Zombies in popular culture

Zombies are regularly encountered in horror and fantasy themed fiction and entertainment. They are typically depicted as mindless, shambling, decaying corpses with a hunger for human flesh, and in some cases, human brains in particular.

Evolution of the zombie archetype

The concept of the flesh-hungry undead dates back to mythology and folklore from prehistory, such as in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the goddess Ishtar vows in rage:

''"I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
And will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!"

The flesh-hungry undead, often in the form of ghouls and vampires, have been a fixture of world mythology, from the Norse draugr to the Japanese Jikininki.

An early zombie reference in Western literature was in "Pierre-Corneille" (actually Paul-Alexis) Blessebois' satirical French novel from 1697, Le Zombi du grand Pérou ("The Zombie of the great Peru"). Though many voodoo references are used in the book, it is not explained what a "Zombi" actually is. Because of this, it is implied that readers of the time already had a definition for a "zombi", though no preceding reference for such a definition has yet been found.

In 1797 the concept re-appeared with the publication of Description topographique et politique de la partie espagnole de l'isle Saint-Domingue, a book on what would become Haiti, by the author Moreau de Saint-Méry. Moreau says that 'Zombi' is a creole word meaning "spirit, ghost" (specifically, in French, a revenant, that is, a "returning" person). He also mentions that, in one place on the island, slaves buried their dead despite being forbidden to do so, and that floods sometimes brought them back to the surface. Later books on the subject, such as those by Wade Davis, express that traditional Haitian mysticism, as in many other cultures, stressed "the permeability of the frontier between life and death and an unquestioned belief in the possibility of walking corpses.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, while not a zombie story proper, prefigures many 20th century ideas about zombies in that the resurrection of the dead is portrayed as a scientific process rather than a mystical one, and that the resurrected dead are degraded and more violent than their living selves. Frankenstein, published in 1818, has its roots in European folklore, whose tales of vengeful dead also informed the evolution of the modern conception of vampires as well as zombies. Later notable 19th century stories about the avenging undead included Ambrose Bierce's " The Death of Halpin Frayser", and various Gothic Romanticism tales by Edgar Allan Poe. Though their works couldn't be properly considered zombie stories, the supernatural tales of Bierce and Poe would prove influential on later undead-themed writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, by Lovecraft's own admission.

One early book to expose more recent western culture to the concept of the zombie was The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook in 1929. Island is the sensationalized account of a narrator in Haiti who encounters voodoo cults and their resurrected thralls. The book "introduced 'zombi' into U.S. speech" .

In the 1920s and early 1930s, the American horror author H. P. Lovecraft wrote several stories that explored the zombie or undead theme from different angles. "Cool Air", "In the Vault" (which includes perhaps the first recorded character bitten by a zombie), "The Thing on the Doorstep", "The Outsider" and "Pickman's Model" are all undead or zombie-related, but the most definitive zombie story in Lovecraft's oeuvre was 1921's Herbert West--Reanimator, which "helped define zombies in popular culture. This Frankenstein-inspired series featured Herbert West, a mad scientist who attempts to revive human corpses with mixed results. Notably, the resurrected dead are uncontrollable, mostly mute, primitive and extremely violent; though they are not referred to as zombies, their portrayal was prescient, anticipating the modern conception of zombies by several decades.

In 1932, Victor Halperin directed White Zombie, a horror film starring Bela Lugosi. This film, capitalizing on the same voodoo zombie themes as Seabrook's book of three years prior, is often regarded as the first legitimate zombie film ever made.. Here zombies are depicted as mindless, unthinking henchmen under the spell of an evil magician. Zombies, often still using this voodoo-inspired rationale, were initially uncommon in cinema, but their appearances continued sporadically through the 1930s to the 1960s, with notable films including I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and the infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).

The 1936 film Things to Come, based on the novel by H.G. Wells, anticipates later zombie films with an apocalyptic scenario surrounding "the wandering sickness", a highly contagious viral plague that causes the infected to wander slowly and insensibly, very much like zombies, infecting others on contact. Though this film's direct influence on later films isn't known, Things to Come is still compared favorably by some critics to modern zombie movies.

Avenging zombies would feature prominently in the early 1950s EC Comics such as Tales from the Crypt, which George A. Romero would later claim as an influence. The comics, including Tales, Vault of Horror and Weird Science, featured avenging undead in the Gothic tradition quite regularly, including adaptations of Lovecraft's stories which included "In the Vault", "Cool Air" and Herbert West--Reanimator.

The 1954 publication of I Am Legend, by author Richard Matheson, would further influence the zombie genre. It is the story of a future Los Angeles, overrun with undead bloodsucking beings. Notable as influential on the zombie genre is the portrayal of a worldwide apocalypse due to the infestation, in addition to the initial conception of vampirism as a disease (a scenario comparable to recent zombie media such as Resident Evil). The novel was a success, and would be adapted to film as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, as The Omega Man in 1971, and again in 2007 as I Am Legend.

Although classified as a vampire story and referred to as "the first modern vampire novel" , Legend had definitive impact on the zombie genre by way of George A. Romero. Romero was heavily influenced by the novel and its 1964 adaptation when writing the film Night of the Living Dead, by his own admission. Critics have also noted extensive similarities between Night and Last Man on Earth, indicating further influence.

Night of the Living Dead, a taboo-breaking and genre-defining classic, would prove to be more influential on the concept of zombies than any literary or cinematic work before it.

George A. Romero and the modern zombie film

The modern conception of the zombie owes itself almost entirely to George A. Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. In his films, Romero "bred the zombie with the vampire, and what he got was the hybrid vigour of a ghoulish plague monster". This entailed an apocalyptic vision of monsters that have come to be known as Romero zombies. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times chided theater owners and parents who allowed children access to the film. "I don't think the younger kids really knew what hit them," complained Ebert. "They were used to going to movies, sure, and they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else." According to Ebert, the film affected the audience immediately:

The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
Romero's reinvention of zombies is notable in terms of its thematics; he used zombies not just for their own sake, but as a vehicle "to criticize real-world social ills - such as government ineptitude, bioengineering, slavery, greed and exploitation - while indulging our post-apocalyptic fantasies". Night was the first of five films in the Living Dead series.

Innately tied with the conception of the modern zombie is the "zombie apocalypse", the breakdown of society as a result of zombie infestation, portrayed in countless zombie-related media post-Night. Scholar Kim Paffrenroth notes that "more than any other monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic ... they signal the end of the world as we have known it."

Though it is not known when exactly the term zombie became associated with Romero's specific depiction, it should be noted that Night made no reference to the creatures as "zombies". In the film they are referred as "ghouls" on the TV news reports. However, the word zombie is used continually by Romero in his 1978 script for Dawn of the Dead, including once in dialog. This "retroactively fits (the creatures) with an invisible Haitian/African prehistory, formally introducing the zombie as a new archetype". Dawn of the Dead was released under this title just months before the release of Lucio Fulci's Zombi II (1979). Fulci's gory epic was filmed at the same time as Romero's Dawn, despite the popular belief that it was made in order to cash in on the success of Dawn. The only reference to Dawn was the title change to Zombi II (Dawn generally went by Zombi or Zombie in other countries.)

The early 1980s was notable for the introduction of zombies into Chinese and other Asian films, often martial arts/horror crossover films, that featured zombies as thralls animated by magic for purposes of battle. Though the idea never had large enough appeal to become a sub-genre, zombies are still used as martial-arts villains in some films today.

1981's Night of the Zombies was the first film to reference a mutagenic gas as a source of zombie contagion, later echoed by Trioxin in Dan O'Bannon's 1985 film, Return of the Living Dead. RotLD took a more comedic approach than Romero's films; Return was the first film to feature zombies which hungered specifically for brains instead of all human flesh (this included the vocalization of "Brains!" as a part of zombie vocabulary), and is the source of the now-familiar cliché of brain-devouring zombies seen elsewhere, such as on The Simpsons.

The mid-1980s produced few zombie films of note (the Evil Dead series, while zombie-influenced and notable on their own, are not zombie films proper). 1985's Re-Animator, loosely based on the Lovecraft story, stood out in the genre, achieving nearly unanimous critical acclaim, and becoming a modest success, outstripping even 1985's Day of the Dead for box office returns. Lovecraft's prescient depiction is notable here; the zombies in the film are consistent with other zombie films of the period, and it may escape the viewer that they are nearly unchanged from the 1921 story.

The 1988 Wes Craven film The Serpent and the Rainbow, based on the non-fiction book by Wade Davis, attempted to re-connect the zombie genre with the Haitian vodou ("voodoo") roots that inspired it. The film poses both supernatural and scientific possibilities for "zombification" and other aspects of vodou, though the scientific explanations for them, which involve use of the poison tetrodotoxin, have been dismissed by the scientific community. The film was relatively well-reviewed and enjoyed modest financial success, and is notable as perhaps the only vodou-themed zombie film of recent times.

Also in 1988, the Romero zombies were featured in Waxwork, where the protagonists are drawn to the world of Night of the Living Dead.

After the mid-1980s, the subgenre was mostly relegated to the underground. Notable entries include director Peter Jackson's ultra-gory film Braindead (1992) (released as Dead Alive in the U.S.), Bob Balaban's comic 1993 film My Boyfriend's Back where a self-aware high school boy returns to profess his love for a girl and his love for human flesh, and Michele Soavi's Dellamorte Dellamore (1994) (released as Cemetery Man in the U.S.). Several years later, zombies experienced a renaissance in low-budget Asian cinema, with a sudden spate of dissimilar entries including Bio Zombie (1998), Wild Zero (1999), Junk (1999), Versus (2000) and Stacy (2001).

The turn of the millennium coincided with a decade of box office successes in which the zombie sub-genre experienced a resurgence: the Resident Evil movies in 2002, 2004, and 2007; the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), the British films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later (2002, 2007) and the homage/parody Shaun of the Dead (2004). The new interest allowed Romero to create the fourth entry in his zombie series: Land of the Dead, released in the summer of 2005. Romero has recently returned to the beginning of the series with the film Diary of the Dead (2008).

The depiction of zombies as biologically infected people has become increasingly popular, likely due to the 28 Days Later and Resident Evil series; 2006's Slither featured zombies infected with alien parasites, and 2007's Planet Terror featured a zombie outbreak caused by a biological weapon. The comedy film Fido also takes this approach, although the zombie are depicted humorously as pets.

As part of this resurgence, there have been numerous direct-to-video (or DVD) zombie movies made by extremely low-budget filmmakers using digital video. These can usually be found for sale online from the distributors themselves, rented in video rental stores or released internationally in such places as Thailand.

The modern zombie in print and literature

Though zombies have appeared in many books prior to and after Night of the Living Dead, it wouldn't be until 1990 that zombie fiction emerged as a distinct literary subgenre, with the publication of Book of the Dead in 1990 and its follow-up Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2 in 1992, both edited by horror authors John Skipp and Craig Spector. Featuring Romero-inspired stories from the likes of Stephen King and other famous names, the Book of the Dead compilations are regarded as influential in the horror genre and perhaps the first true "zombie literature".

Recent zombie fiction of note includes Brian Keene's 2005 novel The Rising, followed by its sequel City Of The Dead, which deal with a worldwide apocalypse of intelligent zombies, caused by demonic possession. Though the story took many liberties with the zombie concept, The Rising proved itself to be a success in the subgenre, even winning the 2005 Bram Stoker award.

Famed horror novelist Stephen King has mined the zombie theme, first with 1990's "Home Delivery", written for the aforementioned Book of the Dead compilation and detailing a small town's attempt to defend itself from a classic zombie outbreak. In 2006 King published Cell, which concerns a struggling young artist on a trek from Boston to Maine in hopes of saving his family from a possible worldwide zombie outbreak, created by "The Pulse", a global electromagnetic phenomenon that turns the world's cellular phone users into bloodthirsty, zombie-like maniacs. Cell was a number-one bestseller upon its release Aside from Cell, the most well-known current work of zombie fiction is 2006's World War Z by Max Brooks, which was an immediate hit upon its release and a New York Times bestseller. Brooks had previously authored the cult hit The Zombie Survival Guide, an exhaustively researched, zombie-themed parody of pop-fiction survival guides.

David Wellington's trilogy of zombie novels began in 2004 with Monster Island, followed by two sequels, Monster Nation and Monster Planet. These were serialised in a weblog format before being published in paperback.

Robert Kirkman, an admirer of Romero, has contributed to the recent popularity of the genre in comics, first by launching his self-published comic book The Walking Dead, then by writing Marvel Zombies in 2006.

Jonathan Maberry's Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead, released in August 2008, interviewed over 250 experts in forensics, medicine, science, law enforcement, the military and similar disciplines to discuss how the real world would react, research and respond to zombies.

The fictional Disney cartoon character Bombie the Zombie, created by Carl Barks, first appeared in the Voodoo Hoodoo strip in 1949. Bombie had been reanimated by an African voodoo sorcerer, and was sent on a mission to poison Scrooge McDuck. Later on Don Rosa reused the character in his own McDuck stories.

Other zombie appearances have been catalogued in dozens of novels, comics, and webcomics. Like vampires and other famous archetypal creatures, the zombie archetype has spread so far and wide that it is impossible to provide a definitive list of resources, though certain websites keep note of zombie references in detail.

Zombies on television

One of the most famous zombie-themed television appearances was 1983's Thriller, a Michael Jackson music video, directed by John Landis. One of the most popular music videos of all time, it is a horror film parody featuring choreographed zombies performing with Jackson. Many pop culture media have paid tribute to this scene alone, including zombie films such as Return of the Living Dead 2, cementing Thriller's place in zombie history.

Fantasy-themed shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer sometimes include zombies as part of their horror/fantasy settings. Zombies also show up in science fiction shows such as Star Trek (the Borg are somewhat patterned after, and referred to, as zombies) and Sliders. Zombies have appeared in so many shows that creating a definitive list is not possible.

Zombies often feature in animation on television. The Halloween episodes of The Simpsons, South Park, Invader Zim and Degrassi, among many other cartoons, feature Romero-styled zombie outbreaks. In the South Park episode Night of the Living Homeless, the zombies are parodied by "invasion" of the homeless with a hunger for change. Overseas, zombies also often appear in anime, such as Samurai Champloo, Tokyo Majin Gakuen Kenpucho, Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, and many others both within and beyond the horror genre. In ABC's 1979 holiday telefilm The Halloween That Almost Wasn't (aka The Night Dracula Saved the World), a zombie from Haiti named Zabaar (Josip Elic) arrives at Count Dracula's castle without speaking.

In gaming

Zombies are a popular theme for video games, particularly of the first-person shooter and role-playing genre. Some important titles in this area include the Resident Evil series, Dead Rising, and House of the Dead. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game Urban Dead, a free grid-based browser game where zombies and survivors fight for control of a ruined city, is one of the most popular games of its type, with an estimated 30,680 visits per day. Some games even allow the gamer to play as a zombie such as Stubbs the Zombie in "Rebel Without a Pulse".

Outside of video games, zombies frequently appear in trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering, as well as in role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop wargames such as Warhammer Fantasy and 40K. The RPG All Flesh Must Be Eaten is premised upon a zombie outbreak and features rules for zombie campaigns in many historical settings.

The award-winning Zombies!!! series of board games by Twilight Creations features players attempting to escape from a zombie-infested city. Cheapass Games' has released five other zombie-themed games, including Give Me the Brain, The Great Brain Robbery, and Lord of the Fries, which takes place at Friedey's, a fast-food restaurant staffed by minimum wage zombies.


Joe Zombie, Zombie College (of Mondo Mini Shows), and Dead End Days are some of the current online video and animation dealing with zombies.

In modern internet and film culture, the zombie archetype is sometimes used as a satirical reference to the resurrection of Jesus.

In music

Zombies and horror have become so popular that many songs and bands have been based on these flesh-eating ghouls. Zombie references crop up in every genre from pop to death metal and some subgenres such as horror punk mine the zombie aesthetic extensively. Horror punk has also been linked with the subgenres of deathrock and psychobilly. The success of these genres has been mainly underground, although psychobilly has reached some mainstream popularity. To date, the most famous musician to do so is Rob Zombie who incorporates zombie aesthetics and references into virtually all of his music.

In art

Artist Jillian McDonald has made several works of video art involving zombies, and exhibited them in her 2007 show, "Horror Stories," at ThreeWalls Gallery in Chicago. Other zombie-related works by McDonald include "Zombies in Condoland" (prints and animations derived from internet documentation of zombie walks), and a series of lenticular animation photographs called "Zombie Portraits," in which the subjects transform into zombies.


See also

External links

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