Many people muse about their odds of surviving a zombie apocalypse. I am one of those people. Ok…maybe I go one step further.
Just because I dress myself every morning with the thought “Could I successfully fight zombies in this?” in the back of my mind, constantly consider the closest objects that could be used as a weapon when walking through a store, and always keep my exit plans in mind not in case of fire, but in case of zombies, clearly doesn’t mean I’m obsessed. But for as long as I can remember I have had a fascination with zombies. I watched Night of the Living Dead when I was four, I think that pretty much explains it all. But zombies aren’t just a fun cultural phenomenon or fad…they actually hold a lot of intriguing symbolism and history.
Long before the living dead were shambling across the silver screen or trying to eat Rick on The Walking Dead, they were shambling through the nightmare worlds of Haitian culture. Though creatures described as ‘the dead returned to life’ or ‘dead bodies inhabited by demons’ had existed in lore before, it was in Haiti that the monster we know today was truly born. In Haiti however the Zombi, a creature created by a sorcerer or Bokor by voodoo, was a very real threat, not just a bedtime story to scare children.
There have been several documented cases of ‘actual zombies’, the most famous being a woman named Felicia Felix-Mentor, who died in 1907 and then inexplicably wandered dazedly back into town again in 1936. A doctor later diagnosed the woman claiming to be Mentor to be a random, schizophrenic look-alike, this despite her own husband having verified it was her. Whether Mentor or the dozens of other cases similar (written off as the mentally disabled or brain damaged) were actual zombies may never be known for sure, and though to many it may seem like a farce, to Haitians the idea of voodoo and zombies is deeply ingrained in their culture and religion.
Much like they still do today, Haitian zombies symbolized a crisis at the time. In the past the crisis was slavery. As was quoted in Bishop’s book American Zombie Gothic, to Haitians the “fear is not of being harmed by zombis; it is fear of becoming one”. The idea of an evil bokor being able to use a person like a puppet to do their bidding was a reflection of the horrors of slavery which they themselves suffered. This made it even more ironic that when zombies were introduced to America, they symbolized the racist fear of the Haitians themselves.
What amazes scholars about zombies is the fact that they are a creature born straight out of folklore, not having a precedent in literature. Unlike vampires and other creatures, the zombie was never solidified in text. There have been mentions of the dead rising as far back as the epic Gilgamesh, and even the Bible had a ‘zombie’.
In John 11:1-44, the story of Lazarus rising from the dead thanks to Jesus is told. Taken as an uplifting story of Jesus’ power, the story takes on a more sinister meaning when you introduce the idea of zombies. In many cultures, especially older ones, a person’s name is a sacred and important thing. To control the name is to control the person. Africans captured into slavery regarded renaming as a form of subjugation in itself, a loss of their identity. In the story of Lazarus, Lazarus’ name is mentioned for the last time when Jesus calls him forth. The Bible then refers to Lazarus only as the “dead man”.
But zombies of today actually bare few similarities with the zombies of old, even the zombies that were first in cinema such as the 1932 film White Zombie, which (although racist as heck…) is much closer to the traditional voodoo zombie of Haiti. The zombies of today were really crafted in 1968, in a film that ironically never even says the word zombie.
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed the canon of zombies forever, turning them into the flesh eating horde that we know today. Romero is seen as the the “Godfather of zombies” for his pioneering of the genre in his Dead films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead). I had the pleasure of meeting Romero myself, and it’s a bit shocking to think that such a kind, grandfatherly looking man could be so skilled at making gory masterpieces. But skilled he was, and Romero’s movie, which had a $114,000 budget, became internationally famous and inspired countless other independent filmmakers to make their own zombie movies. The proliferation of zombie films to this day is surely partially due to the fact they are (or were?) so much cheaper to make than most traditional movies. In fact small indie filmmakers have churned out hundreds of zombie flicks in the last 20 years.
Romero’s zombies set up several important zombie guidelines that, although occasionally tweaked, have remained mostly true for every film since then. The most important rule is that, one way or another, zombies are prolific. In most media the zombie bite spreads the agent that makes one a zombie, usually a virus. It is never clear what originally made Romero’s zombies (although something about dust from a meteor is mentioned, alluding possibly to one of Romero’s obvious inspirations Invasion of the Body Snatchers) but in Night the zombies are quite literally the dead come back to life. In some of todays movies the ‘zombies’ (which many argue can’t really be classified as zombies anymore and are typically called ‘infected’) are not ‘dead’ but are infected with some sort of virus (like the ‘Rage’ virus in 28 Days Later). In my opinion however, they are all the same, because it is not how the zombie is made that is important, but what the zombie stands for.
Night of the Living Dead came out during a troubling time in American history. The Vietnam War was in full blast, tensions between races were high, and many felt that America was suffering from a breakdown of traditional family values. All of these were themes explored in Romero’s movie. Then in 1978 Romero released what many consider to be his masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead. Working a bit like a sequel to Night, Dawn follows several survivors’ attempts to live in a mall, and tackles themes of American consumerism. Since then, every resonating zombie movie has explored important global themes such as these, and its no surprise there is always an upswing in zombie movies during times of crisis. For a while, especially in the 90s when the Clinton Administration had lulled the country into calm, there were very few movies in the zombie genre, and the few there were were unsuccessful. Then, 9/11 happened. Almost immediately the number of zombies movies being made and released saw a huge increase. Now the movies explored the nations fears of terrorists and the collapse of the government. In American Zombie Gothic, Kyle William Bishop states that:
“Because the aftereffects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters so closely resemble the scenarios depicted by zombie cinema, such images of death and destruction have all the more power to shock and terrify a population that has become otherwise jaded to more traditional horror films.”
In fact, zombies reflecting our culture is just one of many reasons that zombies freak us out. In the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead the movie’s heroine awakens to a neighbor, a little girl, entering her room. In the shadows the girl seems fine, but is seen to be a mutilated zombie in the light, who promptly attacks the heroine. The innocence of a child being distorted by the instincts of a killer is eerily similar to the stories of child suicide bomber’s from the warfront. The next disturbing moment in Dawn is restated perfectly by author Joe Nickell:
“[O]ur heroine encounters a municipal bus on the side of the road. Through the back window, she can see the silhouettes of a passenger’s futile struggle against two zombies who are attacking her. The violence of the shot isn’t what unnerved me. It was that shot, taken out of the film’s context, didn’t look all that different from graphic news footage of places in the real world where people suddenly and savagely turn on each other. We have seen it all too many times in places like Haiti, Rwanda, the former Yugoslav Republic and now in Darfur. It was the notion that the peace we take for granted is indeed a far more fragile thing than we realize, and one day we might wake up to discover that those we love and live alongside might inexplicably want to kill us. That unnerves me every time I think of it, because if you really immerse yourself in the fictional world of a zombie movie, you realize that there is no way to manage the risk of an outbreak unless you sever all connections with other people and begin viewing them as zombies-to-be.”
Because of the familiarity of scenes like these to real world horror, zombies become all the more frightening. There’s no denying that it takes a lot to scare an audience nowadays. With the hyper-realistic gore of films like Saw, and the news’ constant broadcast of the horrors around the world, filmmakers have to try to reach their audience on a psychological level if they want to be successful.
But being reminded of the news certainly isn’t the only reason people flocked to Gamestop to pre-order games like Left 4 Dead 2. For starters, people love to hate zombies. In zombie movies and games, it is perfectly acceptable for the hero to riddle this humanoid looking creature with bullets and feel absolutely no remorse whatsoever. Zombies are not people. They were, and they certainly look like people to an extent, but survivors no longer feel any sort of human empathy for them. According to scientist and robotocist Masahiro Mori, this is due to the ‘Uncanny Valley’ theory. The idea of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ is that humans find things that look humanoid to a certain extent ‘cute’ (for example, stuffed animals) but once the likeness becomes too great, the attraction turns to fear and revulsion, as the thing looks human, but is not.
This ‘Uncanny Valley’ is recognizable to everyone, whether it was the creepy lifelike doll your grandmother had, or your grandmother herself in her coffin, looking so alive, and yet unlike the living woman you once knew. This feeling of detachment allows the zombies to become ‘things’ instead of people, and though this ‘inhuman’ quality does scare us even more, it also makes their extermination easier. This paradox between familiarity and unfamiliarity has been explored in many forms, as it seems humans are most frightened by monsters that look like us. From the aliens of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to the nurses of the Silent Hill series, humanoid monsters seems to reign most successful in leaving a lasting impression.
Possibly the biggest fear a zombie poses however, is infection. Just the idea of a horrific, unstoppable, and incredibly contagious disease has haunted humanity since we were living in caves. Look at the Ebola scare a few years ago, or the H1N1 scare a few years before that. Humans have an innate fear of disease, so it would only make sense that mixing the fear of disease with all the fears zombies conjure up on their own is a nightmare inducing cocktail for success.
It was exactly this theory that likely spawned things like the Resident Evil franchise, a series of games, movies, and other media about a virus (the T-Virus) that escapes a secret laboratory and spreads like wildfire, turning everyone in its path into a zombie or horrific monster. In fact it seems that nowadays the fear of the zombie comes hand in hand with the fear of infection itself. Movies like 2009’s Carriers even take out the zombie aspect and make the disease spreading threat regular, albeit desperate, humans. Many zombie stories take a combination approach, especially The Walking Dead. You think the zombies are the biggest threat, only to discover the real threat; other humans.
Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead sagely said that zombies are “our own death, personified”. No one wants to be a zombie, and the impending fear of becoming one, especially the horrible foreboding once you have actually been bitten, is the epitome of psychological terror. A common trope of zombie tale is of the frightened survivor who gets a bite chomped out of him or her, then hides the wound from their fellow teammates in some unfounded hope for a miracle.
May I just say right now, in case zombies do attack, please do not be THAT GUY. Everyone hates THAT GUY. THAT GUY always dies, and also always brings a few friends along with them. However a trope found about as often is the hero who knows they are doomed by the bite, and decides to go down in a glorious hail of bullets or fire and take as many zombie bastards as possible with them (if you want to get a good example of both in action check out Resident Evil: Extinction). This is the guy that everyone loves, and the one that you should strive to be should the undead rise.
Ultimately, a zombie movie done right can literally encompass every human’s worse nightmare. With critically acclaimed shows like The Walking Dead and bestselling books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, zombies have managed to slowly stumble out of the realm of ‘joke’ that campy parodies like Return of the Living Dead and Dead Alive sadly once resigned them to. Not that there shouldn’t be a bit of humor equated with zombies. Though undeniably frightening in numbers and power, the single rotting and moaning zombie can very easily become comical rather than terrifying. A truly brilliant zombie program knows how to take the serious and humorous elements of zombies and blend them. Zombieland does this pretty well, and even Shaun of the Dead has its serious and truly distressing moments. Sometimes when a zombie movies takes itself too seriously, it can be a bit TOO soul crushing, such as 2007’s I Am Legend. But regardless if you like your zombie movie purely gory and fun, or if you like a more physiological and philosophical approach, you simply can’t deny that zombies have had an impact on American culture. And whether you find them them the most terrifying monster or the most overrated, it is also impossible to deny that if a zombie outbreak began you would be afraid.