With the exception of vampires and werewolves, zombies are probably the most exhausted horror monster in the popular culture. After the waning of the sparkling vampire’s fame (we are looking at you Stephenie Meyer), the bumbling, rotten undead gained a resurgence of adaption from various media. This include a dozen of Hollywood movies, 29 video games, ten widely-acclaim novels, and six TV shows (we included “The Game of Thrones” because they have ice zombies), all of these from the past five years only. Surely, the world love itself some zombies.
But why do we feel enamored by walking corpses whose eternal hunger for brains made them jump from one form of entertainment to another?We will find that out, but first we will travel back in celluloid history to see where it all began.
The Romero Zombies
Unlike vampires or Frankenstein’s monster, zombies do not hail from a single literary work, but from a collaboration of Haitian monster legends and Western re-imaginings to keep its audience panic-stricken.
Night of the Living Dead
The epidemic of zombie movies started withGeorge A. Romero’s 1968 seminal film “Night of the Living Dead,” which featured a horde of slow-walking, ghoulish creaturesthat terrorized a town in Pennsylvania. At a shoestring budget of $114,000, it grossed a total of $30 million, locally and internationally, gaining back 250 times of its own funding.
And while it pulled off a gigantic financial win, it is only dwarfed by its pop culture impact. The independent horror flick birthed an entirely new horror genre. This resulted to over 400 zombie films over the course of fifty years, and there are no signs of it slowing down.
From Slow and Creepy to Fast and Ferocious
Today’s zombies are agile and ravenous, like a pack of wild animals on a hunt. This is evident in films like “I am Legend,” “World War Z,” and the TV show “The Walking Dead.” They zero in on their target(s) and run amok to get their prey. Truly a terrifying neo-predator that replaces humans on top of the post-Apocalyptic food chain.
But this isn’t always the case. Romero’s zombies, and the ones from what could be considered “classic” and more “genuine” zombies like “28 Days Later:, “The Dawn of the Dead remake”, “Zombieland” operate on a slightly slower pace. These undead cannibals are slow, shambling, and ultimately creepy, an embodiment of a gradual and impending doom.
Zombie purists (yes, there are people who devote a significant amount of time to making sure fictional creatures adhere to traditional portrayals) states that the undead should move on a more lethargic pace, rather than the modern, sprinting tempo. For one, zombies represent the slow decay of society, a passive walk towards its self-slaughter.
As humanity tries to butcher each other via wars and day-to-day violence, zombies (who are previously living people) eats other human beings in the most brutal fashion possible. Evidently, Romero’s magnum opus is set during the Vietnam Era America, as has been recognized as a criticism of the country’s unnecessarily foray into war.
Their second argument is that a sluggish, unhurried speed is closer to scientific truth. Zombies are on the state of decay, meaning the muscles, bones, and nerves required for athletic movements (running, jumping, climbing) are no longer powerful, much less even functional, enough to make those movements possible. Also, with their organs and internal systems in the process of deterioration, this will significantly halt such forceful movements.
And it is not even a matter of physiology, but of energy requirements as well. The undead does not eat three times a day, seven days a week, which is at least required if someone is to engage in an intense physical activity. They can get a treat at most once a day. But one will argue, “So as jungle animals, they eat only once a day or in three days, and still be able to be quick and fierce.” This is right, but once full and satisfied, animals rest and sleep all day to conserve energy. Zombies, on the other hand, are in a constant locomotion, they never rest, sleep, or hibernate. Their energy expenditure is much higher, not to mention careless. A slow walk would make them eager and rife until they drop dead due to lack of food.
From Voodoo Curses to Virus Outbreaks
As the speed of zombies’ locomotion has changed, their origins have undergone various shifts as well in the modern media. There were no established causes why the dead would suddenly rise and walk the earth, so authors and filmmakers often took creative liberties to design their own origin stories.
The pre-Romero zombies often established themselves as a result of supernatural causes, such as W. B. Seabrook’s 1929 film, “The Magic Island” which presented zombies as a result of a Haitian voodoo cult. Victor Halperin’s “White Zombie,” which stars the greatBela Lugosi, no less, portrays the undead as a scheme of an evil magician.
While the “Night of the Living Dead” never explicitly divulge the origins of its creatures, most zombie adaptations after it relied more on scientific causes. “Hell of the Living Dead” (1981) and “Return of the Living Dead” (1985) for example, used the idea ofa mutagenic gas that kills people and turn them into mindless ghouls that murder people. It is also important to note that “Return” first presented an attribute of zombies that would be retained in modern iterations: their crave for human brains.
Science-related causes have become a staple of the genre ever since, zeroing on chemicals, radiation, and viruses as the most common culprits.
While the very first few movies introduced these ghouls as small scale threats, terrorizing only a small town or city, modern cinema have upgraded their menace to a larger scope, and thus another horror scenario: the Zombie Apocalypse.
In this setup, the extent of the danger is now on a national or global scale, with the civilization itself or worse, the survival of humanity is on the verge of ceasing.Most modern form of zombie-based stories are based on this scenario, including “the Walking Dead” (TV Show) “28 Days Later” (film) the “Resident Evil” series (video games and films), and Left 4 Dead (video game), and George Romero’s later zombie films.
The Psychology of Zombies
It is undeniable that zombie apocalypse is a major driving force in modern entertainment. A genre that still have a lot of room for further modifications and re-imaginings, despite its close to a century run. But why do we love seeing the horde of undead wrecking humanity to its knees?
While their more glorious rivals, the vampires and werewolves, stood for beauty, strength, and the romantic grandeur they can bring (this premise have been exploited by various young adult novels and films), zombies posses no physical elegance. Rather, they manifest an inevitable tide of change, an unwelcomed one.
It is not a coincidence that the genre is a boom when the economy is pinfalling, the stock market crashing, our safety and security threatened by fortuitous violence and terrorism, and the climate change is rearing its ugly, humanity-devastating head. In case no one had noticed yet, “The Walking Dead’s” fourth season, its most successful run, came on the heels of the the United States government’s shut down.
Max Brooks, author of the widely acclaimed zombie novel “World War Z” (which was adapted in a loosely inspired Brad Pitt movie) echoed the same sentiment. He said the blockbuster fruits the genre is reaping is being fueled by the feeling of living in “very uncertain times.” British actor Simon Pegg, star the zombie parody film “Shaun of the Dead,” explains that zombies represent humanity’s greatest and most primordial fear, death itself. They are coming slow and steady, but in the end, they will catch up on you. They are relentless, unstoppable, and inescapable.
It is also important to note that it goes the other way around, too. Zombies in modern cinema are not random threats engineered by nature, but the result of the human failings, whether it is the government experiments in Romero’s films, the flawed cure for cancer in “I Am Legend,” or the therelease of a highly contagious virus in “28 Days Later.” Zombies not only represent uncontrollable threats aimed at us, but humanity trying to sabotage itself because of greed, ambition, and selfishness. In the end, the real dread stems from the fear of becoming a rotten version of ourselves, just as zombies turn their preys into something like them.
The zombie genre has on multiple times come under and risen again in pop culture supremacy, it died down only to get up again from its grave. In the recent years, it had stayed up the longest, roaming and darting to its prey which is our own fears and insecurity.Brooks expounded this phenomena better than anyone.
“Zombie stories give people the opportunity to witness the end of the world they’ve been secretly wondering about while, at the same time, allowing themselves to sleep at night because the catalyst of that end is fictional.”