21st Century Dead is supposed to be a more modern anthology. Forget those countless anthologies with punny names all edited by the same guy that you’ve seen on the spinner rack. This is trade paperback size. It has a splashy cover with lots of gore that looks like a movie poster. And it has a punny title. And its story quality is even worse.
There are the screenplay treatments that the authors and editor pretends are stories. There are zombies as a metaphor for poverty and for television. (Yes, there are a few of each.) There are a lot of stories about family members coping with their loved ones becoming zombies, including a few stories about people feeding other people to their family members who have turned into zombies. And there’s a novella in the middle about a ghost dog protecting a little boy from an evil alien spirit or something.
But it’s hard to blame anyone involved for 21st Century Dead. Christopher Golden has bad taste as the editor, but the topic is also on the hopeless side. What do you really do with zombies? Not a lot. There’s a virus. Everyone turns into zombies. Everyone else runs away or reacts in dysfunctional ways.
The Walking Dead can do a lot out of human reactions, but that’s not enough for an anthology, and there isn’t much that can be done. A few of the stories project a rebuilt society that finds ways to harness or cure zombies and that’s as clever as it gets. A few stories aren’t really about zombies, including Orson Scott Card’s initially funny story about a wife who comes home to her henpecked husband, but that then goes off the rails, but mostly they travel the same old territory. Virus. Bite. Depression.
There really isn’t much you can do with zombies and there’s not much cleverness on display in 21st Century Dead, an anthology that exists because zombies are popular, not because there’s anything more to write about them.