We've all heard about the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble, but any time there is a speculative frenzy, a destructive bubble can develop. The next bubble, I postulate, is zombie movies. The chart below shows the number of zombie movies released per year since the genre was started in 1932. Below that is a detail of the same chart, only showing years since 1990. (Raw data from this page.)
The zombie movie genre was birthed in 1932 with Victor Halperin's White Zombie. It remained a fringe artistic movement, with such titles as King of the Zombies (1941), Ed Wood's inspired, but budget-constrained Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and Ray Steckler's The Increidbly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964). The genre's first breakthrough came in 1968 with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which grossed (get it?) $42 million with a budget of $144,000. (Adjusted for inflation, it grossed nearly $700 million.)
From the beginning of the zombie movie in 1932 through 2002, there were an average of 3.23 zombie movies per year. From 2003 through 2010, there were an average of 103.88 zombie movies per year. I think much of this growth was driven by the success of 2002's 28 Days Later, which grossed over $82 million, with a budget of only £5 million. Next, 2004 brought us a re-make of Dawn of the Dead, which grossed $102 million with a budget of $28 million. After that, the market was flush with zombie-dollars ready to fund the next 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead. Unfortunately, for every 28 Days Later, there were dozens more like Diary of the Dead (2008), which had a budget of $2 million and grossed $5 million, despite being directed by George Romero, who had 39 years of zombie movie experience.
Like all bubbles, this is doomed to crash. I think we see signs of it already, with studios pumping out dozens of zombie movies a year, like desperate gamblers, trying to make up losses. It isn't a perpetual motion machine, though. Eventually, the public's taste for zombie movies is going to fade, and somebody is going to be left holding the bag. My guess is it's going to be the US taxpayers.
Ryan asks: "Is your graph adjusted for total movie market output? It's only a meaningful statistic if viewed as a percentage of all releases." Good question, Ryan.
Ask, and you shall receive, that's what we say down here at the Prestigious Internet.
First, I had to find the total number of movies released each year. I went to IMDB and did a year by year search for movies. (It isn't a perfect data set, but it should show whether or not zombie movies are constituting a higher percentage of movie output.) That resulted in the following graph, which illustrates my point even better than I thought it would. In 2009, zombie movies constituted over 0.5% of all movies, up from 0.06% ten years earlier. Of the movies slated for 2010, over 2% are zombie movies.
In the period 2003-present, which I call the Zombie Bubble, zombie movies averaged 0.62% of total movies, as opposed to 0.05% in the period 1932-2002. All years taken together, zombie movies averaged 0.11% of movies.
Also, here is a bonus graph of movie output over time.