People sometimes ask me why end-of-the-world stories are so popular.
Back in the seventies and eighties, zombie flicks were considered disreputable trash, little better than pornography. Cheap, nihilistic giblet-strewn gore-fests shelved at the back of the VHS rental store alongside other ‘adult’ titles.
But, these days, zombies have gone mainstream. Brad Pitt is filming World War Z. Walking Dead is a hit TV show.
So what changed? How have zombies captured the public imagination?
I have a theory.
Survivalist tales are parables of resilience in the face of social upheaval. The debt-fuelled prosperity of the nineties is over, and we have entered an indefinitely prolonged period of austerity. This economic gloom is not fully reflected in mainstream popular culture. US TV is still dominated by talent shows, forensic procedurals and lavish period sagas on HBO. But the science-fiction/fantasy genre acts as a collective subconscious. Our anxieties become monsters, and chase us in our dreams.
Let me give you an example.
The TV show Walking Dead features a disparate group of survivors trekking across zombie-ravaged America. They travel in a convoy headed by a battered RV. Each night they camp by the roadside and cook over an open fire. The imagery is vividly reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, his depression-era saga in which bankrupt farmers load their possessions onto trucks and head west looking for a new life.
Theoretically, these two tales are miles apart. Steinbeck’s story is direct polemic, gritty social realism. Walking Dead is fantasy horror for geeks. Yet, at heart, both sagas depict the same situation. Shattered communities. Social dislocation. Families struggling to find refuge.
That’s the paradoxical appeal of apocalyptic fiction. Escapist fantasy that is urgently, viscerally real.
Adam's new book, Juggernaut was released on the 16/02/12 from Hodder and Stoughton.