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"They’re mindless drones following basic needs to eat," Hamilton says. "Those economic issues speak to our own lack of control."
They’re also effective messengers. The Centers for Disease Control got in on the zombie action last year, using the "apocalypse" as the teaser for its emergency preparedness blog. It worked, attracting younger people who might not otherwise have read the agency’s guidance on planning evacuation routes and storing water and food.
On Friday, a different message emerged. Chatter had become so rampant that CDC spokesman David Daigle sent an email to the Huffington Post, answering questions about the possibility of the undead walking among us.
"CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead," he wrote, adding: "(or one that would present zombie-like symptoms.)"
Zombies have been around in our culture at least since Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein" was published in 1818, though they really took off after George Romero’s nightmarish, black-and-white classic "Night of the Living Dead" hit the screen in 1968.
In the past several years, they have become both wildly popular and big business. Last fall, the financial website 24/7 Wall Street estimated that zombies pumped $5 billion into the U.S. economy.
"And if you think the financial tab has been high so far, by the end of 2012 the tab is going to be far larger," the October report read.
It goes far beyond comic books, costumes and conventions.
—An Ace Hardware store in Nebraska features a "Zombie Preparedness Center" that includes bolts and fasteners for broken bones, glue and caulk for peeling skin, and deodorizers to freshen up decaying flesh. "Don’t be scared," its website says. "Be prepared."
—On uncrate.com, you can find everything you need to survive the apocalypse — zombie-driven or otherwise — in a single "bug-out bag." The recommended components range from a Mossberg pump-action shotgun and a Cold Kukri machete to a titanium spork for spearing all the canned goods you’ll end up eating once all the fresh produce has vanished.
—For $175 on Amazon, you can purchase a Gnombie, a gored-out zombie garden gnome.
Maybe it’s that we joke about the things we fear. Laughter makes them manageable.
That’s why a comedy like "Zombieland," with Woody Harrelson blasting away the undead on a roller coaster and Jesse Eisenberg stressing the importance of seatbelts is easier to watch than, say, the painful desperation and palpable apocalyptic fear of "28 Days Later" and "28 Weeks Later."
The most compelling zombie stories, after all, are not about the undead. They’re about the living.
The popular AMC series "The Walking Dead" features zombies in all manner of settings. But the show is less about them and more about how far the small, battered band of humans will go to survive — whether they’ll retain the better part of themselves or become hardened and heartless.
It’s a familiar theme to George Romero, who told The Associated Press in 2008 that all of his zombie films have been about just that.
"The zombies, they could be anything," he said. "They could be an avalanche, they could be a hurricane. It’s a disaster out there. The stories are about how people fail to respond in the proper way."
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