Murphy’s Law – Beating an undead horse

Joel Murphy

Joel Murphy

The University of Baltimore, following in the footsteps of institutions like Columbia College and Simpson College, is planning on offers a course on zombies. The University of Baltimore English class will study zombie comics and 16 classic zombie films.

On the one hand, I applaud the University of Baltimore for trying to get something inside its students besides Natty Boh, crab chips and syphilis. If zombies get college kids excited about taking an English class, I’m all for it. Besides, the pride of the Houston Texans, quarterback Matt Leinart, famously took basket weaving and ballroom dancing while attending USC, so there is certainly a long and storied history of college kids taking bullshit classes in pursuit of their meaningless degrees.

That being said, I am tired of zombies. So incredibly tired. Like a weary survivor holed up inside an abandoned Quik Stop with a slowly dwindling supply of processed food and shotgun shells, I’m ready for this whole zombie craze to die … and stay dead.

Actually, if I’m being totally honest, I’ve never been a big fan of the zombie genre. I know a lot of you crazy kids out there can’t get enough of those undead monstrosities, but they’ve never really buttered my corn cob. In general, I find the whole genre to be rather overrated and boring.

Now, there are plenty of trends in pop culture that I don’t pretend to understand. Seltzberg’s endless parade of “parody” films, Tyler Perry’s movies and the continued success of (instead of acts of violence against) Jimmy Fallon all continue to baffle me. But being on the outside looking in when it comes to those fads isn’t really a big deal. Hating mainstream schlock like that helps me maintain my indie cred.

But all the cool kids seem to love zombies. Many of my friends, people whose opinions on TV and films I actually trust, go crazy for zombies. Reading zombie survival guides and making references to the impending zombie apocalypse have become all the rage in recent years (which is preposterous, since anyone with common sense knows it will be the robots who eventually rise up and kill us all).

I just don’t get it. I don’t understand the appeal. If I wanted to see a group of bloody thirsty, brain dead savages shuffle aimlessly inside a confined space, I’ll go to a Walmart on Black Friday.

The University of Baltimore class is being taught by Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg, the author of Zombiemania: 80 Movies To Die For. According to the description on Amazon, Zombiemania chronicles “80 zombie movies that shaped a horror subgenre and left us all with a mortal fear of flesh-eating ghouls clawing their way out of the cold, dark earth.”

For those of you thinking about buying Blumberg’s book or taking his class, I’ll save you the money. There aren’t actually 80 movies that shaped the genre. Hell, there aren’t even 16. There is one – George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.

Before Romero, zombies were the stuff of Haitian folktales. Haitians believed voodoo sorcerers could reanimate dead corpses and force them to do their bidding (think Weekend at Bernie’s 2). Scientists have since come to believe that the zombie myth stemmed from malicious Haitians using a combination of two drugs – one a powerful neurotoxin that made a person appear dead and the other a mind-altering drug that put the victim in a state of psychosis upon reawakening.

Romero, heavily influenced by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (which was adapted into 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, 1971’s Omega Man and 2007’s I Am Legend ), came along in the late 60s and rewrote the zombie mythology. Romero added the apocalyptic element to zombie stories and used the creatures to make statements about society as a whole. His zombies were slow, groaning creatures with an insatiable craving for human flesh who didn’t stop attacking until their brains were destroyed.

Since then, things have been fairly static on the zombie front. Slow moving, groaning creatures with a hankering for humans continue to be the status quo. Sure, 28 Days Later came along and sped the zombies up, which offered a refreshing twist, but it still boiled down to a typical zombie story. Survivors, trying to avoid infection, banded together to fight an army of the undead.

Since Romero established the rules, by my count there have been only been four truly great uses of the genre – Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, “Dial ‘Z’ For Zombies” from The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horrors III, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. Note that these are all essentially parodies of the genre (actually parodies too, unlike Seltzberg’s bullshit). Straightforward zombie stories end up feeling like retreads of Romero’s iconic films.

So let’s give it a rest for a while. Until someone else comes along and re-reinvents the genre, let’s stop rehashing the same story over and over again.

Fear not, zombie fans – with the occult all the rage these days, you fanatics might not have to wait long for the next Romero to emerge. Surely, there must be a barely-literate Mormon out there ready to retool zombies as sparkly, high school outcast-loving abstinence parables.

Or maybe a screenwriter will do some good by mixing zombies with robots, creating an unstoppable cyborg race on the silver screen that remind us all to eye our iMacs and toasters with a healthy dose of suspicion.

Until that happens, it’s okay to move on to something else, cool kids. Surely there must be another colorful mythology you can all latch onto. So break away from the crowd and turn in your z-cards, you beautiful and creative freethinkers. Come on, let go of the undead. You can do it.

Unless, you know, you are some kind of zombie.

Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at

  1. Hope September 8, 2010
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