It is safe to say that if American popular culture has not in fact achieved its saturation point with zombies, we’ve at least gotten close to it. There are fast zombies, slow zombies, biological zombies, cybernetic zombies, wacky comedy zombies, zombies who fight plants, zombies who inexplicably fail to kill Milla Jovovich despite having had four movies in which to attempt to do so, space zombies (see most late-period Russell T. Davies Dr. Who episodes), and good old fashioned brain-munching zombies on The Walking Dead who somehow still manage to avoid killing that damn kid who never stays in the house when he’s told to.
And yet, all of these zombies are pretty much variations on the same theme, done to greater or lesser extent. Zombies are mindless, ravening machines, and they’re largely presented as interesting not in and of themselves, but in which particular humans manage to survive/evade them for greater or lesser periods of time. As such, zombies have largely become predictable and in a way, comforting. You pick up a zombie book or go to see a zombie movie, you pretty much know what you’re getting.
At least, you do if it’s not a Christopher Golden-edited zombie anthology. With 21st Century Dead, Golden and his all-star lineup of authors take a serious swing at, if not reinventing, then at least renewing the zombie formula.
Consider, for example, that the zombies in Rio Youers’ affecting “The Happy Bird and Other Tales” aren’t undead at all. Instead, they’re soldiers who have become chemically numbed to all emotion, the better to inflict slaughter on their enemies in a brutal Balkan War. One man sets out to rehabilitate one of those zombies, and the end result is deeply moving. Then again, there’s Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter’s “Tic Boom, A Love Story”, which has the staccato rhythm of a television screenplay but whose zombies are far from the scariest thing in the piece. Orson Scott Card takes a gentler, and not entirely successful look at zombies who are really just dead people hanging around so that mortals don’t have to suffer pain or loss in “Carousel”, and the zombie babies in Mark Morris’ “Biters” are certainly a little off the beaten track. Throw in the videogame-related zombiehood of Stephen Susco’s “The Drop”, the chemically induced monstrosity of Amber Benson’s “Antiparallelogram” and the recovering zombie of “Tender as Teeth” from Stephanie Crawford and Dwayne Swierczynski, and the envelope of the zombie story has been exploded at the seams.
Not every story reinvents the zombie – Ken Bruen’s “The Dead of Dromore” is a fairly egregious example of dumb people getting chomped by zombies because they did dumb things – but even the ones that use a “traditional” zombie formulation skew the lens and offer new perspectives. Chelsea Cain’s “Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television” and Brian Keene’s “Couch Potato” do this very effectively, as does Thomas Sniegoski’s “Ghost Dog & Pup.”
It’s not all winners. The aforementioned Bruen tale is a clunker, and S.G. Browne’s “Reality Bites” is as about as heavy-handed a showbiz satire as the title would suggest. But the hits greatly outnumber the misses, and Golden clearly succeeds in his aim for the anthology: to reinvent the zombie tale for the new century.
(St. Martins Griffin, 2012)