As you’re probably aware, our culture is obsessed with zombies.
I have, on more than one occasion, been involved in a heated discussion about contingency plans for a zombie apocalypse (the consensus seems to be to initially scramble for food, water and weaponry, then cycle to somewhere deserted). These conversations often get a little passionate, almost as if my friends actually want a zombie apocalypse to occur.
This is something I’ve never understood. If the zombie virus comes, or if someone summons the Candarian demons with the Book of the Dead, I’ve no real desire to live, and will happily offer my brains to the closest member of the undead that shuffles by.
This staple of popular culture has its origins in Haitian folklore, where it was believed that a sorcerer could remove a person’s soul whilst allowing them to continue living. It is apparently tied in with the fear among slaves in the Caribbean that you could be forced to continue working after you’d died by having your corpse reanimated.
Zombie culture didn’t really take off until 1932 with the film White Zombie, in which Bela Lugosi plays a Haitian voodoo master who transforms a young woman into a zombie. The coming decades saw a string of terrible zombie films, but then in 1968, George A. Romero changed everything with the classic Night of the Living Dead.
This is the film that introduced the shuffling, flesh-eating zombies that we know today. It’s also perhaps the first properly scary B-movie. Roger Ebert wrote an article about seeing the film at a Saturday matinee with a bunch of children expecting to see the usual ‘Attack of the Squid Monster’ type cheap creature movie, but by the end the kids were overwhelmed with terror, tears, and a future filled with years of therapy. Since then, we’ve had demon zombies, Nazi zombies, blaxploitation zombies, pirate zombies, Michael Jackon dancing zombies, Japanese schoolgirl zombies. Unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, zombies have no real source material to draw from, which allows each film free rein in defining what a zombie is.
And now, zombies fill not just our cinemas, but our books, TV screens and games consoles. What is it about them that’s so appealing to our modern culture?
Many people agree that popular monsters in horror represent prevalent fears of the time. During Senator McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, films about alien invaders who dwelt among us such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers were popular. In the 1970s, when serial killers like the Son of Sam and the Zodiac killer made the news, slasher films like Halloween and The Hills Have Eyes were at the peak of their popularity.
There are various theories about what zombies could represent. Many agree that the fact that zombies are a huge threat out of our control is significant, as many of our society’s current problems such as terrorism, climate change and economic collapse are difficulties that feel out of our control. It may be to do with our insecurity about technology; technology is ubiquitous, and with constant advancements, upgrades and updates, it seems to march on without us being able to do anything about it. Technology is not inherently evil, just as zombies are not consciously malicious, and in order to fight both, we are forced to use handmade tools and return to a simpler way of life.
Or it might just be that fighting zombies would be a fun, guilt-free way to go haywire and bash in some skulls.
Zombies are still present on the big screen, but they’ve pretty much been played out at this point. There have been a few great zombies films in recent years, such as Dawn of the Dead (2004), Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead, but the former is a remake of an earlier Romero film, and the other two, whilst good examples of zombie movies themselves, are still tongue-in-cheek comic takes on the genre. Generally, the genre has pretty much run out of steam.
There’s something so inherently shlocky about zombies that they seem better suited to the low-budget campy exploitation of the past, such as The Evil Dead and Dead Alive, rather than po-faced Hollywood blockbusters like World War Z.
The zombie craze will come to an end eventually. As society changes, our fears will change, and along with it our movie monsters. But through the handful of great films they’ve inspired, zombies will never truly stay dead.
[Matthew Hayhow – @Machooo]