America's love with the undead is, well, undying. How big a deal is it?
Sunday's premiere of the AMC series The Walking Dead averaged 16.1 million viewers. It beat every other scripted or reality show on TV - network or cable. And in the ages 18 to 49 demographic hotly targeted by advertisers, the zombie show, which is on basic cable, beat NBC-TV's broadcast of the NFL game between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys.
Zombies beat football. In America. The zombie zeitgeist really is at its zenith.
"Zombies used to be fringe monsters, way less popular than vampires or Frankenstein's monster," said Robert Thompson, professor of television at Syracuse University. "Now, children go to fairs and get their faces painted like zombies."
How do we love zombies? Let us count the ways:
1. CAMPS, WALKS, RUNS AND HAUNTED HOUSES
There are zombie walks all over the nation, staged to have fun and to raise money for charity. This month, the New Jersey Zombie Walk in Asbury Park set a new Guinness world record with 9,592 people lumbering along the shore to raise money for superstorm Sandy relief. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a group holds regular Zombie Survival Camps for children.
2. PERMEATING POP CULTURE
There's the aforementioned Walking Dead TV show, now in its fourth season, which stars Danai Gurira, a Grinnell, Iowa, native, who spends her days decapitating zombies with a sword.
There are movies. World War Z made more than $540 million worldwide, the seventh-highest grossing film so far this year.
There are comic books. And not just comic books dedicated to zombies. Familiar characters also find themselves fighting the zombie hordes.
Archie Comics produced Afterlife with Archie, a play on its long-running Life with Archie comic. The plot: Jughead's dog is hit and killed by a car. He asks his pal Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, to revive the dog. She does, but it results in the dog coming back as a zombie. The dog turns Jughead into a zombie, and he heads straight for the fall dance and descends on Archie, Betty, Veronica and the rest of the gang.
And then there's Halloween. Spending on Halloween nationwide has increased nearly 55 percent since 2005 and is expected to reach $6.9 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation. Zombie costumes for children have been in the top 10 for children and top five for adults for nearly a decade.
3. FAMILY BURGERS
Zombie Burger + Drink Lab in Des Moines' East Village has hit on a theme with international appeal. The restaurant's owners get weekly proposals for franchise opportunities from all over the world.
"A restaurant in Australia actually ripped us off," said co-owner Paul Rottenberg.
The restaurant and bar, which opened in August 2011, features murals of Des Moines after a zombie apocalypse, as well as popular culture memorabilia from movies and other sources.
Rottenberg and chef George Formaro had envisioned the place as a hip, edgy spot for young professionals who frequent the village. What it has become is a destination spot for people of all ages. Patrons regularly wait as long as 90 minutes for a seat at lunch and dinner.
"Typically, a restaurant's peak dinner time is about 7 p.m.," Rottenberg said. "Ours begins at 5 p.m. because that's when families get home from work and all the kids are home from school."
But what is it about the monsters of rotting flesh that people enjoy so much?
"We're into our third year, and I still don't get it," Rottenberg said.
4. BACKYARD ATTRACTION
Artist Lewis Jordan doesn't know why zombies are so big, but he loves the trend.
Jordan grew up loving Halloween. Now a 38-year-old married father of three, he turns the yard of his home in Urbandale, Iowa, into Zombie Hollow each fall.
Visitors make an at-will donation to the Sentinels of Freedom charity, which aids severely wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. What they encounter for their money is a macabre collection of pirates, monsters and, of course, zombies. Jordan, a U.S. Army veteran and special-education associate at Urbandale schools, has made nearly all the props used in the show by hand. Zombie Hollow is now in its fifth year. In 2012, it drew more than 1,000 people and raised more than $5,000 for the charity. This season, the goal is $7,500.
"I think people like to believe that a zombie apocalypse could really happen," Jordan said. "Some of the movies like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend make it seem like it's basically a big rabies outbreak. People like to think about where they would go and what they would do if it really happened."
5. DEFINING MYTHOLOGY
One of those people is Skyler Bartels, 28. By day, Bartels works in the accounting department of a Des Moines hospital group. In his spare time, he prepares for what he believes is a possible end-of-the-world scenario.
"I know where I will go," Bartels said. "I won't disclose where, of course, but I know."
He is only partially kidding. Bartels began studying zombies when he was a senior in high school in small-town Nebraska. He watched the classic George Romero films Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). He devoured the Max Brooks books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z and the Robert Kirkman comics that inspired The Walking Dead TV series.
Bartels has a very specific idea of what a zombie is. Zombies are created by a virus that is spread either by exchange of bodily fluids, usually through biting, or airborne transmission, such as the stuff in The Walking Dead.
Magic can't create zombies, according to Bartels. Those are mummies or some other breed of monsters. He prefers a science-fiction theme. "They must be dead, dumb and with impaired motor function," he said. "This stuff with zombies running, like in 28 Days Later, those are not real zombies."
Daniel P. Finney, Des Moines Register