Although zombies have a long history of appearances in religion and folklore, interest in them as villains in horror films is largely confined to the second half of the 20th century. The explosion in zombie popularity is based on a characterization established by a single film and the fact that the original characterization of the zombi in African folklore and religion, as well as in earlier films, is dramatically different from that of the popular characterization from the 1960s onward. To understand zombies in both their original context and in the role they have come to take in popular culture requires an understanding of two divergent traditions.
Origins in Folklore and Ceremony
Brought to the New World by African slaves, this zombi concept was the only one utilized in the few zombie films that were made in the first half of the 20th century. These include 1932’s White Zombie and 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie. Both of these films used a traditional zombi setting involving Caribbean islands, black laborers, and voodoo magic. Based loosely on Jane Eyre, I Walked With a Zombie also anticipated the modern trend of inserting zombies into classic works of literature, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Rise of the Modern Zombie
It was not until 1968, with the release of Night of the Living Dead, that the currently popular characterization of zombies was established. Directed by George Romero on a budget of $114,000, the film was rejected by all the major studios of the time due to its violence and disturbing ending and was released independently through the Walter Reade Organization.
Romero has directed five sequels to Night of the Living Dead so far; Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009). At the time Romero was releasing Day of the Dead, Russo released his own sequel to Night of the Living Dead, titled Return of the Living Dead. The film and its advertising campaign were so similar to those of Romero’s series that Romero filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement against Russo. Although the court mandated that Russo cease his advertising campaign, the film was allowed to retain its title because “Living Dead” had never been copyrighted. This allowed many unlicensed adaptations of Romero’s films to continue being released, both in the U.S. and around the world, with similar sounding titles.
Romero’s “Dead” series established many of the themes running through modern zombie films such as the zombie as a metaphor for societal unrest and social alienation and unconventional protagonist characters. The hero of Night of the Living Dead was a black man—extremely rare casting in 1960s horror films. Another developed theme was having human beings reduced to a survivalist “bunker” mentality.
Romero also established much of the characterization and biology of modern zombies. They were portrayed in his films and most thereafter as ravenous creatures that attacked in groups, tried to devour human flesh, had no discernable intelligence or memory, and could only be killed with a blow to the brain. In 1999, the Library of Congress placed Night of the Living Dead on the National Film Registry as a film deemed “historically, culturally or aesthetically important,” and the film deserves this distinction for its huge impact on the horror genre and all subsequent zombie films.
Comedy and Horror: Post-Romero Zombie Mutations
Zombies have become widely utilized in popular literature. A noted bestseller of recent years is Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a “fictional history” book that details the worldwide outbreak of a zombie plague through first-person accounts. It was made into a movie in 2013, starring Brad Pitt. The book also generated a critically acclaimed abridged audiobook narrated by Brooks and an all-star cast. Brooks also wrote The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, penned in the style of an army field manual.
Another popular recent novel featuring zombies is Seth Graeme-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a parody of the Jane Austen novel which fuses Austen’s original (now public domain) text with new material involving zombies and ninja warriors. The book appeared on The New York Times' bestseller list, received multiple printings, and was adapted into a graphic novel in 2010. The movie, directed by Burr Steers and starring Lily James and Sam Riley, was released February 2016.
Even more popular than any zombie movie is AMC's television series The Walking Dead. Based on a number of comic books by Robert Kirkman, the series follows a band of survivors who travel around southern America, seeking shelter from the sudden outbreak of a virus that turns its victims into moaning, hungry, flesh-eating zombies. The series has almost 20 million viewers and is beginning its seventh season in October 2016. A spin-off series, Fear the Walking Dead, began it's forth season in June 2017. The Walking Dead returns for season 8, in the fall of 2017.
Many theories have been proposed to explain the current wide-reaching popularity of zombies. Do zombies represent our post-9/11 fear of a lack of security? Are they a projection of an ancient survivalist instinct? Are they the embodiment of the individual’s alienation from family and society in general in an increasingly technological world? Whatever the cause of the fascination with zombies, it appears it will remain a part of American culture for years, possibly even decades, to come.
Looking for some zombified reads? Try the book list CRRL Picks: Zombified Reads below, as wel as a Zombie Book Match.