They're everywhere. Why?
We have a great and deep-seated fear of death, so what's more fightening to us than the undead? We started burying our dead to keep the rotting corpses from stinking up the place, but on a more psychological level, we've always been afraid of vengeful spirits returning from the dead. So we take really good care of our dead, lock 'em in a heavy-duty coffin and bury them six feet down in a cement vault. As much as we may have loved the departed, once they're gone, we really, really don't want them coming back.
Zombies, mummies, resurrected corpses, vampires--all the same thing, really, and each have had their turn at scaring ther bejeezus out of filmgoers. Vampires are kind of cool, the nobility of the undead; mummies are out to get back at whoever defiled their tombs. But the resurrected corpses, now--those are kind of like that meal that won't sit right, and keeps you up all night. Lots of moaning and groaning, funny odors, and shambling around in the dark. Nothing you do will make it go away, so you end up praying for daylight to arrive and hoping you'll be alive to see it.
So why would anybody *like* zombies? I mean, have you ever been around a decaying body? Take my word for it, it's not pleasant! And seriously, how on earth can zombies sneak up on anybody? Jeez Louise, a little dead mouse can make you leave the premises for the weekend, so a decaying carcass the size of a human should be pretty noticeable for blocks around, you know?
Like all manner of useless speculations that strike me from out of the blue, I've given the matter some thought, and here are four possible theories as to the popularity of zombie movies (Which is probably waning as I write this):
1) Zombies as a sense of insulation and separation from society. The idea is that in our increasingly dehumanized, impersonal, mass-produced society, people feel increasingly alone, and lost in the crowd. This makes the crowd seem threatening to us, psychologically, as we're all somewhat self-obsessed - "The star of our own story" - and hence zombie movies' popularity is because 'the crowd' is literally trying to eat you, which is about as 'lost in a crowd' as you can possibly get. Basically: society will swallow your soul, and so will zombies.
2) Zombies are a substitution for various other forms of apocalypse that are no longer in fashion. Remember in the early '80s when Nuclear War was cool? Well, not the war so much as the postapocalyptic wasteland. Society in the real world is confusing, frustrating, stressful, mind-numbing and boring. A good cinematic postapocalypse reduces society to a manageable, non-intimidating level: some guys, some cars, some chicks, some mohawks, and lots of gunplay and gore. It's very nearly a Western, and honestly that's pretty appealing when you've got a math test at 8AM on Monday, and haven't studied at all. Think I'm wrong? Go watch Red Dawn. It's a much better movie than you remember.
Alas, the likelihood of Nuclear War is small, as is the threat of a Soviet take-over of Western society (Quitters!) Y2K didn't pan out, The Singularity is taking its own sweet time to get here, this whole 'environmental' thing really should be sinking cities by now, and NASA has conclusively proved that neither an invasion, nor anything even remotely interesting, is ever gonna come from Mars. In the words of Tom Robins, 'The world was falling apart too fast for comfort, but not fast enough to really be any fun.' So in the ansence of any credible apocalypse to give us freedom by trimming the shrubberies of civilization and make us free to be you and me, 'Zombie Apocalypse' is the one we choose.
3) Zombies are socially acceptable victims for shooting and dismemberment. You can't really kill the undead, so you can slice through as many zombies as you want without taint of murder. Hell, you're SAVING THE HUMAN RACE, aren't you? In a world where people feel increasingly alienated and frustrated by their fellowmen, threatened and pushed around by an incomprehensible bureaucracy, as H. L. Mencken observed, "Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats." Which may also explain the popularity of pirates these days...
4) It's just a stupid fad and don't read too much
REMEDIAL SF 101: Zombies
Nothing else can prompt my snore
as the latest zombie movie bore
Televised, online or cinematic,
Their "plot" devices automatic
"Now walk the dead, you'd best watch out!
They'll wear your brains on bloody snouts!"
Though devotees cry, "Metaphor!"
Skimp not the karo ersatz gore
"For thoughtfulness we can pretend,
our imagination knows no end
"But without blood we'll all ignore ya,
and stay at home, and read 'Fangoria.'"
In shows like True Blood and the books it is based on have Vampires as the top of the supernatural hierarchy. This seems to be the standard in the modern urban fantasy.
It seems to me this dates back to the Universal monster movies of the 30's. In the later films with Dracula and the Wolfman/Frankenstein the vampire was the leader. This may have seemed logical since the stories took place in Europe and Dracula is a Count.
I agree with your assessments of zombies. Lots of folks probably think that all those other people are just shuffling through life and their masses will overwhelm them someday.
You also mentioned vampires as the aristocrats of the undead. This is true. Especially now, the vampires - blood-sucking rich people - are stand-ins for the 1%. At least for our perception of them. Have you noticed that in every modern vampire movie, the vamps have a plan to assert their control once and for all and turn us into their cattle? This feeling that the elites see the rest of us only as a resource to be drained and cast away is a big factor in what prompted the "Occupation" sit-ins.
But, you'll notice that vampires are not always or completely villainous. That's because most of us would be happy to join the 1% if we could. The stories have to have "good vampires" who only suck blood from rats or criminals because we want to imagine ourselves like them - having the power, but feeling a sense of noblesse oblige to look out for the little guy, or daywalking humans.
Vampires vs werewolves, at least as portrayed in the Underworld series, is certainly an allegory for class warfare. And, just like in real life, it doesn't matter which side wins, because we - the little guys and daywalking humans - lose.
I like pirates, myself. They're much better dressers than zombies, and as R4 observed, cinematic pirates seem to know how to have fun and not take themselves too seriously.
One of the scariest films I ever saw, was "Phantasm." Not exactly a zombie movie, but it was what permanently put me off horror movies in general, and dead-man-walking films in particular. I saw a few of the early "Halloween" movies, and the fact that the bad guy just kept coming back for more was horrifying...then it got stupid. /:(
Another film--not a zombie movie but a ghost movie--that annoyed the hell out of me, was "The Others," with Nicole Kidman. Right up until the last few minutes, it has you thinking she's a live person in a haunted house, then it turns out she and her kids are the ghosts and the "spirits" were the living people trying to excorcize them.
OK, those last few switcheroo minutes were the payoff, but to get there, I had to endure 104 minutes of "What the hell is going on here?!"
So I just really don't like horror films.
As some one who was born in NYC I feel comfortable in crowds it's when you are alone when there is danger. What zombies reflect is not a crowd but a mob a mob coming for you. It's the fear of mob rule that zombie movies make personal.
I'll say this up front I hate zombie movies, I disliked Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and I dislike the Walking Dead now. I did not see our society as mindless consumers so the metaphor was lost on me for Dawn of the Dead and I don't fear people and personal interaction now so Walking Dead goes flat on me.
Now for gore I have noticed that the more gore the worse the writing in a horror movie. Now I know in the classic Hammer films the no gore was a government rule but it made the writers work harder to give the films that horror atmosphere that people wanted.
In the modern post apocalypse stories zombies have become the lazy stand in for mutants, aliens or whatever. In every story they need a head shot to kill and they are just a force of nature you might as well have your heroes chased by tornadoes or something. (boring) Maybe if someone gave a new twist to the zombie it would be more interesting but I think zombies have hit that tired cliche spot where people that still want to watch zombies expect them to act in the prescribed way.
I will say there is some hope Zombieland was funny.