"I think it has to do with the series of shows and movies ... out there that aren't as campy as the old Roger Corman stuff," said Michael R. Mennenga, director of FarPoint Media, a company that produces and develops sci-fi and related podcasts, and the developer of the Zombie Channel, a hub for internet media dedicated to zombies. "There're new aspects of zombies that are piquing the sci-fi community's interest again. There's just been some really great stuff that's come out recently: Shaun of the Dead [and] 28 Days [Later]."
Shaun of the Dead provided a different view of zombies, allowing the monsters to make some (admittedly limited) logical leaps, such as being fooled by Our Heroes when they act like zombies to blend in, and to show ghosts of their former personalities by the end of the movie. 28 Days Later was much darker, and the people were never called zombies, but most fans agree it was a zombie flick. Still, those "zombies" were fast-moving, terrifying beasts, much harder to outrun than classic zombies.
Mennenga thinks pirates are over, and zombies are already the next big thing. "Zombies are fun. They are popular, and I think they have more staying power than pirates."
We should apply litmus tests to each group: can we make a good computer game out of it, a good tabletop game, and can Johnny Depp play in the movie? For zombies, we already have several undead games. Best known would be Resident Evil and the undead race in World of Warcraft. The popular Zombies!!! board game has enjoyed a lot of success (even if the gameplay goes about as slow as a zombie can walk). However, I'm not sure if Johnny Depp would really shine in a zombie movie. Although, to be fair, he doesn't shy away from the strange, compelling makeup.
The hobo group is less obvious than the zombie, but they need some attention. John Hodgman, author of The Areas of My Expertise, has a hobo section in his book that includes hobo chalk marks, as well as 700 hobo names (including Doc Aquatic, Drinky Drunky Tom, The Drunk and Dora the Explorer). Mark Frauenfelder, co-founder of the Boing Boing Blog and the driving force behind the effort to get drawings for all of Hodgman's 700 hoboes, favors hoboes as next in line for the pirates' spot.
"I think that one of the things that might have kicked in the hobo [popularity] was the war chalking thing," Frauenfelder said. "People use chalk symbols near Wi-Fi hotspots to indicate an open or closed hotspot, and this was inspired by the old hobo chalk marks that indicated a nice widow who will give you a meal if you clean up her yard. ... Another [influence] is Hodgman's 700 hobo names." Because of Frauenfelder's suggestion on Boing Boing, over 1,000 illustrations have been added to Flickr, and the site E-hobo.com was launched.
The popularity of hoboes also comes from peoples' desire to leave their lives behind; people get a grass-is-always-greener view of lifestyles they don't have. Frauenfelder agrees: "Every once in a while people get nostalgic for riding the rails, living a life footloose and fancy free, and there's the notion that being a hobo is romantic, even though the reality is pretty grim. It's the same for pirates; I'm sure the life of a pirate, 99 percent of the time, sucked. But there's that romantic notion again."
Frauenfelder feels hoboes are the definite favorite for the next big thing. He even thinks Johnny Depp would star well in a hobo movie, so the Hollywood angle is safe. Remove the eyeliner and add a cigar to his character in Pirates of the Caribbean, and you've pretty much got instant hobo. However, hoboes seem to be weak in the gaming category, with no computer games featuring hoboes coming to mind (hoboes as NPCs that are cannon fodder do not count), and only the board game Arkham Horror, with the character Ashcan Pete, comes close in tabletop games.