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
The traditional zombi
represented in voodoo religion
and African folklore is not a flesh-eating, infective menace to the human race. Rather, it is an entity created from the body of a “dead” person by a sorcerer that has no will of its own. This zombi
is a slave of the sorcerer’s will and follows only the commands of the sorcerer that revived him, but he does not hunt for food or attempt to infect victims with a “zombie virus.”
Brought to the New World through 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.
The film was originally titled Night of the Flesh Eaters, but was renamed Night of the Living Dead to avoid conflict with a similarly titled studio release. Although the film became hugely successful, the film’s title change led to one of the major controversies surrounding it; the new title cards attached to the film contained no copyright notice! Not only did this mean that Romero could not claim ownership of the film (and it therefore lapsed into public domain), it led to conflict between Romero and his co-writer, John Russo.
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 US 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
A new era of popularity for zombies began with the release of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later
in 2002. This film changed the basic characterization of zombies from slow, shambling creatures into fast-moving predators that could ambush or chase down their victims. Despite a degree of controversy over whether the “fast zombie” or the traditional “slow zombie” is a better instrument of terror, the “fast zombie” has become the standard in most horror films released since 28 Days Later
. Zombies have also been used in a comedic context in films such as Shaun of the Dead
, suggesting that interest in zombies transcends the realm of pure horror.
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 will be adapted into a graphic novel in 2010.
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 a security? Are they a projection of an archaic 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.