How Zombies Invaded Pop Culture
“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?
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.
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!