The Evolution of Zombies in Media: From Blood-Curdling Terror to the Inevitable Zom-Rom

Look around. We live in a golden age of zombies: anonymous, mindless, and completely incapable of using their opposable thumbs. While this may sound like a description of reality TV stars, or you after a night of hard drinking, zombies seem to reflect more than just the dark, base side of human nature—especially when it comes to past and current media genres. How is it that zombies, with their rotting flesh and incessant moans, reveal so much about our humanity?

One place to explore that question is on college campuses across the country, where zombies engage your brains instead of gorging on them. Texas Tech, Chicago’s Columbia College, Michigan State, and the University of Baltimore have hopped on the zombie metaphor bandwagon, surely delighting pop culture buffs everywhere with the promise of college credit for thought-provoking discussions of the latest episode of The Walking Dead. The courses range from survivalist techniques to critical theory approaches to the genre. Unfortunately, Oregon State University doesn’t offer a zombie course and declined to comment on the possibility of one, but there is no shortage of zombie-themed activities across campus. So what gives?

“Americans are obsessed with apocalyptic narratives,” said writer and publisher Tim Lieder. “One theory is that Americans are obsessed because of what happened to the Indians in our first century, when most died of the diseases that Europeans brought over. For the Indians, we might as well have been zombies.”

The origins of zombie folklore are rooted in Haitian culture; the word zombi means “spirit of the dead” and was applied to a person who annoyed his or her family and community to a degree that they could no longer stand to live with them. A hired voodoo priest, or bokor, would give the unlucky individual a poisonous powder to slow their heart rate and lower their body temperature, essentially passing them off as dead. The body would then be buried and exhumed, creating a mindless drone enslaved by the bokor and freed only when the voodoo priest died.

Early zombie folklore inspired the first film about animated corpses, 1932’s White Zombie starring the horror king of the time, Bela Lugosi. The genre’s Haitian concepts were redefined in 1968 when director George Romero earned his nickname “Godfather of Zombies” with the cult classic Night of the Living Dead.

As Lieder explains, the film begins in a graveyard with a brother taunting his easily excitable sister by stating that “they” are coming for her. Clearly enjoying the tease as her fear increases, zombies rise up and kill the smarmy young man.

“I always saw that as a metaphor for American dominance in the 1960s and how we slowly learned that we cannot dominate the entire globe,” Lieder said. “We are not as safe or as powerful as we think we are.”

Lieder suggested this could be why our fascination with zombies increased after 9/11.

“In America, we are comfortable and fairly stable, but we tend to get involved in other countries that are beset with starvation, plagues and civil war,” he said. “With zombies, we can live out the collapse of society. We can play through our fears and live vicariously through a post-apocalyptic fantasy in which we don’t have to go to work, pay our bills, and apologize to the landlord for late rent.

“I guess zombies also give us a way of thinking about what kinds of societies we would build if this particular one was destroyed,” he added.

AMC’s The Walking Dead explores this new sense of reality. The incredibly popular series begins with a zombie girl shambling her little bunny-slippered feet between abandoned cars outside of Atlanta. Her face is shot off within the first five minutes, setting an unsurprising tone of tantalizing gore. However, as the show progresses, zombie kills are still awesome but they aren’t the only threat. Survivors are picked off just as often by themselves and each other, and characters tend to find themselves in ordinary, pre-apocalyptic pickles, like hunting accidents and car wrecks. The main difference: that careless jaywalker who wrecks your ride happens to be an undead that would like to pull you out of your pinned car and eat your face. The reward for surviving all this is the forced pondering of humanity and society.

As academia and cable TV explore zombie metaphors, director Jonathan Levine explores the genre with his own spin: zombie romance (the zom-rom, if you will). Warm Bodies is based on a novel about a young zombie who slowly shuffles his flesh-eating undead corpse into the heart of a cute living teenager.

The story offers up a typical post-everything scenario: a dreary, survivalist North America where the hungry undead roam while the living stay huddled in salvaged sports domes. The young zombie, R, can’t access enough of his old life to remember the rest of his name, but finds himself unexpectedly attuned to human emotions after a routine brain feast surges him with the strong memories of the victim, a man who died while protecting his lover. R faces an existential crisis as he falls in love with the victim’s girlfriend, Julie. The novel follows the two star-crossed lovers as R grapples with humanity and enjoys Frank Sinatra records, and Julie defies her father, a general in the zombie war, while taking comfort in her best friend and confidant.

This plot may ring a bell for you if you are at all familiar with Romeo and Juliet. Yes, you can now get your zombie fiction with generous allusions to Shakespeare, and the surprising part is that it’s not a zombie spin-off a literary classic like Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies. The film stands on its own by exploring the idea of a zombie protagonist who struggles to find his humanity amid cynicism, despair, and survivalism. Can’t we all relate?

Over the past 43 years zombies have offered us a fascinating opportunity to mentally vacate our comfortable lifestyles and flirt with the unthinkable. Thriller put zombies to a beat, director Danny Boyle revamped them as if they had jet packs in 28 Days Later, and Woody Harrelson rocked the archetypical survivor role in Zombieland. Our fascination is, much like actual zombies, the genre that refuses to die. Until we are wiped off the face of the Earth, zombies, like Twinkies (except so much better), will most likely stick around.

by Kerry Brown