I feel like talking about zombies. Why? Zombies are everywhere. No, don’t go grab a shotgun to practice your headshot, I don’t mean like that—I mean they’re everywhere in the media. Books, movies, comics, TV shows. The undead are popping out of their graves in all our creative outlets.
The idea of the zombie originated in Haitian Voodoo from the word “zombi,” meaning “spirit of the dead.” In Haitian folklore, the dead can be revived by a bokor, or sorcerer. Fast forward to modern Western culture, and you get a book called The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook (1929), about an encounter in Haiti to these creatures. This book essentially introduced the United States to the word zombie.
America was pretty into the idea of undead hordes to supplement our growing interest in mummies, werewolves, and vampires, so we started to get movies like White Zombie (which inspired the heavy metal band of the same name) and I Walked with a Zombie.
Of course, the most famous zombie movie of the 20th Century is arguably Night of the Living Dead, featuring those slow, lumbering black-and-white zombies George A. Romero made so famous as the classic image of the undead.
For a while, these zombies were quite terrifying enough for us, until we decided that we wanted fast-running, raging, blood-spewing monsters to satisfy our lust for horror. Enter the New Zombie.
In our increasingly-intellectualized culture, it also wasn’t enough for magic and voodoo to be solely responsible for reviving the dead. Desire for a scientific explanation gave us the virus zombie, which may have first appeared in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, though it’s often thought of more as a vampire story, and more recently in the movie 28 Days Later. Here we see zombies that are not, actually, the undead, but rather the result of a virus gone bad. We also get the New Zombie, which is fast and agile.
Sure, it’s good fun to watch zombies run amok—eating brains, chasing our protagonists, taking over the post-apocalyptic world—but in well-made zombie stories, there’s often social commentary on our modern society. It might be serious, like 28 Days Later’s look at how chaos and violence thrive in a society without rules or authority, or it can be hilarious, like in zombie parodies.
Shaun of the Dead brings us to the zombie horror-comedy, a genre which arrived with cult classics like The Evil Dead. But rather than just giving us some utterly revolting visuals of people in a cabin becoming the very disgusting undead, we get the amusing, but also thought-provoking, idea that, in a world where people go about their mundane lives on autopilot, we may as well be zombies already.
The zombie horror-comedy seems to have become the new trend. We’ve got tongue-in-cheek zombie books like World War Z and hilarious movies like Zombieland (the rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse, a gun-toting Woody Harrelson, and a desperate quest for the last Twinkies in existence? I’d call that a win). Even getting rid of the slow, lumbering zombies of the Romero era and utilizing the quick, dangerous New Zombie apparently still wasn’t scary enough, so we decided to ditch the scare-factor almost entirely in favor of a more humorous approach to those zany undead.
But, in ditching our old versions of zombies, I fear we might forget the point of the horror in those earlier books and movies. A friend of mine pointed out that he dislikes zombies who run fast because there’s something much more sinister about the slow zombies the likes of which you find in Night of the Living Dead. What people tend to want now is gore, action, violence—and they forget the original point of zombie horror. Imagine everyone you loved has become a mindless cannibal, the world a desolate and lonely place. You are alone, or left with a motley band of surviving comrades. There is an innate sense of hopelessness in this that we don’t get from Zombieland, however gut-bustingly badass that movie may be. Some of this slow realization about the nature of life and death is lost when zombies are sprinting after you like a pack of Jamaican gold-medalists.
Am I saying that the earlier vision of the zombie trumps the newer? Not at all. In fact, all of the movies I listed in the second half of this post are some of my favorites of all time. But there is certainly a connection between the direction our culture is moving in and the way zombies are depicted. What’s great is that zombies can serve many purposes. They can give us that hopeless horror from Night of the Living Dead, they can comment on science and government as in 28 Days Later, and they can also make fun of the way society works in zombie parodies. Zombies are a surprisingly versatile genre.
And maybe that’s why we love them so much.