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The dead know where you are, and they are hungry.

The runaway success of AMC's "The Walking Dead" highlights the recent potency of zombie stories. Once wholly a genre for horror/grind house cinema, zombie media has made the tough crossover from "pulp" to "pulpular." "Zombie walks," including thousands of participants shuffling in gore makeup, are a global trend, bringing flash mob energy to raise money for charities—usually to combat brain disease. Zombie games are routinely on top lists in app stores, and longer video games, including "Dead Space," bring the apocalypse into our living rooms. The list goes on, and gets an addition today with the zombie love story movie Warm Bodies.

For a theme with such diverse expression, the zombie genre's conventions are surprisingly rigid. Most stories follow a strict formula: The dead rise and eat, the living flee and fight, and the credits roll. Some tales end well for the living, more end poorly, but these essentials are present in all, marking the limits of a traditional zombie tale as inflexibly as any folk story.

For all the screams and splatter, these common story elements provide a backdrop for filmmakers to talk candidly about the human condition. The first three entries in seminal zombie director George A. Romero's "Dead" series are fine examples of this, using the cannibal corpses to skewer major cultural issues such as racism, consumerism, and abuse of human power.

Romero's Dawn of the Dead is a classic example, featuring a small band of well-armed survivors safely hiding in an abandoned shopping mall. With abundant food, ammunition, and consumer goods, they are living the American ...

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The Zombie Apocalypse
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January/February 2013

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