They are not so much alive as undead. Open for business, but only to take rather than give. Lumbering, blank-eyed and soulless, they only want more and more of our flesh - or at least the federal government's bailout money.
Zombie banks - when there is no more room in hell, they walk on Wall Street!
When did George Romero get hold of our economy? The man behind all those zombie movies, from Night of the Living Dead to the multiple Dawn of ... and Day of ... follow-ups, seems to have scripted the current meltdown, what with entire industries lurching about on their last legs.
Zombie auto companies - they can't stop making cars that no one wants to buy!
Zombie mortgage industry - the house is in foreclosure, the lights are on but no one is home!
Zombie retailers - everything must go, but no one will take it!
It's pretty frightening when the best metaphor for what's going on in the world today is a re-animated corpse. But what other cultural reference is possible at a time when everything seems on the brink of collapse, or perhaps already dead but still nominally walking among us?
It sort of gives new meaning to those digital traffic signs in White Marsh and elsewhere that were hacked to read, "Zombies ahead." Maybe they're less a prank than a legitimate warning.
"In a sense, they're right," zombie expert Peter Dendle said with a laugh. "Can we trust authorities at this point to take care of our infrastructure?" Dendle, an associate professor of English at Penn State, is the author of The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia.
He hadn't heard the term "zombie banks" that economists have been using lately to describe institutions that are essentially insolvent but kept artificially alive by the bailout.
But he thinks it's an apt label, given that zombies are basically "the outer husks" of what they once were, robbed of their inner soul and staying alive by feeding off the living.
"They basically just move and eat," Dendle said.
So, yes, a bank that makes none of its own money but is kept alive by someone else's? A zombie.
A foreclosed property? "A home that is reduced to a house," he said, or, in other words, a zombie.
No wonder the real-life horror movie of the economy is so chilling. "It sort of dangles in front of us the notion that we're just carcasses," Dendle said.
A favorite zombie movie of his, Dawn of the Dead, seems particularly prescient. Made in 1978 and remade in 2004, it involves a group of people who take refuge in a shopping mall as fast-multiplying zombies try to claw their way in.
"Why do they come here?" one character wonders as she looks out on the zombies.
"Instinct, memory, what they used to do," a man replies. "This was an important place in their lives."
Was would be the operative word there.
"You've got malls filled with goods which no one can enjoy," Dendle said. "There's all this unused inventory. We're too paralyzed by fear to go out and buy it, and we don't have any money anyway."
Dendle said zombies tend to emerge as reference points during economically fearsome times - it's no coincidence, for example, that the first movie of this genre, White Zombie, came out in 1932 during the Great Depression. In that movie, set in Haiti where the folklore of the zombie emerged as part of the voodoo culture, the zombies are glassy-eyed workers in a sugar cane mill.
"Humans are just cogs in the machine," Dendle said. "There's this horrifying idea that we're nothing but our labor."
Zombies became more ghoul-like with Romero's films, where they trudge around seeking live flesh for meals. Since then, they've evolved with the times - newer zombie movies feature faster-moving monsters, rather than the lumbering ones of old that it seemed you could always outrun.
Dendle became fascinated by zombie movies while living in Toronto in the 1990s and discovering all the sub- and sub-sub-genres of the basic moster movie.
"There aren't just underwater zombie movies, there are underwater Nazi zombie movies," he said. "There are zom-coms, zombie romantic comedies ... My Boyfriend's Back, Missy's boyfriend is decomposing but stays fresh enough to take Missy to the prom."
So maybe it's not so much of a stretch that there is a hotly anticipated update of a beloved Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, due out in mid-April. (Seriously. It's from Chronicle Books, which offers this synopsis: "As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton - and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers - and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead.")
Despite the blood-letting that is a significant part of zombieland, Dendle thinks there is a silver lining to the economy's descent into this apocalyptic territory.
"One of the enduring themes of zombie movies is even when there's no law, when it's dog-eat-dog, you still have to remain good. You still have to create an internal compass, a reason for why you should live. It's why we are better than the zombies," he said. "It's in a time like this that you find what your true values are again."