, sorcerers and conjured demons.
There was also certainly fear of death personified in the awful plight of plague sickened people, and the ghastly appearance of their pustule-covered, blackened corpses. These powerful reminders of mortality, and the imagery of health turned to the corruption of disease and certain death left a powerful impression on Western civilization, and possibly finds some renewed expression in the makeup and effects efforts of zombie entertainment production staff.
Voodoo and Zombies
In the 18th century a forced marriage of missionary Christianity and African animism in Caribbean slave colonies offered up a different face to the Golem myth, and the name of the beast itself.
The Haitian voodooistic conception of the undead, rendered by Western media in a deliberately un-Christian and always menacing context, may accord with African mythology about witchdoctors possessing bodies to do their bidding.
This practice was observed by probably uncomprehending Westerners to have been associated with the use of a word for the divine from the Congo region, ‘nzambie’, perhaps meaning Father God, but giving us the name ‘zombie’ as part of our modern lexicon.
Witchcraft and heresy from a world away, but arrestingly closely allied to the Golem myth all the same.
Science and science fiction
Mary Shelley tweaked the nose of the Golem myth in the 19th century by incorporating into it a hysterical fear about the potential for science to overthrow the divine authority and order of god in her story about Victor Frankenstein’s heresy in arrogating the rôle of divine creation to himself, but creating only an abomination symbolic of man’s less than divine powers.
Since Shelley was a romantic, her creature actually had a conscience and was rendered sympathetic by its attempts to seek a pseudo-Christian redemption, which is not at all a feature of contemporary zombies.
The Shelleyesque alarmism about the dangers of a scientific overthrow of a quaintly mythical natural order, somewhat divorced from the concept that mankind and all its artefacts are part of any such order, persisted into the 20th century, when it again became a powerful motif in contemplating the horrors of the atomic Pandora’s box.
From that box came stories about mutated monsters and apocalypse, like Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I am Legend, turned into film several times, but perhaps most famously in Boris Sagal’s 1971 science fiction dystopia, The Omega Man, featuring Charlton Heston as a human survivor of a pandemic that has turned the vast majority of others into vampiric wraiths stalking him. Matheson’s novel hints at a nuclear war as cause for the pandemic, and served as an inspiration to George A Romero, whose seminal 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is the archetype of contemporary zombie entertainments. Romero’s fiction suggests some connection to a returned Venusian space probe as the source of a ‘plague’ that turns people into flesh eating zombies; this was in keeping with Romero’s times, in which the space race that had not quite yet culminated in the moon landing.
Fictional or mythic resolutions of the conundrums and conflicts confronting society were not the only cultural developments with possible relevance to the mythification of zombies
Nietzsche’s sheep and supermen, Marx’s butchers and apostles
If it wasn’t already the case when Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his guidebook to despotism, Il Principe, the technologies of social control that rested on the deliberately frightening, intimidating lies about the divine, of eternal damnation, of an uncertain and conditional salvation, and of Christian conscience, were shattered finally by Nietzsche’s postulation of the Übermenschen – brilliant (or insane) people recognising themselves to be surrounded by malleable idiots, acting like robots, or zombies, at the behest of their masters, in a world devoid of, or abandoned by, the divine. A vision of masses who could be controlled and directed by the Nietzschean supermen.
In that Nietzschean moment also lies the possibility of apprehending mass movements like fascism and communism as hordes of zombies loosed on the world, hunting down all who would resist them, and devouring their free will with violent suppression and extermination.
That appears to be both the weakness and starting point for Marx’s children, who extended this intellectual schema into a new dimension of salvation, cast as the overthrow of the Nietzschean masters by the masses. Paradoxically though, the violent deposition of the Übermenschen seems to have offered up only a change in tyrannical rulers, not any real salvation.
Zombies all, devouring their own progeny and compatriots, unstoppable and merciless precisely because they had no understanding of either when enough was enough, or how mercy, compassion, and empathy must be conceived of as a personal reconciliation of one’s social being-in-the-world that cannot be mediated ideologically by recourse to a greater purpose. Zombies are as prone to being led astray by dictators as they are impervious to JS Mill’s protest against the tyranny of the masses.
Postmodern reconciliation and pastiche
The post-modernists, in extending the schema of alienation to ever newer territories, have given us a vision of people exiled within their own families, communities, and societies by their status of ‘other’. Whether this is gender or race-based, linked to sexuality or intellectual and political dissidence, social means are present to deliberately and callously alienate such people by means of the lowest-common-denominator social discourses and processes that exclude them in their own daily lives.
At the same time, the post-modern trope of pastiche and decontextualisation allows for the eclectic collage of elements of all monsters into a patchwork synthesis of ‘monsterish’ qualities, but simultaneously drained of all meaning attached to the formerly separate elements of ‘monsterness’. This makes of zombies in contemporary fiction an empty vessel ready to be filled with whatever meaning and significance is chosen for them by audiences.
This may be what makes zombie fiction so attractive, and why neither the basic release-by-cathartic-violence hypothesis, nor any one of almost infinitely variable, intellectual explanations for the popularity of zombie fictions is mutually exclusive. It becomes a social salve to acknowledge any disaffection or opposition, symbolically elevating the status of the individual pitched against the ‘other’ as being once more of greater value than the one-size-fits-all lifestyles most Westerners lead.
This offer of a cathartic experience, of standing against zombie hordes, holds an entertaining psychotherapy of externalising or exorcising angst, excising a neurosis, an internal fear, explaining it in the acceptable form of a cultural fiction that most closely lends itself to almost any social dimension.
All who feel alienated in some way can regard fictional hordes of unthinking zombies as analogues of the unthinking minions of the state and corporate bureaucracies that run over their sensibilities and concerns. They can identify as unreasoning and monstrous zombies the besuited cockroach armies of bureaucrats who dispossess and insult them daily, of all the unthinking, ignorant, brutish people who encroach on their lives with blithe disrespect.
What greater bottomless well of anxiety and resentment can there be than the post-modern reservoir of alienation? And what better reductionist mythologising could there be about it than to represent the instruments of alienation as a swarm of undead cannibal murderers who are immune to reason, conscience, pleading, salvation, damnation or any other redeeming feature altogether?
Zombies are we all?
Is there room in these conceptions for the William Golding realisation? That when the zombie apocalypse has removed all traces of civilization, those who are left are no longer constrained by civilised rules of behaviour, becoming savage monsters themselves, most obviously in the way they casually, gratuitously hack their way through the undead? Is there a moment to pause and reflect that we, the cathartic heroes, might actually be, in our own daily lives, the people who make someone else’s life a misery, and we are someone else’s zombie, not their comrade in arms, or the heroes of the piece at all?
Perhaps it is enough to rest on a much more simple interpretation. That in the impersonal crush of mass societies we secretly revert to an unsophisticated conception of community, in which the zombie hordes are virtually all the folk outside our village, which has shrunk to be no larger than the room that accommodates our TV. Zombies are heard at night in the woods rather than seen, and rumoured of around hearth fires rather than directly experienced, as mediated to us by our televised oracles, or the occasional excursion to a larger screen.
The fiction speaks to us subconsciously, on the level of ghastly visuals and mythic fragments perhaps not immediately or consciously processed, but recognised on the level of the id that makes us all monsters, with insatiable and terrible appetites, and on the level of ego that makes us all potential heroes, like the legendary knights who stood alone against fierce dragons.
Most especially, though, the fiction speaks to us on the level of a suspended disbelief that allows us to forget for an hour or two the real terrors gnawing away at our lives, the real monsters that are our fellow men and women, and the real and eternal apocalypse that is every life lived for someone else rather than for itself.
That last possibility is the most crushingly sad of all. The vision of actual people walking with the zombies, shoulders hunched, pretending to be a flesh eating, brain-dead monster, going through all the motions because it’s just too hard to fight the throng.
[This essay owes to a Google Plus post I wrote a year ago.]
 Andreeva, Nellie (2011). ‘The Walking Dead’ Premiere Shatters Cable Demo Ratings Records, Draws 7.3 Million Total Viewers. Deadline, 17 October, http://www.deadline.com/2011/10/the-walking-dead-premiere-shatters-cable-demo-ratings-records-draws-7-3-million-total-viewers/, accessed 16 May 2013.
 United States Census Bureau (2012). ‘Educational Attainment’, http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/2012/tables.html, accessed 16 may 2013.