If you haven’t heard about zombies, you should get out of the house more often. The days of Godzilla, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy have largely passed. I’m interested in talking about zombies as a subject because of the growth of the genre’s popularity in my lifetime. As a kid, I rarely heard about cult classics like Night of the Living Dead (1968) or the Evil Dead (1981). Those are intense adult movies, of course, but that’s not my point. These days, even young kids can tell you about zombies.
Others have studied the rise (pun intended) of zombies in pop culture, so I’ll primarily focus on the current state of the genre. Still, for those of you who are pop culture history nuts, I’ll provide a brief summary here.
Modern conception of the zombie has a sad historical origin. Haitians in the 1600s had a deep-seated fear of being forced to return from the dead to continue working as slaves on the sugar plantations. Their intense abuse by plantation owners gave rise to a genuine fear of their own dreaded undeath. Thankfully, this level of despair is probably foreign to most of us. Still, what began as a deep-rooted fear has, like many things, been appropriated for popular culture.
I’m not saying that pop culture is bad, nor am I saying that certain topics must be avoided in pop culture because of their tragic origins. I simply intend to say that we have at least some responsibility as people to be appreciative of the circumstances of others. That doesn’t mean throwing bricks through windows when an election doesn’t go the way we want. American people today could find a way to be offended by literally anything. I’m a strong proponent of saying less and doing more. Be the change. If something matters to us, we should do something about it. But, for God’s sake, make it something helpful.
Aside over. I’ll get off my soapbox now. Back to the zombies.
I love zombies. They’re good entertainment. I also appreciate the circumstances of their origin. That being said, it is so fascinating to me that they have become such a hit in my lifetime. A lot of people credit the original I Am Legend (1954) novel with infecting us with the zombie virus for the first time, but the earlier White Zombie (1932) movie probably played a role.
As a genre study, zombies are an interesting example to consider as a writer. I can’t even say that, for the most part, zombies are typically portrayed in a horror setting anymore. Some of my favorite movies take these terrifying things and put a comedic spin on them. Of course, I have to mention British comedy Shaun of the Dead (title parody to Dawn of the Dead, 1978). Another personal favorite is Zombieland (and we’re still holding out for the sequel).
Weirdly enough, I even saw a passable zombie romance somewhat recently. Warm Bodies certainly stretches the boundaries of what it “traditionally” means to be the living dead. A whole host of other films use zombies to varying effect and with equally variable genre flavors: Resident Evil, World War Z, 28 Days Later, Dead Snow, and others. Even Game of Thrones has a kind of ice zombie component incorporated into the series.
I’m a passionate gamer of pretty eclectic taste. Naturally, I’ve played Call of Duty Zombies, the first-person, zombie-slaying shooter mini-game that now appears in every new entry to the COD series (and started with World at War). It is both an entertaining and infuriating experience. Regardless, it has made a measurable impact on the entertainment industry.
I even remember a brief social movement aimed at removing the word “Nazi” from the title of the famous “Nazi Zombies” mode because the word “Nazi” was uncomfortable or some such… As the descendant of a Holocaust survivor, I see it as a great poetic justice for mindless Nazi zombie hoards to be the focus of a mini-game.
Bizarre social movements aside, zombies are everywhere. We have access to a seemingly limitless source of zombie material in film and video games. We can even buy bleeding zombie targets for shooting practice. It’s the Age of the Dead. Now, for the real question:
Have zombies overstayed their welcome?
I’ll return in Part 2 where I plan to share my focused thoughts as a consumer and writer on the subject of the zombie.
Thanks for reading.