Friday, March 30, 2012

FRESH MEAT: The Staying Power of the Zombie Genre-- A Guest Post by Jonathan Maberry (with a shambling horde of friends)

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to read "Dead of Night" by Johnathan Maberry- a book that ended up on my "Best of" list for 2011. So when I had the opportunity to host a guest blog by Johnathan-- I jumped at the chance. What I didn't anticipate was that I would get a seven-for-one deal with commentary by a host of authors talking about zombies! Big thanks go to Johnathan for going to so much trouble and putting this together. Enjoy! (And keep watching the blog for another giveaway featuring "Dead of Night" tomorrow!)

While considering my guest post I thought about the public perception of the zombie phenomenon.  Like the living dead themselves, the genre’s popularity keeps coming in waves.  There was the initial outbreak in 1968 with George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, then a bit of a European tour as England, Italy, German, Spain and a few other countries began churning out zombie flicks (the BLIND DEAD are my personal favorites, along with the UK’s LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE).

Then we had an almost fatal lull until Romero breathed new life into his own genre with the landmark DAWN OF THE DEAD. That flick, possible more so than NIGHT, made the genre immortal.  That was a bigger worldwide hit. That redefined the ‘rules’ of zombie stories. It had better actors, it had color, it had a bigger budget, and it had a better script. It was also copied by everyone.  After that, we had wave after wave of zombie films.  And around the same time John Skipp and Craig Spector unleashed the first anthology of zombie stories, BOOK OF THE DEAD, which gave birth to the literature of the living dead. Without that antho, a whole lot of my colleagues (and I) would be writing about something else.

Then we got DAY OF THE DEAD, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, RESIDENT EVIL, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, and on and on.  As well as tons of zombie books, zombie comics, zombie TV shows, zombie toys, and on and on. An invasion of zoms. A plague of them.

But…some folks think that the genre has hit a wall. Or, to use the Happy Days reference (which most people don’t KNOW is a Happy Days reference), some people say that zombies have ‘jumped the shark’. This is a comment I hear, in one form or another, at least once a week.  You see it in reviews (by people who don’t understand the genre), in publishing or movie industry commentary (by people who don’t understand the genre), on TV news (by people who don’t understand the genre), and even at genre con panel discussions (by people who don’t understand the genre).  Are you noticing a trend here?

The people who keep saying this don’t really get why zombies are today’s hot (well, room temperature) monster.  They’ll be hot tomorrow, and they’ll be hot next year.  Sure, popularity may wax and wane, but the same is true of vampires (who always return to popularity), ghosts (ditto), demons (ditto), giant monsters (ditto, ditto, ditto…)

I asked a bunch of my colleagues to comment on this question.  Have zombies actually jumped the shark?

JOE McKINNEY:  Why isn’t that true?  When was the last time you read Orwell’s 1984?  Remember Big Brother’s M.O. for controlling the populace?  They did it, and continued to do it, through language.  Change the way a culture speaks and you change the way that culture thinks.  That’s one reason why Orwell included an appendix on language at the end of the book.  Now look at how thoroughly entrenched zombies have become in our language over the last few years.  They have crossed over from mere pop culture references to accepted mainstream groupspeak.  For example, following WWII we described people in shock as having the “2000 yard stare,” after the Tom Lea painting of a Marine from the Battle of Peleliu.  But today, we’re just as likely to say “that person looks like a zombie,” or has that zombie look in his eyes.  The corporate world has now recognized zombie businesses, something the forensic mechanics of yesteryear would have lumped in with financial shell games and fishy bookkeeping.  Computer science has given us zombie terminals.  Contemporary literature has appropriated the term, as in Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Zombie and Thomas McGuane’s story “The Zombie,” just to name a few.  These works, and others, don’t mention the shambling undead hordes per se, but rely on the concept of a zombie, a person suffering from a personality lobotomy.  So, really, the term is fairly well established.  I think zombies are going to be part of the horror business for a long time to come because the concept is now so familiar.  Your question suggests that some reviewers think zombies have crested some sort of hill and that, quality-wise, it’s all downhill from here.  I don’t think that’s true.  Zombies have always enjoyed a sort of dual nature as both the harlequin and the horror.  Sometimes they get lampooned.  Sometimes they get exalted.  It goes in waves.    (Joe McKinney is a homicide detective for the San Antonio Police Department who has been writing professionally since 2006.  He is the Bram Stoker-nominated author of Dead City, Quarantined, Dodging Bullets, Apocalypse of the Dead, Flesh Eaters, and The Red Empire. As a police officer, he’s received training in disaster mitigation, forensics, and homicide investigation techniques, some of which finds its way into his stories.  He lives in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio.)

JOHN R. RUSSO: Well, because just as zombies can't die unless shot in the head, I guess the fascination with zombies won't die either, unless we shoot each and every zombie fan in the head.  Just kidding.  But seriously, this flesheating zombie thing has tapped into a raw atavistic dread that we all feel.  For over forty years now, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has given rise to all sorts of sequels, spinoffs, rip-offs, derivatives (not the stock market kind), and merchandising and marketing items and ploys that will probably go on as long as there are books and movies.  Just when people think the phenomenon has run its course, up pops a fresh, new concept like 28 DAYS LATER or SHAUN OF THE DEAD.  My own screenplay, ESCAPE OF THE LIVING DEAD, goes right back to the roots of the whole thing, and audiences seem to be ready for that, judging by the fact that the comic book has spawned ten sequels already, two graphic novels, and an array of tie-in products like tee-shirts, coffee mugs, beer mugs, shot glasses, etc.  (John Russo wants everyone to know he's a really nice guy even though he loves to scare people.  He started it by co-scripting the horror classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. one of the greatest fright flicks of all time.  He also wrote the screenplays and/or stories for MIDNIGHT, SANTA CLAWS, THE MAJORETTES, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and INHUMAN.  He has authored fifteen terror-suspense novels, including LIVING THINGS, THE AWAKENING, VOODOO DAWN and HELL'S CREATION.  His nonfiction books, SCARE TACTICS and MAKING MOVIES, are considered bibles of independent filmmaking by film students and horror fans.  With long-time friend and partner, Russ Streiner, who produced NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and is chairman of the Pittsburgh Film Office, he directs a top-notch movie making program at DuBois Business College in DuBois, PA.   His screenplay, ESCAPE OF THE LIVING DEAD, was made into a five-part comic book that made the Top Ten nationally, and is soon to be made into a movie that he will direct.  He resides in a suburb of Pittsburgh and to his knowledge none of his neighbors are zombies, although "there is one guy around the corner who is rumored to have devoured the mailman a few years ago.")

KIM PAFFENROTH, PhD: They’ve been saying that since I published Gospel of the Living Dead. I guess maybe someday it might come true, but on the other hand, I don’t see it as necessary. Do vampires “jump the shark” when they turn into romantic, sparkly creatures? Well, sort of, but it doesn’t seem to limit their popularity, or stop someone from reinventing them next year as something else. So if zombies ever go “too far” then I’ll just expect them to be remodeled and reconfigured soon thereafter. I mean, if you think of fads that disappeared, it’s because they were just a one note kind of song, and once you “got” the joke or the appeal, it was over. Take a pet rock – once you laugh at it, the gimmick is over, and you really can’t reinvent it as a pet paperclip or a pet stick or whatever. Zombies have way more adaptability and appeal than that.  (Kim Paffenroth is a professor of religious studies at Iona College. He is the author of Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth (Baylor, 2006), which won the Bram Stoker Award. Since then he’s been writing zombie fiction, including Dying to Live (Permuted, 2007), and its sequel, Dying to Live: Life Sentence (Permuted, 2008). His most recent novel, Valley of the Dead (Permuted, 2010), combines his theological and literary interests, taking us back to the 14th century, where the medieval Italian poet Dante is in a life and death struggle with a zombie infestation.)

FRED VAN LENTE: Because nothing ever jumps the shark, so long as writers are out there trying to make new and interesting thing happen in the genre. People who provide commentary on art have two basic refrains, and that’s a.) They’ve discovered the newest/hottest/best thing before anybody else or b.) They’re the first to spot blight on the vine before those who lack their keen insight. This is why authors should pretty much ignore every single thing they say because they don’t really know anything about our profession or how to live it.   (FRED VAN LENTE is the New York Times bestselling author of three entries in the Marvel Zombies series, as well as Incredible Hercules (with Greg Pak) and the American Library Association award-winning Action Philosophers. His original graphic novel Cowboys & Aliens (co-written with Andrew Foley) was adapted into motion picture form by Dreamworks and Universal, starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.)

Chuck McKenzie:  This is the sort of statement that tends to accompany any perceived 'cult' phenomenon that suddenly becomes extremely commercially popular, whether it be South Park, zombies, or rapping grannies, and seems to be motivated more by a desire to put back in its box something the reviewer perceives as somewhat unpleasant or embarrassing, rather than by the facts of the matter. Okay, rant over. Zombies aren't even close to jumping the shark yet, because authors, illustrators, toymakers and scriptwriters haven't yet run out of new takes on zombiedom. The last couple of years alone has given us movies as brilliant and diverse as Pontypool, Dead Snow and Zombieland, as well as books such as S. G. Browne's Breathers, John Ajvide Lindqvist's Handling the Undead, and Patient Zero by whatshisname; all absolutely unique in their approach to zombies. Sure, there's bound be a fair bit of dross along the way, but with so much *quality* product still reaching a wider-than-ever audience, it's obvious to me that we've only just scratched the surface of all the zombie genre has to offer. (Chuck McKenzie is a staff reviewer for HorrorScope (, and additionally manages a large general bookshop in Melbourne, which - due to his predilections - has gained a reputation with local horror readers as being THE place to pick up zombie-related literature.)

J L BOURNE: I guess I don’t get out much.  I didn’t get the memo on this, as I’m still writing about zombies and the end of the world.  Although zombies may see a sine curve shift in popularity as do vampires, werewolves and large Cloverleaf monsters, they never quite sink out of popularity altogether.  People still love to read about survivors and the decisions they make against an army that never rests and only wants one thing. (J L BOURNE: Born in a small town in the rural south, J.L. Bourne balances his time as an active duty military officer with writing fiction based in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with the dead.  He is the author of the classic Day by Day Armageddon zombie series.)  

JONATHAN MABERRY: I’ve written about zombies for years now, and in a variety of different forms –novels, nonfiction books, magazine articles, comics, and short stories. I find that the ‘zombie’ is an infinitely fresh storytelling trope.  Unlike vampires, who have become the story to the point where they’ve crowded the human characters out, zombies have no personality. They don’t intrude, they don’t hijack the novel.  They represent a massive, shared threat that every human character in the story must react to. As such, they create the foundation for stories about real people in stressful circumstances, which is pretty much the basic description of ‘drama’. As long as zombie stories continue to be about the human experience, the genre is never going to get cold. I look at the zombie stuff I’ve written and it’s all radically different. ZOMBIE CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead is a nonfiction book that views the concept of a zombie apocalypse through the lens of real world infrastructure and science. PATIENT ZERO is a technothriller that explores issues of corruption, terrorism, ideological clashes and the psychological cost of violence. ROT & RUIN and its sequels, DUST & DECAY, FLESH & BONE (Sept 2012) and FIRE & ASH (2013) are Young Adult novels that explore the value of human life, the nature of corruption and the phenomenon of heroism. The short story, “Pegleg and Paddy Save the World” is historical comedy.  Another short, “The Wind Through the Fence” is a nihilistic meditation on despair; and its companion piece, “Chokepoint”, is a character study of how disparate personalities react to stress.  The novella, “Jack and Jill”, explores how a terminally ill child views his own impending death. And my recent novel, DEAD OF NIGHT, explores the social and political implications of mismanaged bioweapons research.  They’re all zombie stories. None of them are remotely the same.  The genre?  Yeah…it’s here to stay.  (Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and Marvel Comics writer.  He’s the author of many novels including Assassin’s Code, Dead of Night, Patient Zero and Rot & Ruin.  His nonfiction books on topics ranging from martial arts to zombie pop-culture. Since 1978 he has sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, two plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, poetry, and textbooks. Jonathan continues to teach the celebrated Experimental Writing for Teens class, which he created. He founded the Writers Coffeehouse and co-founded The Liars Club; and is a frequent speaker at schools and libraries, as well as a keynote speaker and guest of honor at major writers and genre conferences.  Jonathan lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Sara and their son, Sam. Visit him online at and on Twitter (@jonathanmaberry) and Facebook.)


Praise for DEAD OF NIGHT:

“Jonathan Maberry is the top gun when it comes to zombies, and with DEAD OF NIGHT, he's at the top of his game.  Frankly, I'm shocked by how effortlessly he moves between the lofty intellectual heights of T.S. Eliot's poetry and the savage carnality of the kill.  DEAD OF NIGHT develops with the fevered pace of a manhunt, and yet still manages to hit all the right notes.  Strap in, because Maberry's latest is one hell of a wild ride.  I loved it.” - Joe McKinney, author of Dead City and FLESH EATERS

“Jonathan Maberry has created an homage to death itself and an homage to the undead that is as poetic as it is terrifying.  It's a brand new and intriguingly fresh slant on the zombie genre that we all love!” -John A. Russo co-screenwriter of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

“Maberry is a master at writing scenes that surge and hum with tension.  The pacing is relentless.  He presses the accelerator to the floor and never lets up, taking you on a ride that leaves your heart pounding.  It’s almost impossible to put this book down.  Dead of Night is an excellent read.”  —S.G. Browne, author of BREATHERS

"It would be enough to say that Jonathan Maberry had topped himself yet again with an epic zombie novel that is as much fun as it is terrifying.  But that he has also created a story of such tremendous heart and social relevance only further cements his place as a master of the genre.  It also doesn't hurt that in DEAD OF NIGHT he has created one of the most compelling heroines I've read in years.  Dead of Night blew me away!"  --Ryan Brown - Author of PLAY DEAD

“Once again, Jonathan Maberry does what he does best; Take proven science, synthesize it and create something truly terrifying.  In DEAD OF NIGHT, Maberry lays the groundwork for a Bioweapon that could very well create zombies in the real world.  Combining great characters (I fell in love with Dez Fox from the moment she was introduced) and taut, blindingly fast action, DEAD OF NIGHT, is a runaway bullet train of a ride. This is Jonathan Maberry's best writing yet.” –Greg Schauer, owner Between Books, Claymont, DE

“Dead of Night stands drooped head and lurching shoulders above most zombie novels. The nightmare increases exponentially - from minor outbreak to major crisis with unstoppable speed, building to a heart-stopping climax you won't be able to put down.” --David Moody, author of the HATER and AUTUMN books


Charles Gramlich said...

I remember Book of the Dead, which really showed me the power and possibilities of the Zombie story. Love Patient Zero, and will get this one as soon as I can get over to Amazon

SQT said...

Maberry also has a YA zombie series that I hear is really good. The first one is Rot & Ruin. I know you're probably not a huge YA reader, but...zombies. And Maberry.

I still have you and Lana in my thoughts. I hope everything is going well.

Michael R. Allen said...

Zombies can never die, not really.

I enjoyed Dead of Night. It was a fun read.