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How Zombies Invaded Pop Culture

Updated on November 11, 2014
Will they climb out of the grave to eat you?
Will they climb out of the grave to eat you? | Source

My friend "M" says the irony of being a zombie is that everything is funny, but you can't smile, because your lips have rotted off.”
- Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies

It's hard to escape zombies, they're seemingly everywhere. If they're not invading the movie theater, they're on television. Zombie fiction has literally swarmed the bookstores and undead memorabilia and t-shirts are even on sale at the corner convenience store. Some of the largest cities in the US are having "Zombie Walks" to raise funds for charities and to give the participants a chance to hang out in full zombie regalia.

For the most part, zombies are still rooted firmly in the horror genre. We're afraid of them, largely because they are us, with fear and emotion completely removed. They want for nothing, other than our living, bleeding flesh. Long ago, in several different cultures, the flesh eating dead were either urban legends or tales of scary boogeymen meant to keep naughty children in line.

Until recently, zombies were pretty much relegated to cheesy Halloween costumes and the occasional re-run of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Now, however, zombie popularity has never been stronger. But how did it get this way?

Did voodoo bring us the first zombies?
Did voodoo bring us the first zombies? | Source

A Short Zombie History

Legends about the dead rising from their graves sprang up in several different cultures, but the word "zombie," is likely African. In the Vodou religion, more often spelled "Voodoo," some believe that the dead can be reawakened by a sorcerer. In some areas of Africa, it is also believed that witches or even small children can turn the dead into zombies.

It has also been said that, in Haiti, there exist certain substances or drugs that can effectively turn the dead (and the living) into mindless zombies. These creatures can then be controlled by the person who administered the drug. Though the actual drug, herb or other substance has never been documented, the legends continue to grow.

Wade Davis, a botanist with Harvard University, wrote two books in the 1980s about these possible concoctions: The Serpent and the Rainbow (which was made into a film in 1988) and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie. In these books Davis challenges that two separate substances combine to make the zombie. The first is a neurotoxin found in puffer fish, and the second is a compound of drugs that distort sight and sound that also cause the affected person to disassociate themselves from their environments, which can be made from plants like some species of the datura flower. This plant is native to Haiti, as well as the Southwestern United States. It can be poisonous if ingested in large amounts.

And then there's the curious case of Medieval Europeans either dismembering their dead or burying them in contraptions designed to keep them from climbing out of their graves. Although some of these legends are geared more towards vampires than zombies (and who could blame them after having to deal with both Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory?), the idea of the dead returning from the grave isn't a new one.

Zombieland DVD cover
Zombieland DVD cover | Source

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Zombies in Television and Movies

The biggest reasons why zombies have become so popular over the last decade of so is the profusion of zombie fiction and movies. We've seen World War Z by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks, no less) all over the New York Times Best Seller lists. There's also goofy zombie lit, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith, if you want to get your post-apocalyptic giggle on. The movies, though, are what capture people's attention the most, and there is no shortage of zombie flicks.

The first full-length zombie movie was the 1932 production of White Zombie. This film is actually set in Haiti and does involve the voodoo culture. It starred Lon Chaney as a super creepy voodoo master named Murder Legendre, as well as Madge Bellamy and John Harron playing the parts of a married couple who runs afoul of the creepy voodoo guy. If White Zombie piqued the public's interest in the walking dead, the zombie flood gates were opened in 1968 by a guy named George Romero.

Ronero made a movie called Night of the living Dead in 1968. What would become one of the most popular zombie flicks ever was made on a budget of $114,000. (By comparison, Zombieland's budget was around $24 million.) Romero's zombies terrified the public. They were completely mindless with only one objective - to kill and eat the living. It also spawned one of my all-time favorite movie quotes: "They're coming to get you, Barbara." Romero is considered the Godfather of the zombie movie sub-genre, and some of his zombie characteristics are still used to this day.

A few of my favorite zombie movies:

  • Zombieland 2009 - This one probably ranks as my all-time favorite zombie flick. How bad could Woody Harrelson battling the undead while on a quest for Twinkies really be? This is one of the two movies (in my opinion) that combined humor and horror and made it work.
  • Shaun of the Dead (2004) - This is the other funny zombie movie that I thought worked out perfectly. Shaun is working in a retail store and is having girl trouble. He and his best friend spend most of their free time either playing video games or hanging out at their neighborhood bar, The Winchester. Unfortunately for them, the zombie apocalypse breaks out in a nation that has strict gun laws.
  • 28 Days Later (2003) - This movie and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007), both feature something creepier than creepy - running zombies. Although it can be argued that these not-so-shambling creatures are not zombies, merely infected with a virus (aptly titled "Rage") that makes them want to completely destroy those who are not infected, this film does fit neatly into the zombie genre, and the terrifying, rampaging and smarter than your average undead monsters are credited with giving new life to the zombie following.
  • Land of the Dead (2005) - This is the fourth of Romero's six zombie movies, and it's one of my all-time favorites. The world as we know it is over. Humans are living in cities, walled off from the zombies, until the walking dead start to get smart. This one's got some pretty big names in it, too: Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento and John Leguizamo just to name three.
  • Resident Evil (2002) - Though one could say that this franchise adapted from a successful video game series has done zombies to death, it's still churning out hit movies. The Umbrella Corporation, a genetic research lab, has done something awful and the employees of its Raccoon City facility have turned into marauding, people-eating monsters. It's up to Alice, played by Milla Jovovich, to save the world - through at least several sequels.
  • The Crazies (2010) - This one is a remake of the original George Romero film of the same name, that was produced in 1973. The remake features Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell as a married couple trying to cope with a world full of infected people. it can be argued with this movie as well as 28 Days Later that these evil creatures are not zombies, rather infected with a virus or toxin that destroys their ability to do anything but kill, however I also believe that that very sentence means "zombie."

(If you've got "see every zombie movie ever made" on your Bucket List, Wikipedia has an extensive listing of them for your perusal.)

Television isn't without its fair share of zombies. The hugely popular series The Walking Dead on AMC is getting some of the highest ratings for any television show on cable. The series, developed from the comic books by Robert Kirkman, follows a group of survivors though their efforts to find a place of their own amid the zombie uprising. This show is so successful, that it's already been picked up for a fourth season.

One can only wonder how far zombies will go and how long their popularity will last. Vampires captured our attention for the last few decades (and are still doing it with television shows like True Blood), but some would say that Twilight managed to hammer the final nail in the coffin of the blood sucker's popularity. There is a new movie being released soon that could give Twi-hards a taste of teenage zombie love. Warm Bodies, set for release in the US on February 1, 2013, is the story of a young zombie who falls in love with a breather. This should be interesting!

Warm Bodies Official Movie Trailer


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    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      GH Price 4 years ago from Texas


      Thanks for the compliment and the comment!

      I don't know how I'm going to dig World War Z. I know it doesn't stick too close to the book and that's one of my favorites in the genre. I'll have to wait till I see it.

      I checked out your blog - nice work!

    • amandajoyshapiro profile image

      amandajoyshapiro 4 years ago

      Nice intro and list of favs. Romero's Night of the Living Dead and (I think even) Zombieland are classics. What do you think of the upcoming World War Z adaptation? The budget could swallow The Walking Dead's a few times over. If you're interested, I write about zombies on

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      GH Price 5 years ago from Texas

      Stina Caxe:

      My brother is the one that's always been about the zombies. I think they're some of the scariest things we can imagine because they don't have any fear or real weakness besides the deterioration. I'm a little worried about their popularity now because they'll get run into the ground just like everything else that becomes trendy.


      I think that the voodoo zombies can be scarier than the mutant, virus ridden ones that we usually get in the movies. Although it's a stretch of the imagination, something like that could happen, and I would rather die than do things against my will. For now, they will have to fit in the same category, because there's really nowhere else to put them.

      Thank you for commenting. I'm trying to catch up on comments now, but I wanted you to know I appreciate the time! :)

    • KatSanger profile image

      Katherine Sanger 5 years ago from Texas

      Always into zombies, and I agree with some of your picks for movies. I think there's always a question about the definition of zombie, though - sometimes it relates to someone controlled by something else (e.g. voodoo), other times it has to do with being taken over by something (e.g. bugs or even "rage"), and other times it is reanimated dead. Do you think that each difference in "zombie" is meaningful, or can we lump them together?

    • Stina Caxe profile image

      Cristina 5 years ago from Virginia

      This is great. I've had zombie dreams for probably about ten years now. I don't know why but my strangest one was about the three lesbian zombies that were after me. Interestingly enough I am currently doing a research project on how dreams reveal your unconscious conflicts and desires. Hmmmm...

      Anyway, having always been a fan of horror flicks, I have seen just about every zombie movie and tv show and I honestly can't get enough of them!

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      GH Price 5 years ago from Texas


      Zombieland is awesome. I keep hearing that there will be a sequel, and then there won't. I did read your Lake Placid Hub, I think Betty White totally made that flick! ;)


      Shaun of the Dead still has me using some of the movie lines. I will use "You've got red on you" and "There is an "I" in meat pie." :D


      I really like the Resident Evil movies. I hope the last one they decide to make solves all of the Umbrella issues.

      Thanks for the comments, folks! :D

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Most interesting about zombie land, I watched Resident evil.

    • EricDockett profile image

      Eric Dockett 5 years ago from USA

      I'm not usually a fan on zombie flicks, but I loved Zombieland. Shaun of the Dead was pretty good too.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thank you Georgie for shining light on this crazy dark genre. I recall Night of the Living Dead ($114,000 budget!!) and being totally scared as a kid. I look forward to Zombieland. I love when horror meets comedy as I recently discussed in y review of Lake Placid. Good job. Rated up and interesting.