Friday, October 9, 2015

An Examination of Zombies in Popular Culture

With tomorrow night bringing our town's annual Zombie Walk festivities, the undead have been preying on my mind (not literally, thankfully), so I thought I would share a post on zombies that has been in the works for quite some time.

The zombie is unique among the various supernatural creatures that are presented within popular culture.

Many of our monsters have roots in literature, owing much of their origin to classic works.  For example, many of what we consider to be the essential traits contributing to our idea of what exactly defines a vampire is owed to Bram Stoker's novel Dracula.

The genesis of the zombie, however, is rooted actual tradition and folklore, only later to be further molded by popular fiction and movies until morphing into the modern incarnation we most widely recognize today.

Zombies of Voodoo Tradition

Traditional zombies are the product of Haitian Voodoo rites.  In fact, the term we use today is derived from the Haitian word "zombi" which means "spirit of the dead".

In Voodoo folklore, priests known as Bokor could seemingly kill a targeted individual through the use of a powder derived from the poison of a blowfish.  When ingested, this toxin could apparently slow a victim's heart-rate and breathing to a near standstill.  Their physiology  would be so adversely affected that even their body temperature would drop dramatically.  Thus, the afflicted would be presumed dead and ultimately buried by friends and family.  Later, however, the Bokor would return to the still-living victim's grave site to retrieve them.  The newly "resurrected" zombi would have no memory of their former life and would henceforth live as a mindless servant to the whims of the Bokor.

There are apparently actual accounts of real-life accounts of zombis.  Such accounts have been reported by Western scientists since the 1930's and serious medical studies have investigated and documented the zombi phenomenon even as recently as the 1980's.

In popular culture White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie and other horror films introduced zombies to a wider audience.  These first films to feature zombies relied heavily on the folklore traditions of voodoo practices, but often took creative liberties.  The Voodoo practitioners or witch doctors in such films controlled their unthinking victims through hypnotism or some form black magic.  These brain-dead drones would carry out nefarious deeds to satisfy their wicked masters.

Some films, such as the zombie movies produced by the British studio Hammer Films, presented the idea that zombies could be the resurrected and reanimated dead.  In Plague of Zombies, for example, rotted corpses burst forth from coffins and erupt from their graves. Thus, future undead incarnations found their influence.

Undead Revenants

Across cultures there are tales of the dead rising again to seek vengeance against those who wronged them in life.  Whether it be ghosts or reanimated corpses, revenants also play an important role in the history of zombies.

A revenant is generally defined as one that has returned from death (or a long absence).  In fantasy fiction, a revanant could be a vengeful spirit or a reanimated creature that was resurrected for the sole purpose of seeking retribution and are primarily supernatural in origin.  Revenants have a long history in folklore and were commonly manifested as ghosts returning to torment those that had wronged or even killed them in their former life.  However, some stories actually featured living corpses rather than phantom spirits.

It was EC Comics (and other comic publishers around the same time) that popularized this form of zombie which would often appear in their warped morality plays in titles such as Tales from the Crypt.  Usually a revenant undead would return after previously being betrayed or murdered by someone they trusted previously in the plot (usually a love triangle affair of some kind).  The revenants in these stories were generally depicted as horribly decayed corpses (regardless of how long they had actually been dead) and they usually dispatched of their intended targets in some grisly, ironic fashion.


Creepshow, a horror/comedy anthology film influenced heavily by EC Comics has two segments featuring undead revenants.  In "Father's Day" the murdered patriarch of the family returns in a decomposed form to exact revenge, while in "Something to Tide You Over" two drowned lovers come back to return the favor.  This particular feature, a sentient will and definitive motivation (though limited), sets revenant undead apart from other zombies.  Other features that make this group unique are the capability of speech, possessing superhuman strength that belies their rotting state or sometimes other supernatural powers.

Romero's Zombies

In 1968, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead forever changed the popular perception of zombies.  In this film, zombies were depicted as mindless, reanimated corpses that had only one motivation:  a cannibalistic need to feed on the flesh of the living.  These undead were resurrected by mysterious, ambiguous means.  The film hints that reanimation could be a result of radiation emitted by a recently returned space probe, but Romero contends that there is no explanation aside from "God changed the rules; Hell is full."

While not actually called "zombies" at any point (they're referred to as "ghouls" in the first film), Romero's Living Dead series (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead...  and eventually others) cemented several tropes that we commonly associate with zombies to this day:

1.  Zombies function on the most basic of  instincts.  They have an insatiable craving for living flesh.

2.  A zombie's bite is fatal and contagious.  Victims will die, but then reanimate themselves.  Zombies generally lack memories from their previous life and will therefore attack anyone, including friends and family.

3.  Zombies are generally slow moving and weak due to their decomposing state.  Alone, they pose little threat, but in large groups, they can easily overwhelm their victims.  Zombies never tire and never sleep.  They are relentless in their single-minded need to feed. 

4.  Zombies cannot be stopped by most normal methods.  Since they are undead and feel no pain, dismemberment through bullets and blades generally have little effect.  The only hope is to either incapacitate a zombie by some extreme means, or to simply aim for the head and destroy the brain.

In addition to establishing these rules, the Living Dead series presented an inescapable aesthetic that would accompany most zombie fiction, whether it be in film or any other medium.  The decomposition, of the reanimated, the diet of zombies, and the means needed to dispose of the undead necessitated the use of gore.  Like the slasher genre, this has led to creators endlessly ramping up their attempts to top one another through more realistically/creatively decomposed zombies, scenes of increasingly disgusting zombie feasts, or ridiculous methods of zombie maiming/killing.  Even Romero found himself falling into this sort of competition with himself in later films.


Although reportedly inspired by Richard Matheson's book, I Am Legend, the Living Dead series also introduced the apocalyptic scenario of a societal collapse which would come to be inexorably entwined with zombie stories henceforth.  As the dead rise and their ranks subsequently swell, humanity begins to break down.  Survivors typically do not trust one another as bleak desperation and grim inevitability sets in.  Mistrust and paranoia reign and careless mistakes can be fatal errors.  Often, it is not the dead that pose the greatest threat, but the living.

The comic book and the television series The Walking Dead famously focuses just as much on the drama of the interactions between the survivors as it does on their struggle with the undead hordes.  Many would argue that the survival aspect of zombie fiction is just as appealing and fascinating as the horror of facing a reanimated corpse.

Exceptions to the Rules

While Night of the Living Dead established tropes and rules that much of zombie fiction adheres to, there are always exceptions... And they too have had an impact on the ever-evolving concept of the living dead.

Return of the Living Dead is... interesting...  for a variety of reasons (many of which we will not discuss at this time).  Return of the Living Dead is not an official sequel to Night of the Living Dead but interestingly enough does reference Romero's film, stating that it was based on true events (very meta!).  This movie however, eschews the series and bleak tone of the Living Dead series, taking a comedic, slap-stick approach to zombie horror.  Return of the Living Dead is most notable because it featured zombies that could verbalize, thereby giving us another, as yet, unlisted zombie trope:  "Brains!"  That's right, the reason we associate the groaning and moaning of zombies for "Brains!" is thanks to this film and the ever-loving Tar-Man zombie.

Zombies in video games are a natural fit because of the survival horror aspect of the genre.  First- person shooters and role-playing games put players themselves into the fray against undead assailants.  However, to break up the monotony of fighting just one type of zombie, games such as Resident Evil, Red Dead Redemption:  Undead Nightmare, and  Left 4 Dead feature a variety of classes of undead typically unseen in other mediums.   These special types of zombies may vomit acidic bile, possess the ability to rush at survivors in short bursts, or be nearly unstoppable masses with superhuman strength.  

Then there is the most recent incarnation of zombies... the so-called "fast zombie". Films such as 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead introduced audiences to a new breed of the undead that was able to achieve a full-on sprint as it stalked its prey (It is worth pointing out that the creatures in 28 Days Later are arguably not zombies, but rather "Infected", it is undeniable that they share much in common with zombies which is why I and others generally lump them together).  While purists will contest that sprinting zombies aren't a realistic (Wait...What?) portrayal or representation of actual (Again...What?) zombies, they are an integral part of history of the undead in pop culture, like it or not.  Personally, I'm not a fan, either, but the rise of the "fast zombie" is an important side note as this type of zombie helped usher in the current resurgence in the popularity of zombies.

Zombie Nation

Speaking of the popularity of the zombie genre, we are living in a unique time in which an appreciation for the undead is unprecedented.  At one point, such a rabid fanbase for such a gruesome subject would have been considered a subversive subculture at best, but thanks to many of the aforementioned films, video games, comic books, and TV shows, zombies in popular culture are as pervasive and inescapable as they are in their fictional universes.  The love for zombies has manifested itself in a variety of ways, including:  Zombie walks in which large crowds of people dress and act like shambling undead, zombie 5K's feature runners taking on the role of survivors and actors portraying zombies engage in a flag-football type competition, and even zombie weddings which see the bride and groom dress as reanimated corpses.  

The Walking Dead television is a phenomenon in and of itself.  I can't tell you how many conventions I've been to where actors from the show (who portrayed either survivors or zombies) are met with huge crowds of fans.  The fanbase ranges from the old to the surprisingly very young and is as devoted as those who might be to a teeny-bopper pop-star

Of course, this rise in popularity has its pitfalls.  The recent surge in demand for all things zombie has flooded the market and, inevitably, overexposure is taking its toll.  Zombie films, comics, and products which used to be quite rare, have increased in quantity, but not in quantity.  It's only a matter of time before the trend dies down...  But, of course, zombies are known for their sudden, unexpected comebacks!

Zombies on the Brain:  The Symbolism of the Undead

Erudite Zombies
It's time to get psychological and philosophical:  The great thing about monsters in general is that they are manifestations of a variety of fears.  Zombies are no exception.  The undead can be interpreted as representations of numerous real-life threats.

Zombies of the voodoo tradition reveal a fear that continues to be pervasive:  The loss of free will and the hopelessness of being enslaved as a mindless drone.  The cannibalistic tendencies of a zombie horde can be likened to rampant consumerism (This, after all, was the point of Romero's Dawn of the Dead being set in a mall) or simply the dangers of mob mentality.  The unpopular "fast zombie" is generally associated with rapid pandemic outbreaks of viral diseases (In fact, a group of scientists actually used the concept of a zombie apocalypse to help explain and understand how viruses spread within populations).

Of course, the classic lurching zombie serves as a stand-in for the basic human fear of mortality. Just as a lumbering zombie is easily escaped today, it's just a matter of time until one catches up to you and grasps you in its clutches.  Zombies, at the root of it all, force us to face our own ultimately inevitable demise.

Well...  That's depressing.


The living dead, as we know them today, have had a very interesting and varied history.  From the zombis of Haitian Voodoo folklore to the familiar shambling, brain-eating hordes we see on our movie and TV screens today, it is clear that zombies are destined a permanent fixture of our popular pscyche and culture.

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