Have we reached peak zombie?

For some, it will be a cause for celebration, a sign that the pandemic is finally over.  For others, it is a cause for lament.  But have we really reached peak zombie?

The first suggestions of peak-zombie could be identified in Kyle Bishop’s superb 2009 thesis on the popularity of zombie cinema. His graph, reproduced below, reveals the sustained growth in zombie cinema production over the last 100 years, with an apparent boom in the new millennium, when the genre was re-vamped with films such as 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead.



However, that data is a few years old.  So let’s update this graph and see what the picture is like now (dataset = wikipedia list of zombie films).


Zombie Films Per Year


The graph would appear to show that peak zombie has indeed been reached.  Nonetheless, the sustained movie output does still remain well above the 20th century trend.  However, there are problems with the data. One of Kyle Bishop’s sources was an Annalee Newitz post on i09.com, where some of the shortcomings in the data are discussed:

“you have to correct somewhat for the fact that more movies are being made as we get closer to the present, and (more importantly) there are better records of those movies with better tagging. So it’s easier to research movies with zombies in them if you’re looking at productions from the 1980s onward. In addition, there’s been a huge boom in indie and low-budget horror movies over the past ten years, and that undoubtedly accounts somewhat for the giant spike you see during the last 8 years or so”

Thus, the above graphs might be completely overestimating the size of the recent zombie pandemic, and (like the zombies themselves) it might all be a figment of our imaginations.  Not all the biases can be addressed, but we can retrieve the total number of feature films per year from imdb.com, and use that to normalise our dataset.  In this way, we can discover what percentage of films released are zombie-flicks.  Below, I have normalised the data and also grouped by decade, thus smoothing the data:


% Of Films Per Decade that are Zombie Films


The graph reveals that even after normalisation, the zombie-film boom of the 2000’s was very real.  However – for cinema, at least – we appear to have gone past peak-zombie.  The percentage of films that are zombie films has returned to the pre-boom trend, with a similar number being produced in the 2010’s as in the preceding decades. Over the 2010’s, about 1/650 films has been a zombie film, which is almost exactly the average of the last century.  The zombie boom, it would appear, is well and truly over.

Or is it? After all, the zombies do seem to be everywhere. The recent batch of films haven’t always conformed to the low-budget stereotype, but have instead included some high-grossing, big budget movies such as World War Z. Furthermore, the zombies certainly seem to have escaped their traditional confines of the darkened flea-pit cinema, and appear to be infiltrating a range of other media and genres.  The most notable example is the hit TV show The Walking Dead, which invented the formula of soap-opera-with-zombies.


So if the epidemic might not be fully represented in the move data, can we look elsewhere? We can looking at google traffic volume, and see how frequently people searched for the term “zombies”:



The peak of the zombie-mania appears to have occurred in 2013, coinciding with the release of World War Z.  However,  it would appear that the epidemic is far from over, and there is a sustained-plateau of interest that is roughly correlated with the ongoing TV series The Walking Dead. However, it isn’t just TV that got bitten with the zombie-bug. The written word, also, seems to be under attack, with the zombie again revealing its a ability to mutate and adapt into new and resilient strains.  Zombie-fiction has become increasingly malleable and innovative, with successes such as The Girl with All the Gifts and the mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Looking at the google ngram data (books up to 2008) we can see that the increase of the word “zombie” in books is also quite remarkable:


google_ngram_zombieThe phenomenon can be observed in other datasets also.  It would appear that for the last few years, sales of zombie Halloween merchandise has left the vampire for dead (although there is no data for 2015):


zombie_costumesIn summary, the data does reveal that the zombie-epidemic is very real, and very pronounced.  Whilst the current boom was indeed started by some big-hitting feature films, cinema does appear to have reached peak-zombie and is now in decline.  However, the remarkable feature of the zombie boom has been the mutation and adaptation of the epidemic, spreading the contagion into other media and other genres. Peak zombie cannot be called yet.

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