I Am Zombie - Pop Culture of the Living Dead

The blank stare that only comes from working in a cubicle
The blank stare that only comes from working in a cubicle

Zombies are an item of huge cultural significance nowadays, pervading many aspects of modern life. It's hard to go through daily life without seeing references to the living dead or things inspired by them. But how many people know of their historical origins or the evolution they've undergone to reach the shambling automaton of death we know today? I hope you're interested in learning the origins of the modern zed and the cultural impact they've had on society and everyday life, because if you're not, go away!

Meanwhile in Minecraftia...

Historical Zeds

There have been zombies of different types in the myth of many cultures throughout history, and pieces of those myths may contribute to the modern concept. I'll tell you about three of the most prominent historical zombies.

Draugr (no, they aren't JUST in The Elder Scrolls) are a Scandinavian form of undead characterized by several of the same things that modern zombies are characterized by. These include the eating of human flesh, resistance to most forms of attacks, and the ability to turn others killed into draugr. However they also had characteristics more commonly associated with vampires such as being able to turn into mist, sleeping in coffins, and drinking blood, and a slew of magical abilities including being able to grow in size and move through solid rock as if it were water.

Jiangshi are technically the Chinese equivalent of vampires, but they share a few characteristics of modern zombies that should be noted. They are usually in a rotting state and their muscles are stiff with rigor mortis, causing them to be unable to move properly, and anyone injured by a jiangshi undergoes a slow transformation into one themselves. The way they move is by hopping, however, with their arms outstretched to balance them and propel them forward. This combination of things makes them more reminiscent of Minecraft zombies than Romero zombies.

The word zombie itself has its origins in Haitian myth as corpses reanimated by witchcraft. A Voodoo bokor (sorcerer) can use magic to revive the dead and use them as servants to perform manual labor and such. Traditionally, Voodoo zombies have very little in common with modern zombies, and the supposed cause behind them doesn't change them physiologically. Though there is little practical evidence to support these claims, bokors use a mixture of a potent neurotoxin (tetrodotoxin), found in pufferfish, and dissociative hallucinogens. This mixture makes the subject pliable and passive and shuts down complex reasoning skills, as well as putting them into trance-like state where their short-term memory generation is impaired, making them unable to remember any time as a "zombie". Taking into consideration the highly dangerous nature of tetrodotoxin, even if the mixture worked to turn people into mindless servants, it would likely cause irreparable neurological damage.

There have been several accounts where people have been buried, believed dead, and return decades later with no recollection of what happened during that time. It is popularly believed they are put into a death-like state (a la Romeo and Juliet), buried alive, dug up, and then drugged up and used as servants. Voodoo zombies share the shambling movements and lack of intelligence with modern zombies, but they are still alive, still feel pain, and are not violent.

They're coming to get you, Barbara...
They're coming to get you, Barbara... | Source

When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.

The modern zombie didn't just come about randomly or overnight, but one of the biggest contributions to its coming was in George A. Romero's first film, Night of the Living Dead. This set most of the standards for the modern-day rotters we so love to see with a bullet in their brain.

Night of the Living Dead was an incredibly controversial film when it was first released. It introduced concepts into the horror genre that were so shockingly terrifying to people of the time that it was met with outrage from many sources - critics, politicians, scarred children (there was no rating system at the time). It presented a bleak picture. No one was safe, the heroes were just as subject to the horrors as the extras. The zombies (though referred to as ghouls in NotLD) ate the flesh of their victims and a single bite, sometimes even a scratch, was enough to first make you deathly ill and eventually transform you into one of them. They were slow and sluggish, but there were many of them and they were strong. And the only thing that could kill them was by putting a bullet in their brain or breaking their neck. Nothing else could stop them and very little could even slow them down.

The funny thing is Romero outright admitted he ripped off almost his entire concept of zombies from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend. This book is the single most significant historical source for the evolution of the modern zombie, introducing the disease-based outbreak concept, the slow-moving gait, mindlessness, and influencing Romero's groundbreaking classic which introduced several of the other concepts such as cannibalism and the headshot rule.

Bub wants delicious brains
Bub wants delicious brains


Where the eff did this come from, I'm sure you're wondering. It seems common sense that zombies wouldn't specifically target the brain if they needed their brains to function. So where did this incredibly well-known cliché originate?

Back in '68, when NotLD was released to the collective cries of outrage from the critics, Romero's partner in crime, John A. Russo, decided to make his own way in the zombie film business. He took the rights to any sequels using the Living Dead in their title and created his own continuity that didn't follow the rules Romero set forth. This spawned Return of the Living Dead, a black comedy/splatstick film in which all the zombies wanted to eat delicious brains. In the movie, they present a strange and rather bleak reason for the brain eating (see the video below), and it quickly became a permanent cliché in the world of the undead.

It isn't enough that the headcrab turns you into a shambling, killing mutant... you feel everything, and the only thing you can do is beg for death.
It isn't enough that the headcrab turns you into a shambling, killing mutant... you feel everything, and the only thing you can do is beg for death. | Source
The rage virus takes between 10 and 20 seconds to wipe your mind and turn you into a mindless, blood-vomiting killing machine.
The rage virus takes between 10 and 20 seconds to wipe your mind and turn you into a mindless, blood-vomiting killing machine. | Source

Zombie Variants

Besides the undead presented in NotLD, there are a few other types that have come about. The Romero zombies are the typical horror movie zombie, but a few films and games have popularized other types of zombies.

Return of the Living Dead presented smart zombies that don't follow Romero zombie rules like the headshot rule. They tend to be used more in comedy horrors than in true horror. Notable examples include Dead Alive, Army of Darkness, and Lollipop Chainsaw.

Fast zombies, or rage zombies (named for the rage virus in 28 Days Later), are usually still alive, pumped up on pain-deadening hormones, but are still susceptible to anything a normal human is susceptible to. They are usually super-aggressive, smarter than average zombies, and are alive and breathing rather than being undead. The cause of the zombie infestation also tends to be an extremely virulent virus and depending on the way people are infected, the only survivors could be the only ones immune to the virus. Notable examples include Left 4 Dead, Dawn of the Dead remake, and 28 Days Later.

Magic zombies are undead reanimated by magic. They are a popular stock monster in many roleplaying games including Dungeons and Dragons, Final Fantasy, and The Elder Scrolls. They usually have no ability to turn slain creatures into zombies (that's what the mage or necromancer does), and usually pummel enemies to death rather than bite them. They share most features of Romero zombies - slow, clumsy movement, being undead, being mindless - but are often able to be killed by being damaged enough in any way, rather than only being killed by a headshot.

Parasitic zombies are controlled by some sort of parasitic organism. Usually this is portrayed as being a hive-mind parasitic insect, though it could also be a microscopic organism or fungus. Parasitic zombies are usually human in most respects, able to be killed in most ways a normal human is susceptible to, but generally being slightly tougher. They're more Lovecraftian in theme as they are usually normal humans that are slightly... off... and when their true nature becomes known, they tend to sprout horrible tentacles and other inhuman appendages. Notable examples include the Las Plagas from Resident Evil, the creatures from The Thing, and head crabs from Half-Life.

What's your favorite kind of zombie?

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Rule #1:  Cardio
Rule #1: Cardio

Effects on Society

Let's face it; zombies are something most of us love to hate. The fact that they are us - that we can be turned into a bloodthirsty monster with no regard for life, no qualms about killing their friends or family - truly strikes home the way that no other monster does. The fear of these mocking caricatures of human brutality can run deep, and the fact that zombies are far more likely to happen than most of the supernatural creatures generally associated with classic horror, has inspired people to prepare.

People around the world have created their "zombie plans" and "zombie kits", and nowadays it's so mainstream that world governments and the CDC are sponsoring zombie survival courses in an effort to increase disaster preparedness. There have been many efforts to prepare people for the eventual apocalypse, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, and this has had a fairly profound effect on society and popular culture. Zombies are now used as a medium for almost everything, from commercial advertisement to philosophical speculation, and for a lot of people it isn't just a fun subject to talk about, but a serious possibility that needs to be addressed.

In media, zombies have been steadily increasing in popularity, spawning comics, shows, movies, books, and video games galore. And as most horror concepts bring about spoofs and parodies, so have zombies. Zombie comedy has been increasing in popularity over the years and has steadily become more refined and mainstream. Return of the Living Dead marked the point where horror became comedy, but in recent years several critically acclaimed movies and books have been created (Zombie Survival Guide, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), further increasing the comedy sub genre, and driving the zombie apocalypse deeper into popular culture.

The popularity of the undead has also spawned "zombie walks", where a large crowd of people dress up like zombies and wander around in a city. These are found in cities across the world, usually near Halloween, but sometimes several times a year. There are other large-scale zombie events that are similar, like survive events, where people are designated survivors and zombies and the zombies have to convert all of the survivors, and the "Zombie Shopping Mall" event in Reading, UK.

I have no idea if the thought of a zombie apocalypse has inspired the fairly recent string of zombie-like murders (man eating a hobo's face, college student eating brain of roommate), but it has certainly inspired the reactions to them. Some people are scared, some people think it's hilarious (as far as brutal murder can be, which is pretty damn, in some cases), and one of the most common responses is that they're signs of the zombie apocalypse.

So how plausible is a zombie apocalypse?

You might want to take a look at my analysis of zombies hub to get a sense of how plausible the zombie apocalypse is, but the hype surrounding it probably increases the chance of it happening. With genetics advancing at a steady pace, there might end up being insane Romero fan geneticists that was to make a zombie virus. Put a few of those in the same room in a government weapons development lab and voila! Zombies.

It's something I think people should be prepared for regardless of how plausible it truly is because much of the preparation that would go into learning how to survive in a zombie apocalypse crosses over to other natural disasters. The basic tenets of surviving a zombie apocalypse apply to earthquakes, fires, and riots: don't use a car, get out of the city, avoid points of high population and stay out of sight, stay in shape, etc. Whether if it's just for fun or you really believe it will happen, it's still very useful knowledge and training to have when shit hits the fan.

Good Luck, Fellow Survivors

I hope I taught you something that you didn't know before, and hope that maybe this hub will inspire you to learn more about preventing the zombie apocalypse, or at least surviving it when it comes. I hope, if I meet you when it happens, I won't have to kill you, and we can help one-another to survive.

Thanks and Acknowledgements

Thanks to Richard Matheson, George Romero, and John Russo for the entire modern zombie genre. Thanks to all the creative minds that bring us great movies, books, and other things zombie-related, and thanks for helping make zombies mainstream popular culture.

Thank YOU *points at you* for reading this and I hope you enjoyed it!

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ponder profile image

ponder 20 months ago from Los Angeles,CA

Zombies is a very interesting subject and this hub was a good read.

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