Here at n3rdabl3, there is nothing we love more than Halloween, maybe besides ad revenue. There is just something fun about chucking aside peace, love, and all that other crap that other holidays are about and just celebrate what its gruesome, scary and horrifying instead.
What better way is there to celebrate, than pausing for a moment and considering the zombie? There isn’t I tells you, so read this article!
Being brought to life
Mindless. Rotting. All consuming. Hollywood has lasted for over a century and over that time, it has completely changed the way we view monsters. It is because of Hollywood that we think silver kills werewolves, sunlight kills vampires and that Frankenstein was brought to life by lightning. So many of the tropes that we associate with monsters comes from the silver screen, and perhaps none have been altered so much as the zombie.
When you think of zombies, what do you think of: slow moving, moaning monsters? Running, screaming, infectious undead? Fatal bites? Shoot em in the head? The end of the world as we know it?
I bet that very few of you think of what zombies were in their folklore origins. The term zombie comes from Haitian Creole, where it was used to refer to an undead corpse revived by a Bokor, a sorcerer, to be their unquestioning servant. Until zombies were popularised in film, this is what people usually associated the word with. This can be seen in some of the earliest zombie films, such as 1932’s White Zombie, where an American woman travels to Haiti where an evil Vodoo shaman (played wonderfully by Dracula’s Bela Legosi) transforms her into a zombie servant. The film plays off of fears of black magic, strange foreigners and mysticism, all of which feel outdated and unbelievable to us today.
In these early examples, most of the tropes we associate with modern zombies aren’t there. The zombies do not eat the living, their bite does not transmit the condition, and they are not the primary focus of the horror. One of the major characters is even transformed back into a human after the wizard is defeated. The only real connections are that the zombies are undead and relatively mindless.
So where does the modern zombie originate? Tales of the dead returning and eating the living have existed for thousands of years. In the epic Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar threatens to “raise up the dead and they shall eat the living; and the dead shall outnumber the living”, which seems very familiar to fans of the modern zombie genre. Similarly, vampire myths of the dead rising and being parasitic towards the living are endemic across all cultures in the world.
Literature also owes some responsibility to the origins of the modern zombie. HP Lovecraft wrote about the undead fairly frequently in his horror stories, but in Herbert West: Reanimator (1921) we see science as the tool to resurrect the dead. These zombies are never referred to as such, but they are mindless and murderous, and the story almost feels like a prediction of the zombie phenomenon that would occur later in the century.
Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954) is also extremely influential to the genre. Set in a world where a global pandemic turned most of the world into vampires, everyman Robert Neville has been surviving alone for years. He holes up in his house at night and ventures out scavenging and vampire hunting during the day. The book is full of similarities to the zombie genre, from the global apocalypse to the loneliness of survival. If vampires were traded for zombies, the book would feel right at home beside Dawn of the Dead. This is not entirely a coincidence either, as the book helped to inspire a young George Romero, though we will get to him in a short while.
Throughout the 1950s and early 60s, many films started being released that begin to resemble the zombie formula more closely. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space featured several zombies being raised from newly dug graves. Of course, in this film the zombies are being resurrected by aliens are part of a plot to conquer the Earth… yeah. If you love bad movies and have never seen it, you really owe it to yourself to find a copy and watch it. It has flimsy cardboard sets and terrible performances galore. If you can ignore the hilarity for a moment, though, you will recognise that the zombies in the film resemble their modern counterparts quite closely. Finally, we are nearly seeing the typical zombie on screen, and it is due to one man that we traverse the rest of the way.
I am sure you all know where this is going.
George A. Romero and the birth of the genre
Most of what we consider to be a zombie today can be attributed to one man: George Romero. It is rare to be able to attribute so much of a monster’s mythology to a single figure, the only other example probably being Bram Stoker’s influence to the vampire genre. Night of the Living Dead started its life as a complete mishmash of ideas from Romero and co-writer John Russo. Some involved aliens teenagers bringing the dead back, others being nearly a complete ripoff of I am Legend.
Eventually the two settled their ideas, and the result was Night of the Living Dead. Here, we see zombies as what we now know them to be: shambling, flesh-eating, mindless corpses. The story takes place in a world where the recently dead have inexplicably began to rise and eat the living, and the story never offers a true explanation. Hints are given to possible reasons, such as a satellite returning from Venus theorized to be carrying some strange new radiation (keep in mind that the film was released at a time when radiation was treated by popular culture as basically just magic that gave you cancer or superpowers), but ultimately the explanation is irrelevant.
We follow only a few ordinary people attempting to survive in an abandoned farmhouse. These people are all strangers with conflicting personalities, and it swiftly becomes clear that it is these internal divisions that will lead to their downfall, and not the slavering dead banging on the walls. The film is a brilliant little piece, though quite dated by today’s standards, and managed to shock the world. Night of the Living Dead is brutal, possessing a tone that only grows darker and darker as the characters begin to unravel and die off. The violence was also shocking for the time, and it features child zombies feeding on their parents bodies and rotting corpses dripping blood. This film was released at a time when there were no ratings on movies, so many children were present in the audience, probably expecting another hokey B-movie.
The film was very controversial at the time, being the main motivator for the ratings system being brought in. However, its impact was immense. It was a huge hit, and it propelled both Romero and Russo into success. Many zombie tropes originate in this film, from fatal bites to their slow gait to having to shoot them in the head to kill them permanently.
Romero followed this film up with a pseudo sequel in 1978, Dawn of the Dead. The film does not continue the story of any specific characters from the original but it does continue the story of the world it took place in. This film opens a few weeks after the zombies began to rise and portrays a world in complete shambles. The societal order is breaking down, as the government employs more and more draconian methods to deal with the dead while ordinary people attempt to break away in order to survive.
This time, we follow four characters as they leave the cities in search of safe haven. Eventually they find a shopping mall and we watch as they try to hole up and survive. Wonderfully simple like its predecessor, the film was an even bigger hit and cemented the zombie as one of the great movie monsters. The film resonated with the public at the time and truly seemed to capture some element of its time period, from its satirisation of the modern American shopping mall culture to its portrayal of police violence and gender issues.
Dawn of the Dead was subject to an European re-edit by Dario Argento, released as Zombi in his native Italy. This not only helped popularise the term “zombie” to refer to this creature (they are only referred to as zombies twice in Dawn and exclusively as ghouls in Night), but also led to a mass of Italian, low budget ripoffs throughout the next two decades. The world was soon, rather fittingly, overrun by cheap, exploitative zombie films.
Unlike Dawn of the Dead, which featured decent acting, drama and a level of satirisation of modern society, these films focused on gore and violence. The plot in films like Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 or Hell of the Living Dead plays a very secondary role to the blood and guts.
While these films are certainly great to drink to and laugh at, they began to erode away at the legitimacy of the zombie genre. On top of the slew of poor zombie films, in 1982 Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released, with its insanely influential music video. You know exactly the one I mean:
While the video helped to ensure the zombie as a pop culture icon, it also took away a lot of the fear people had of them. How can you be afraid of something you have seen breakdance with MJ?
By the mid-1980s, the world was growing sick of the huge number of zombie films. Most were stale, much like the antagonists themselves, as few of the imitators ever set out to do anything different from Romero himself. In 1985, Romero released his follow-up to Dawn of the Dead, imaginatively titled Day of the Dead. This film takes place many years after the Earth has fallen to the dead, and our heroes this time are a group of scientists, soldiers and helicopter pilots surviving in a nuclear bunker.
I say “heroes” hesitantly, as our characters are mostly pretty awful people: the scientists are increasingly becoming detached and inhumane, the soldiers are violent brutes barely holding onto their sanity, and the pilots are lazy and apathetic to the others’ concerns. This film is much darker than the prior two, and it is perhaps for this reason that the film was much less popular upon release.
Interestingly, it was this same year that Romero’s former partner, John Russo, released his own solo zombie film. Titled Return of the Living Dead, the film is far more comical than its counterparts. Here, the zombies are not the traditional shambling, mindless, shoot-em-in-the-head type, but nigh invincible, intelligent monsters who feed solely on human brains. It is here that the surprisingly well remembered moan of “brains” originated. The film is a whole lot of fun, as we see our two schlubby heroes accidentally release a chemical weapon that brings the brain eating dead to life, and from there we just watch as the situation just gets worse and worse and crazier and crazier.
This less serious take on the genre was a massive hit, spawning several sequels of steadily decreasing quality. This was the first real transformation of the monster that once terrified audiences the world over into something that could be used for a tool of comedy. Films such as Zombieland and television shows like The Santa Clarita Diet owe a lot to Return of the Living Dead. This change from horror to comedy was in line with a lot of horror films in the 1980s. As the popular slasher series made more and more sequels, they became increasingly hard to take seriously with each entry. By the time Nightmare on Elm Street 6 rolled around, Freddy Krueger had gone from the terrifying phantom stalking and murdering teenagers in their dreams to a quip making, cheeky little sausage. Additionally, the popularity of The Evil Dead and, more specifically, Evil Dead 2 meant that more and more films tried to blend horror and comedy together.
Death of the genre and its inevitable return
As the 80s came to their close, so did the zombie genre. Whether it was oversaturation, a lack of fresh ideas, or simply the change of public interest, zombie films stopped being as popular. In the 1990s, horror films made a shift away from the corniness of the 80s; religious horror became a huge hit, with films like the The Prophecy and its sequels, as did sadomasochism, as seen in Hellraiser. Zombie films were relegated to the bargain bins of video rental outlets, as independent filmmakers kept on beating that undead horse.
While zombies became a less popular subject for filmmakers, they began to thrive in another market entirely: video games. Resident Evil was released in 1997 to an enormous response. Father of the survival horror genre, the player controlled a police officer trapped in a mansion of terror while investigating a series of horrific murders. Zombies played a central role as the most common enemy in the game, and while not the focus they were certainly the most memorable feature. They were the classic Romero type: slow moving, mindless, flesh eating. Romero’s influence became more obvious in the two sequels, as Resident Evil 2 and 3 featured a city overrun with the dead.
It was not until the new millennium that zombies would once again crawl from their crypts and begin terrifying new generations of popcorn eating moviegoers. Danny Boyle’s genre changing 28 Days Later was not a zombie film exactly, but it sure did borrow a lot from the genre. Here, instead of being the shambling, rotting undead , the antagonists were people infected with “the Rage virus”, a man made disease that transforms an everyday person into a mindless, infectious killer. Images of London’s abandoned streets and Britain’s total collapse should be familiar to fans of the zombie genre, and having a core cast of four characters is similar to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Perhaps the biggest influences it had were its “running zombies” (though that was first shown in Return of the Living Dead) and its explanation of the monsters as a type of virus. Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004 changes the zombies into running, screaming monsters, though these are definitely still undead and require the good old shot through the head to kill.
28 Days Later began what is largely known as the “Zombie Revival”, and we began to see more and more zombie films flood the market. Shaun of the Dead was an early example of this, and it once again brought comedy and zombies back together again in a wonderful reunion. Romero returned to the genre after a 20 year absence with Land of the Dead, and ambitious, imaginative yet deeply flawed film. Soon, the cinemas and DVD stores were full of zombie films again, most of them cheap and nasty, but a few gems exist amongst the dross. The growth of independent cinema in the 90s and early 2000s meant that any idiot with a camera and some makeup could make a zombie film, a great example being Colin, a British zombie film famously made on a budget of £45.
Alongside zombie films, video games also began to explore the genre. Early examples of Zombie mods have been around for as long as PC gaming has existed, and popular online zombie mods for games such as Counter Strike attracted a large fanbase. It was only a matter of time before developers looked on with interest on this market. Capcom’s Dead Rising is another popular entry into zombie video games: taking heavy influence from Dawn of the Dead, it is set in a shopping mall after all, the game gives players the free rein to survive in a zombie infested hole before being rescued in three days time.
Does the player investigate the origins of the outbreak? Save as many people trapped in the mall as possible? Stockpile all the crisps they can and hide in the safe room? The choice is theirs. Other popular examples are Valve’s Left 4 Dead series, which places a focus on cooperative play and action, as opposed to horror or survival. The games were hugely popular, both for gamers and modders alike and still have a thriving community today.
Zombies in the Modern Day
We sit now in the tail end of the Zombie Revival. The market is swamped with them and there is a zombie film set in nearly every possible location imaginable. Zombies in an airport? Check out Quarantine 2: Terminal. Zombies in a strip club? Watch Zombie Strippers (You pervert). As for video games, just go on Steam and type in zombie and witness the literally thousands of options for you to play.
While werewolves have fallen by the wayside and vampires have become fantasies for horny teenage girls, zombies still seem to be as popular as ever. Despite being one of the newer folklore monsters out there, they have captured the public imagination in a way that mummies or liches just cannot seem to manage.
Why? There seems to be something resonant with the idea of holing up with your loved ones, gathering all the baked bean tins you can and hiding while the mindless public are clamouring to get in. Maybe that is how we all feel already. We live our lives surrounded by faces we do not know: strangers on public transport, in bars, on the street, in shopping malls. Maybe we have in inherent distrust of these people; to us, the public at large feels faceless, mindless, threatening. In the zombie genre, this threat is shoved straight in your face. What it the world really was full of mindless monsters who want nothing more than to kill you and your loved ones? What would you do?
Perhaps zombies will begin to lose their popularity once more; it seems inevitable given the amount of zombie related content on the market. I think though, with their ties to the anxieties of modern society, it will only be a short while before they crawl out of their graves again and return to scare another generation.