The second season of The Walking Dead premiered last week to ratings high enough to raise William Seabrook—the journalist who imported zombies to the United States with the 1929 novel The Magic Island—from the dead. More than 7 million tuned in to watch a show that is, honestly, not terribly compelling television. Bad-ass zombies aside, the plot is slow, the characters flat. And yet I and many others continue to clamor for zombies like zombies hunt for brains. Sensing our hunger, the studios and publishers keep the zombie pop culture coming: Colson Whitehead’s “literary zombie novel” Zone One has just hit bookshelves, a movie version of Max Brooks’ 2006 book World War Z will star Brad Pitt, and who could forget the tour de force that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?
What’s new about the current zombie craze is its white-collar shine. No longer are zombies the beloved genre of the lonely, virgin teenage male, the macabre flipside of girls’ obsession with unicorns. The undead have gone from lowbrow guilty pleasure to the favored monster of the erudite. (Sorry, Grendel.) At the risk of reading too deeply into a guilty pleasure, I can’t help but believe that this current Era of the Dead draws its power from our economic malaise. If you work in the many white-collar fields that have suffered in this recession, zombies are the perfect representation of the fiscal horror show. The zombie apocalypse is a white-collar nightmare: a world with no need for the skills we have developed. Lawyers, journalists, investment bankers—they are liabilities, not leaders, in the zombie-infested world. (The exception to this rule, of course, is doctors.)
In The Walking Dead, the strongest survivors come from blue-collar backgrounds—cops, hunters, mechanics. Perhaps the weakest of the band is Andrea, a former civil rights attorney who can't be trusted with a gun and who is overly indulgent in grieving her sister, a college student, who wasn't alert enough while peeing in the woods and got bit for her neglectfulness. In the zombie apocalypse, your J.D. is worthless—which is actually not so different from the real world of recent years. As we watch humans battle zombies, we see a social order upended.
In World War Z, Max Brooks captured this captured this fear in a scene from the post-zombie reconstruction:
You’re a high-powered corporate attorney. You’ve spent most of your life reviewing contracts, brokering deals, talking on the phone. That’s what you’re good at, that’s what made you rich and what allowed you to hire a plumber to fix your toilet, which allowed you to keep talking on the phone. The more work you do, the more money you make, the more peons you hire to free you up to make more money. That’s the way the world works. But one day it doesn’t. No one needs a contract reviewed or a deal brokered. What it does need is toilets fixed. And suddenly that peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss. For some, this was scarier than the living dead.
We all worry about becoming obsolete; recently, my Slate colleague Farhad Manjoo sketched a frightening scenario in which robots take over industries like the law, medicine, even scientific discovery. The zombie apocalypse is the opposite scenario, in which our white-collar skills become worthless not through technical advance but through total system collapse. For blue-collar workers, the zombie stories are tales of comeuppance, of triumph: skills in auto maintenance, farming, plumbing, and electrical work—not to mention marksmanship—land blue-collar folks at the top of the new social order. This is not a bad thing, but it's nevertheless deeply disorienting to anyone who thought a college degree would mean never having to fix a generator.