Okay, first things first: this would have been an ideal subject for my column running last week, on Halloween weekend. Unfortunately, deadlines—or "un-dead lines'—come and go with frightening speed.
Besides, anything pertaining to zombies lately is hot regardless of the time of year. The AMC show "The Walking Dead" is setting ratings records (over 7 million tuned in to watch the program's second season debut); Max Brooks' book "World War Z" will soon be a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt, and zombie novels like Colson Whitehead's "Zone One" are being devoured by readers faster than, well, zombies gobbling up human brains.
So why are zombies striking a popular chord nowadays? The thought-provoking Slate magazine article "First, Eat All The Lawyers" by Torie Bosch espouses the theory that the public's fascination with zombies is a reflection of our soured economy and the economic fears of white-collar workers.
As Bosch puts it, "The zombie apocalypse is a white-collar nightmare: a world with no need for the skills we have developed. Lawyers, journalists, investment bankers—they are liabilities, not leaders, in the zombie-infested world."
Bosch points out that, as in many post-apocalyptic scenarios, the strongest survivors in "The Walking Dead" tend to come from blue-collar backgrounds. The people handiest to have around have farming and mechanical skills, and are comfortable with guns and hunting.
As proof, she points to one of the weakest characters—Andrea, a former civil rights attorney. According to Bosch, "In the zombie apocalypse, your J.D. is worthless—which is actually not so different from the real world of recent years."
Other writers have echoed this fear. In "World War Z," author Max Brooks describes it this way:
"You're a high-powered corporate attorney. You've spent most of your life reviewing contracts, brokering deals, talking on the phone. That's what you're good at, that's what made you rich and what allowed you to hire a plumber to fix your toilet, which allowed you to keep talking on the phone. . . . That's the way the world works. But one day it doesn't. No one needs a contract reviewed or a deal brokered. What it does need is toilets fixed. And suddenly that peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss. For some, this was scarier than the living dead."
And in "Zone One," Colson Whitehead paints a similarly bleak picture of those who "had graduated with admirable GPAs, configured monthly contributions to worthy causes, judiciously apportioned their 401(k)s across diverse sectors," and who had otherwise "been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this one."
Yes, for Bosch and other writers, pop culture's boom in zombies is a reflection of our uncertain economic times, where corporate layoffs and the worst legal job market in decades serve as reminders that skills we might otherwise consider meaningful (like contract negotiation) aren't quite so vital in the grand scheme of things.
Shows like "The Walking Dead" mirror the fear that all that book learning and corporate ladder-climbing will count for nothing when you're world is turned upside down.
Bosch identifies with "[t]he suburbanite/urbanite viewer who can't hunt, can't slaughter animals, can't grow her own food, [who] is meant to shudder at her ill-preparedness while watching."
Bosch has a valid point, but perhaps she's shortchanging lawyers. As fans of "The Walking Dead" graphic novels (on which the TV show is based) know, weak link former attorney Andrea turns out to be an Annie Oakley-like crack shot who proves her worth to the struggling band of survivors.
And the zombie body count goes way up with the appearance of the mysterious, samurai sword-wielding Michonne, who it turns out had been a lawyer before the zombie pandemic.
For that matter, what about a world in which a zombie lawyer figures prominently? Meet Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law, the heroine of novelist James Scott Bell's (writing under the nom de plume K. Bennett) new book "Pay Me in Flesh."
Caine is smart, stylish, and very much a zombie; as Bell puts it, she's "hungry for justice—and brains."
Caine may be one of Los Angeles' walking dead, but she's a practicing attorney helping other paranormal figures like a vampire hooker with their legal problems even as Satan himself plots to turn L.A. into his own headquarters (that last part may be as close as the book comes to non-fiction).
Caine doesn't have a soul—a byproduct of being a zombie, not a defense attorney, though some may disagree—but she's trying to get hers back. In the meantime, however, she has to devour human flesh and brains, which is why the defense never rests—in peace.
As the tagline for Bell's book puts it, "In L.A., practicing law can be hell. Especially if you're dead."
A second Mallory Caine novel, "The Year of Eating Dangerously," is due out in early 2012.
If flesh eating zombies ever emerge from anything other than pop culture and our collective subconscious, I hope that these lurching and drooling undead who come my way will leave me alone—if for nothing else than out of professional courtesy.