Zombies are one of the most prolific examples of the paranormal pervading pop culture throughout time. Every generation has a different reference point for zombies. From the original Night of the Living Dead films by George A Romero to the parody of Shaun of the Dead, to the modern-day zombie series on AMC The Walking Dead. Indeed, stories in the news often provoke tongue-in-cheek (or less tongue-in-cheek) responses that a zombie apocalypse has begun. What makes zombie such a strong example of the paranormal that audiences respond to?
Zombies are a staple of voodoo culture, with the animated dead returning through black magic – with stories spreading through generations in Haiti – but they didn’t spread to the Western world until around 1929. The Magic Island by WB Seabrook introduced zombies to the contiguous US as the author encountered voodoo tribes in Haiti. However, the zombies we know also take influence from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein(1818), in which Dr Frankenstein tries to create life from the dead, and sci-fi writers HP Lovecraft and Richard Matheson. This culminated in 1932 in Victor Halperin’s Bella Lugosi vehicle, White Zombie, which depicted the undead as mindless and lumbering through magic.
In fact, the zombie apocalypse trope in pop culture didn’t really kick off until after George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). A zombie was used as the henchman in an episode of Scooby-Doo in 1969, bringing zombies back to popular culture across the board. Sequels to Romero’s film (which actually didn’t include the word zombie at all) brought forth the idea of zombies craving human flesh. The original black magic origin story was replaced by one of a transmittable disease, which seems to perpetuate throughout zombie pop culture today. The Walking Dead (2010-present) features a zombie virus that spread throughout the world.
The Infection Spreads
Zombies as we know them in 2018 have not just pervaded the world of cinema and literature – Seth Grahame-Smith even rewrote Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to add zombies to it in 2009. But zombies are also a key staple of video games. Call of Duty feature a Nazi zombie mode that allows both single and multiplayer gameplay of defending a position against hoards of marauding zombies, while Dead Rising and its sequels proved popular zombie sandbox games as your protagonist is trapped in a series of shopping malls and complexes to stop the spread of the virus. Zombies also feature in other genres, which shows just how popular they have become, with Betway offering the Lost Vegas slots, which features a zombie outbreak in Vegas as a theme for the game. Even fitness games got their zombie title, with Six to Start’s Zombies, Run! one of the first smartphone games that used GPS satellite to place the player in the midst of a zombie infestation – from which you are supposed to walk or even run from. The game currently has over a million downloads on Google Play alone, while the company even released a board game app inspired by it.
The reason zombies have become and remained so popular and each generation has given a new, modern take on them is because they offer the perfect example of escapism. After a hard day, there’s nothing more removed from life than imagining a world overrun with the undead, where you are the hero. The fear that zombies provoke is one close to reality, with scientists often claiming that zombies are a possibility in one shape or form, as a Cracked article explains. The large scope of the genre allows filmmakers and creatives to tackle them from every angle, offering their own spin on a classic, which has already developed a strong fanbase.
Taking it Further
I Am Legend (2007) did well at the box office with domestic grosses of $256,393,010, while World War Z (2013) brought Brad Pitt to the zombie genre and turned it fully into the mainstream, achieving 66% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film received a tepid response from the wider public – with those dedicated to zombies not enjoying the book divergence, and those in the mainstream surprised by its graphic nature. Like vampires before them, zombies became the flavour of the month and provided us content and material. Given their fictional and folklore nature, there can be little criticism of mechanics at work in various zombie scenarios. Who is to say how the zombie virus may work or not. Netflix dabbled in zombies with the Santa Clarita Diet (2017-present) starring Drew Barrymore, in which a suburban mom needs to eat human meat to survive. The take is purely comical and campy but tackles the topic from a different angle that audiences have been quite responsive to.
Overall, zombies are a prime piece of pop culture that, like the shuffling hoards of undead, will be unlikely to die. Zombies provide a rich tapestry of narrative and give audiences exactly what they expect and a perfect example of escapism and speculative thinking for the end of the world.