Somewhere there’s got to be a Ph.D. dissertation on how each society imagines monsters that suit their time and place. Ancient Anglo-Saxons had ugly monsters that broke into their fortresses at night, the church-dominated Dark Ages had its share of witches and demons, the Industrial Revolution had Frankenstein embodying the dangers of technology, to be substituted by Dracula, an aristocratic vampire from a backwards land threatening the order and progress achieved.
I think the monster for our times is the zombie . Or rather, the zombies in the plural -since their power lies in their numbers. They are the dark angle of that attention-grabbing issue of Time magazine giving us all the Person of the Year award: The zombies are us. We, as a group, are the horde that chews up the Earth’s resources, that demands dumbing down our culture, that swarms shopping malls, and that instantly carries viruses from the other end of the world. Individuals that wake up to this reality may fight back for a while, but sooner or later will be bitten and infected as well, joining the ranks of the mindless mass and looking for other fresh brains to spoil. The ultimate menace of this monster is the extinction of free will: each individual becoming part of the crowd that aimlessly wanders through the streets, or sits in front of the TV, with the brain switched off.
Lately it’s been a great time for fans of the zombie concept, for two reasons: First, the fabulous zombie-infestation videogame, Dead Rising, has more social commentary episodes seamlessly embedded than any other videogame I can recall. And second, there’s two recent books by Max Brooks that push the genre to fascinating and fun new areas. In The Zombie Survival Guide, he describes in excrutiating detail how to defend yourself, attack, and survive a zombie outbreak. He’s clearly been thinking about this a lot (first thing to do to defend your home from a zombie infestation? fill your bathtub with water! you don’t know when the water system will shut down and weeks from now your greatest enemy will be thirst, not the living dead!). It’s a great combination of dark humour, horror, strategic thinking, and straight-faced presentation. Required reading to survive the incoming outbreak.
I have mixed feelings about the second book, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. It consists of a series of interviews with people all over the world recounting the recent, massive zombie outbreak that nearly destroyed us (you remember it, don’t you?), and their efforts to prevail ever since. The book’s first half –the actual outbreak and crumbling down of our civilization– is absolutely absorbing, powerfully emotional. But then something goes off in the second half –when humans fight back–, when the narrative becomes too militaristic and formulaic: Long descriptions of weapons and ammo, the President of the United States is the world’s hero, every episode ends with a cliche. The book was not bad, but given the promise of the first half I finished feeling dissatisfied and thinking of what it could have been. The good news is that the book’s movie is coming up in 2008 (produced by Brad Pitt’s film company, apparently). If they keep the mockumentary format, and the pace of the first half of the book, it’s going to be a classic.
 Runner-ups: Robots and aliens. But it’s very difficult to achieve a good narrative with artificial intelligence elements, and I can’t possibly get frightened at a group of monsters that includes E.T. and ewoks.