Since George Romero re-introduced the Arabian ghul to modern audiences with Night of the Living Dead in 1968, they have been a feature of B-movies and video games ever since. The typical zombie is slow, unintelligent, and hungry. Individually, such creatures pose little threat but they have a better history of overrunning the world than virtually any other monster. When was the last time you heard of a mummy apocalypse, for example?
Some movies, like 28 Days Later or Resident Evil, modify their zombies. They're fast or semi-intelligent or can become hulking 8ft tall monsters. These creatures pose a greater threat than the somewhat pathetic Romero zombie, who just wants to go to the mall and hang out.
At heart, though, I am a fan of the classic Romero zombie. Why, though? Why do I like zombies the most? Why not, say, vampires? The answer is simple, vampires have become a little too cool for their own good. Forget Twilight, the moment Bela Lugosi strutted out onto the stage, vampires have been a little too urbane for my tastes.
The modern vampire is suave, sophisticated, and powerful. Even if they're a bunch of hillbillies like Lance Henrikson's bunch in Near Dark, they're still immortal and super-strong. If you're of a sufficiently amoral bent, killing people to live forever may not be unappealing. Hell, if you can survive on animal blood like Nick Knight, undeath is less of a curse than more of a lifestyle choice.
Being a zombie, though, is a terrible fate. They're ugly, rotting, and probably don't smell too good. If I was a vampire, I'd use my supernatural charms to cruise for tasty young morsels and hang out with my immortal equally hot wife. I'd be rich as sin because vampires always seem to have a never-ending supply of wealth. As a zombie? Well, I'd probably just shamble about my office or mindlessly stare at my computer all day. In short, being a zombie would be pretty close to my normal day only worse.
That's the nature of the much talked about social satire of zombies. Whereas vampires get to be cool loners who represent socially unacceptable sexuality, zombies represent being part of a slavering horde of mindless consumers. I suspect everyone who can afford a computer probably thinks they might, just maybe, take more than they give back. Being a zombie just makes that quality about human flesh versus natural resources.
Zombies also serve as a metaphor for disease and not even television has managed to make that sexy. As much as we've managed to conquer Smallpox and measals, there's still plenty of horrible conditions which can infect us. Unlike vampires, who get associated with syphilis or other sexuality-based conditions, being a zombie is more like getting the flu. It's a painful unpleasant situation that can come about from causal contact with the infected. Being bitten by a zombie isn't erotic, who knows what's floating around in the mouths of those things.
If you think I'm harping on the vampire vs. zombie connection, it's actually because the two monsters used to be one. Surprised? You shouldn't be. People have been talking about the dead rising to consume the living since before Helen of Troy met Paris. The original vampire was a bloated, disgusting thing which didn't have much intelligence. It existed to feed on people and was associated with disease.
Whereas the vampire eventually got associated with Incubi, Succubi, Lilin, and Ingrid Pit; the zombie just waited for Hollywood to find an appropriate avenue for showing their particular brand of loathsomeness. It took awhile, the zombie not being particularly photogenic, but modern culture has become a little zombie obsessed.
Like Lovecraft's Great Old Ones, the mindless undead have become a part of our culture. Even in space epics like the video game series Mass Effect, one of the major enemies are the Space Zombie Husks while Star Trek's the Borg manage to combine zombies with gestalt intelligence. What makes zombies so appealing?
I think part of this is due to the fact that zombies are the best monster for discussing death. Being a mummy or whatever is a triumph over death. Sure, you may be a monster but you aren't rotting in the ground. Unless you believe in an afterlife, in which you probably still maintain some doubts, dying is scary. A zombie is as close to true living death as possibly exists. You're moving around, killing people, but it's not you.
What makes zombies unstoppable is this metaphor. Dracula and the Wolfman are impressive physical specimens. So is Jason Voorhees. However, at the end of the day, they're characters. You can outwit or outfight them and they'll go down. Zombies, as a metaphor for death, are inevitable. You can kill as many as you like, more will come. It's why their relative weakness is such genius. We outrun death every day but, eventually, we tire and he overtakes us.
It's why discussions about how the military would plow through your average Zombie Apocalypse sort of miss the point. Yeah, zombies are weak and stupid. However, it's not their powers that are a threat. It's the fact everybody dies.
You can kill ten, twenty, or even a thousand zombies but the best you hope for is to survive another day. We all defy death every second of the day. It's just that he's always there, surrounding us. The zombies don't even have to take over the world to be scary because their threat is ever-present, serving as a reminder of our mortality. It's why Land of the Dead is one of my favorite Romero movies. People have learned to cope with the undead and life will go on, but the zombies aren't destroyed.
How could they be? No one can beat death.