So, dear reader, how did the modern view of the zombie as a flesh craving, civilisation destroying plague come to be? For, their reality based companions don’t seem to be that badly behaved, do they?
The new version of the zombie, as a mindless reanimated corpse that hungers for human flesh, was taken mainly from the ‘ghouls’ in George A Romero’s 1968 film, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, which in itself was largely inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel ‘I am Legend’.
In ‘Night of the Living Dead’, the word ‘zombie’ was never used. This moniker was added later by fans, with Romero choosing to use the word ‘ghoul’ throughout the script. He did, however, during an interview about the film, start using the word ‘zombie’ without explanation and he continued to use it in the other films in his ‘Living Dead’ series.
The modern day zombie is sometimes a victim of a fictional pandemic, but more often than not, there is no cause given. The world of the zombie is presented as a fait accompli; as the status quo; and we are projected into the story after the cataclysmic event.
These modern zombies bear some resemblance to the Haitian zombie, but with sketchy links to such folklore, thus awarding Romero the title of progenitor of this creature.
So, how did this macabre incarnation evolve?
Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818), although not a zombie novel per se, does depict a creature with many of the traits we recognise now as belonging to zombies. That, together with his resurrection being portrayed as scientific rather than mystical; his appearance being degraded; and his behaviour being more violent, for all intents and purposes, Frankenstein could be said to be the precursor to the modern zombie.
Ambrose Bierce’s ‘The Death of Halpin Frayser’ and many of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, in the nineteenth century, were not ‘proper’ zombie fiction, but they did serve to ignite the creations later brought to un-death by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft.
In the 20s and early 30s, Lovecraft wrote several novelettes concerning the un-dead. The most memorable of these was ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (1921), which helped to define zombies in popular culture. In the book, said to be inspired by Frankenstein, Herbert West – a mad scientist – seeks to revive human corpses with mixed results. The resurrected corpses are uncontrollable, mostly mute, primitive and extremely violent. The book never refers to them as zombies, but if it looks like a zombie and acts like a zombie, then…
It wasn’t until William Seabrook published ‘The Magic Island’ in 1929, that the word ‘zombi’ was said – by Time magazine – to have been introduced into US speech.
In 1932, the word ‘zombie’ was introduced to the wider world through Victor Halpern’s film ‘White Zombie’, which starred Bela Lugosi (vampire, werewolf and zombie – is there a creature this guy didn’t play???) and capitalised on the same voodoo zombie themes as Seabrook’s book. This film is said to be the first legitimate zombie film.
1936 saw the film ‘Things to Come’, an adaptation of the HG Wells’ novel. The film deals with an apocalyptic scenario caused by the ‘wandering sickness’ – a highly contagious viral plague – that causes the infected to wander slowly and insensibly, infecting others on contact. This film is an early example of the modern norm, whereby a small number of people try to survive in a world menaced by flesh eating enemies.
In the 1950s, EC Comics released ‘Tales from the Crypt’, which featured avenging zombies. It was these tales that Romero is said to have been influenced by.
The biggest influence, though, on Romero is said to be Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, ‘I am Legend’ (made into a film in 1964 ‘The Last Man on Earth’, again in 1974 ‘The Omega Man’ and finally by its own title in 2007). The book is actually about a lone human survivor waging a war against a world of vampires, not zombies, but it is largely seen to be more influential on the concept of zombies than any literary or cinematic work before it.
It certainly made its mark on Romero, who, in 1968, released the first of his ‘Living Dead’ series of films. In ‘Night of the Living Dead’, Romero bred zombies with vampires to produce a hybrid, which spread the plague and such a creature became known as the ‘Romero Zombie’. The astounding thing about this film and I suppose about the way society had viewed ‘horror’ films back then, is that children were allowed in to see it. Needless to say, when the film went from ‘delightfully scary’ to ‘unexpectedly terrifying’, this was thought not to have been the best of ideas.
It is said that Romero also used his zombies as a way of criticising real world social ills, such as government ineptitude, bioengineering, slavery, greed and exploitation.
The modern zombie can, therefore, be said to have spawned from this iconic film.
In 1981 ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ was released and this brought into being the idea of a mutagenic gas as the source of the zombie contagion. This theme was continued by Dan O’Bannon in his 1985 film ‘Return of the Living Dead’, which also introduced the concept of zombies craving human brains rather than flesh.
The only other films to note in the 80’s were the ‘Evil Dead’ Series and ‘Re-Animator’ (1985). The ‘Evil Dead’ films were highly influential films, but were about demonic possession, not zombies, even though the un-dead were present. ‘Re-animator’, which was loosely based on the Lovecraft story, stood out and received almost unanimous critical acclaim and nearly outstripped Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead’ at the box office.
I feel I should add to this, as there was another film made in the 80s, which I believe to be extremely influential – Wes Craven’s ‘Serpent and the Rainbow’ (1988). This film is said to be a heavily fictionalised account of Wade Davis’ novel, but it is a film that scared the living daylights out of me and is the reason I have avoided zombies. The thought that a powder could be used the knock you out; the thought that you are then buried alive; the thought that you are then brought back from the ‘dead’ as a creature with no will, was all too much for my young and impressionable mind. The knowledge that these powders do exist (see blog ‘Zombie Slave….Myth or reality?) just about finished me off, if I’m honest…….and breathe……
Following this, though, the zombie sub-genre disappeared into the ether for a while until the turn of the millennium, when a plethora of films catapulted zombies back into our imaginations. Most notable were the ‘Resident Evil’ series, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (remake – 2004), ’28 Days Later’ (2002), and ’28 Weeks Later’ (2007). It was this resurgence that saw Romero reprise his ‘Living Dead’ films, making ‘Land of the Living Dead’ in 2005, ‘Diary of the Living Dead’ in 2008 and ‘Survival of the Living Dead’ in 2010.
It needs to be highlighted, though, how the zombies themselves evolved from the early films of the 60s and 80s to those of the new millennium. The zombies metamorphosed from being lumbering and unintelligent to being more agile, vicious, intelligent and stronger. The zombies of the new millennium are usually depicted as living humans infected by a mind altering pathogen (’28 Days Later’, ‘Zombieland’, ‘Left 4 Dead’), instead of the re-animated corpses of yester year.
In print, it wasn’t really until the 1990s that zombie fiction became a distinct sub-genre. This was largely due to the publication of ‘Book of the Dead’ in 1990 and ‘Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2’ in 1992. These books featured Romero inspired stories from well know authors such as Stephen King. These books were seen as influential in the horror genre and said by some to be the first true ‘zombie literature’.
Brian Keene’s ‘The Rising’ (which won a Bram Stoker award in 2005) and its sequel ‘City of the Dead’, are novels which brought to us a worldwide apocalypse of intelligent zombies, caused by demonic possession.
In the 1990s, Stephen King published ‘Home Delivery’ (appeared in ‘Book of the Dead), which told of a small town’s attempt to defend itself against a classic zombie attack. While in 2006 he published ‘Cell’; a book which follows one man’s journey from Boston to Maine in the hope of saving his family from a worldwide zombie attack, caused by ‘The Pulse’, which turned the world’s mobile phone users into blood thirsty zombies.
Other works to note are David Wellington’s trilogy – ‘Monster Island’, ‘Monster Nation’ and ‘Monster Planet’. Also Jonathan Maberry’s ‘Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead’ (2008), in which he interviewed over 250 experts in forensics, medicine, science, law enforcement, military etc. to discuss how the real world would react, research and respond to zombies.
Going back to celluloid, one of the most memorable zombie appearances of all time has to be the dance scene in Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video (1983). I mean, who hasn’t seen that video? When I was a kid I used to watch it over and over again, equally scared and enchanted by the whole thing. It was inspiring.
I have to say though – probably because this is what got me to appreciate the zombie sub-genre – that Frank Darabont’s ‘The Walking Dead’ has to be the best zombie apocalyptic drama ever produced. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, ‘The Walking Dead’ refers to the survivors and the show highlights fantastically well how people change when placed under such degrees of stress. It also shows how the breakdown of civilisation lends itself to the creation of ‘tribes’ and these tribes will protect their own at any cost, regardless of the fact they are killing other survivors. The show has become the highest rated show in the history of the AMC network and for good reason.
I think it is worth noting, dear reader, how pervasive the zombie phenomenon actually is. In May 2011, The CDC (Centre for Disease Control) in the USA published a graphic novel ‘Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse’. The idea was to pull on a popular theme and use it as a fun way of ensuring everyone is prepared in the event of a tornado, hurricane, tsunami etc. The proviso being that, if you are prepared for a zombie apocalypse, you are prepared for anything.
There is also a ‘social activism’ element to zombies, which is prevalent in the USA. Fans continue Romero’s social commentary by staging zombie walks through the cities. These walks can either be put on as surrealist performance art or they are staged as part of a political protest.
Going back to the original question of this blog, though – are you ready for a zombie apocalypse? Do you know what to do; how to defend yourself; how to survive? More importantly – would you want to?
So, what actually is a zombie apocalypse?
It is defined as a breakdown of society as a result of an initial zombie outbreak which spreads. It is a widespread (usually global) rise of zombies, hostile to human life, which engage in a general assault on civilisation.
The victims of the zombies may actually turn into zombies themselves, if they are not completely devoured, leading to a rapidly increasing crisis. The rapid spreading of the plague/virus swamps the military, law enforcement and other organisations, which leads to a panicked collapse of civilian society. Eventually, only isolated pockets of survivors remain, with nothing left to do except scavenge for food and supplies and defend themselves, in a world reduced to a primitive and hostile wilderness. Basically, we are back to caveman times, only the predators are zombies rather than sabre toothed tigers.
There are common themes that run through any story that deals with a zombie apocalypse.
The initial contact with the zombies is extremely traumatic, highlighting the human process of dealing with something they don’t want to accept. The emotions run through panic, shock, disbelief and denial, all of which hamper the survivor’s ability to deal with the zombie that they are facing.
The response of the authorities to the threat, as can be evidenced when a government is dealing with a war scenario, is slower than the rate of growth of the threat; hence the plague grows beyond control. This leads to society collapsing, zombies taking control and small groups of people fighting for survival.
The story will usually track a single group of survivors and the narrative will follow suit, starting with the initial onset of the plague; attempts to seek the aid of the authorities; failure of the authorities; catastrophic crash of organisations; and the realisation that they are on their own. The story will follow their plight and will focus on how each of them react to what has happened and how they are changed by the stress of it all, often resorting to primitive behaviour – self-preservation.
So, dear reader, I ask you again – are you ready for a zombie apocalypse?
An unnamed scholar is quoted as saying ‘more than any other monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic…..they signal the end of the world as we have known it.’
May fear protect you when the darkness comes.
Til next time.