Zombie Culture and its Evolution

| September 2, 2015

On Sunday, August 23rd, AMC’s The Walking Dead companion program Fear the Walking Dead premiered in front of over ten million loyal viewers, making it the most-watched cable TV premiere of all time. This goes to show how horror, thriller, and drama fans alike have not yet tired of the world of walkers and all the guts, blood, and biting that come with it. But even though Rick Grimes and his band of survivors may have made the genre what it is today, zombie culture did not originate with The Walking Dead.

The origins of the “zombie” differ quite a bit from modern depictions. They first entered American consciousness in the early 1900’s when they learned about Haitian folklore in which dead bodies were revived by necromancy and Haitian Vodou. Legends and beliefs from the Kongo and the French West Indies were also prevalent, providing words like “nzambi” (god), “zumbi” (fetish), and jumbee (spirit or demon) that helped form the mythology of the zombie we know of today.

Early science-fiction books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula also gave readers ideas of what could happen to human bodies when death was reversed. H.P. Lovecraft’s stories about reanimation and mad scientists and Richard Matheson’s horrific apocalypse-bringing vampire creatures also influenced today’s greatest zombie filmmakers, especially the grandfather of them all, George A. Romero. While horror films featuring creatures called zombies came out in the 1930’s and 40’s, Romero is widely cited as the creator of the zombie we’re most familiar with on screens today.

Romero’s 1968 low-budget, black-and-white film Night of the Living Dead was the first film to portray zombies as shuffling, moaning, and brain-dead, which is still the media standard today. While the film was intended for all audiences, moviegoers soon learned that children and adults alike were horrified by the flesh-eating “ghouls,” and a new horror genre was born. Over the next forty years, Romero churned out six films in his Living Dead series, portraying groups of hapless survivors trying to survive zombies in shopping malls, military bases, and Pennsylvania suburbs. The blood and guts continued to flow throughout the 1980’s with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, and in the 1990’s, zombie themes spread to Asian and Italian horror. And in 2006, zombies made it big in the comic industry with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead series, spawning a new generation of fans.

As cinema progresses and the political climate of America changes, zombies tend to mean different things to the people who are trying to survive them. At one point, zombies may have represented a slovenly consumer culture roaming malls like ghosts, while thirty years later, zombies represent an act of national terrorism. Their role in the destruction of the world as we know it changes along with our fears. In AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, the characters live in a comfortable shell of mobile phones, clean hospitals, and rule-based school systems, not knowing how much their lives will change. Future episodes will inevitably show their fall. Fear the Walking Dead will air on Sundays on AMC through most cable providers, and The Walking Dead is soon to follow this fall. Audiences will have to wait and see how their fears will take form.

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