Zombie: A reanimated human corpse that feeds on human flesh (in some accounts favoring brains). The word probably originated in West Africa and was brought to the West Indies by slaves who practiced Voudon ("voodoo"). According to Etymology Online, it has cognates in Kikongo (zumbi, "fetish") and Kimbundu (nzandi, "god"). The word entered English in 1871, but the concept appeared much earlier in western fiction. At least one critic has argued that Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) was the basis of modern zombie mythology.
Zombie—the word and the idea—is enjoying a cultural moment. (The last such moment occurred between the late 1970s and the mid-1980s, ushered in by George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. Michael Jackson's zombie-populated 1983 "Thriller" video successfully spoofed the genre.) The Cranberries' "Zombie" (1994), a political protest song, kept the word alive in pop culture, but the current wave of interest in zombies seems to have been triggered by the 2002 release of 28 Days Later, a post-apocalyptic film in which a virus transforms living humans into zombies. It was followed in 2007 by a sequel, 28 Weeks Later. In October 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain told Radar Online's Ana Marie Cox 28 Weeks Later was the most recent movie he'd watched.
"28 Weeks Later?" I asked. "The one about a zombie plague in London that has some not very subtle allusions to Gitmo?"
"Yeah, that one," he said. "I liked the first one, too."
"The one that was sort of about the effects of government-propelled hysteria that happened to come out after 9/11?"
He shrugged. "A lot of those zombie movies are political, you know."
Even more popular than the 28 movies has been the video game Left 4 Dead, which was released in 2008. It pits survivors of a global pandemic against hordes of zombies. Developer Valve Corporation launched the game with a $10 million marketing campaign that included a "Dude, Where's My Thumb?" photo contest.
But it's the ongoing global financial crisis that has truly reanimated "zombie." References to zombie banks and zombie companies have proliferated over the last 12 months. "The threat of zombies here and now is real," wrote Alyce Lomax in the Motley Fool blog last week:
That is, the zombie banks and zombie corporations that are artificially kept alive even though in any rational, natural world they should be dead. And if these reanimated corpses are still stumbling around, growing greater and greater in number, well, I'm pretty sure we all know what appears to be causing the dead to rise.
UPDATE: My friends on Facebook (who are not my Facebook Friends, because I have so far resisted the pull of Facebook) inform me that there's a wildly popular FB widget called Zombies.
In a Jan. 18 column titled "Wall Street Voodoo," New York Times op-ed columnist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman wrote about a hypothetical bank, "Gothamgroup":
On paper, Gotham has $2 trillion in assets and $1.9 trillion in liabilities, so that it has a net worth of $100 billion. But a substantial fraction of its assets — say, $400 billion worth — are mortgage-backed securities and other toxic waste. If the bank tried to sell these assets, it would get no more than $200 billion.
So Gotham is a zombie bank: it’s still operating, but the reality is that it has already gone bust. Its stock isn’t totally worthless — it still has a market capitalization of $20 billion — but that value is entirely based on the hope that shareholders will be rescued by a government bailout.
"Zombie" also crops up outside the financial pages, as shorthand for anything that persists in a parasitic manner. ZDNet offered "7 Tips to Safely Kill Zombie Projects" ("Walking-dead IT projects, also known as zombies, should be killed off — putting these suckers out of their misery is the right thing to do"). The Fanboy blog accused self-proclaimed social media experts of zombie behavior:
The drone level zombies then start to stalk any innocent Twitter user they can find. ... Most start out by doing this to each other, but before long they need to prey on the flesh of the living.
Books can be zombies, according to The Morning News, which made this announcement about its Tournament of Books, a March Madness-style competition:
[W]e’ve made a modification to the Zombie Round, that late-in-the-game bracket where two books left for dead get a second chance at competing. In the past, these books were determined by reader votes prior to the tournament, but then kept secret as the tournament progressed. This year, you’ll still be voting beforehand for your favorites, but now you will be apprised of the Zombie contenders from day one of match-play, that way you can keep track of which two books may rise from the grave, angry and reanimated.
I've even seen a reference to "Zombie perfume," ("It wouldn't die!"), spritzed by an overenthusiastic department store salesperson.
List of zombie films. (My favorite title: Angry and Moist.)
Update: Even Savage Chickens is on the zombie bandwagon.