Now that season 3 of The Walking Dead is over and we zombie fans have to wait until June 21 for our next movie fix (World War Z), I found myself looking into why exactly people like me love zombie horror (and comedy) so much. This article explores where they came from, how they evolved in entertainment, and why their relentless nature, similarity to humans, and epidemic tendencies make them one of the scariest, most versatile, and most reusable monsters in horror.
Zombies trace their origins to Haitian voodoo around 1200 AD and were originally referred to as "nzambis" — "dead spirits" which had been conjured by sorcery. The soulless corpses depended on the sorcerer to exist and were typically conjured for a specific purpose, such as increasing the sorcerer’s power, or even selling the zombie as a slave. Some 20th century travelers and scientists went as far as to claim that certain naturally occurring poisons, native to Haiti, could be used to reanimate corpses (such as tetrodotoxins found in puffer fish poison).
As stories of voodoo and zombies spread to the western world, they inevitably found a place in science fiction and horror. Science fiction hall of famer H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West Reanimator (1922) depicts two doctors experimenting with reanimating dead bodies. Time Magazine credits William Seabrook as the one who introduced the United States to the term "zombie" in his 1929 book on adventures in Haiti, The Magic Island. Some may credit Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) with contributing to early zombie fiction, but Frankenstein's monster is not a zombie since he is built out of many corpses and then reanimated.
From The Magic Island on, zombies were popular villains in American films and literature, though their popularity reached a new height after George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). Inspired by Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, as well as vampire lore, Romero's zombies have come to define the modern "classic" zombie — a slow-moving, reanimated corpse, with cannibalistic tendencies (note that this definition sheds the necessity of sorcery and control).
Zombie horror sticklers (like Shaun of the Dead star Simon Pegg and The Zombie Survival Guide author Max Brooks) are quick to point out that many of the popular modern zombie movies should actually be classified as "bio horror." Movies such as 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, The Crazies, and (ironically) the 2007 I Am Legend depict viruses that turn humans into zombie-like monsters, rather than reanimating corpses. 28 Days Later depicts the "zombies" running — a violation of the Romeroan definition — and Resident Evil's "zombies" involve a variety of monsters with zombie-like tendencies. Classic horror movies, including Pet Sematary and the 1981 The Evil Dead depict classic Romero zombies — corpses that were resurrected and try to eat people.
Looking at a Romero zombie for what it is, a slow-moving former human with no superpowers or intelligence of any kind, you may wonder why they are considered scary. There are three main factors.
First, zombies are utterly relentless. A group of Romero zombies can easily be avoided and outsmarted, but never outlasted. They never have to sleep, eat, or even rest; they aren't restricted by the sun or any other supernatural factors — they dedicate 100% of their time to trying to eat your brain. Their persistence lends to our feeling of powerlessness — no matter what we do, if we don't kill them, they won't stop.
Secondly, we can become one of them and so can our family members. While this is technically also the case with vampires and werewolves, becoming one of those monsters involves a much more dehumanizing transformation, making them easier to regard as "monsters." Zombies, on the other hand, still look human, making it more difficult to hate and kill them. Many zombie horrors involve a scene where a character must face a loved-one-turned-zombie and as we well know, in these scenes, hesitation = dismemberment, followed promptly by brain consumption.
Third, zombies are epidemic and apocalyptic. While vampires and werewolves, like zombies, reproduce by biting humans, outbreaks of these monsters are typically depicted as affecting a limited area, such as one town or city. Zombies, on the other hand, have become almost synonymous with apocalypse — threatening the survival of humans in their relentless pursuit of juicy, delicious brains. For fellow nerds, check out this must-read Mathematical Modeling of a Zombie outbreak, written by four Carleton University students.
This idea of epidemic is also what makes the zombie genre so versatile — it can be applied to current events to induce a sense of realism to the fear. 28 Days Later features a virus that spreads like Ebola; I Am Legend cites a cure for cancer gone wrong as the beginning of the epidemic; released at the height of the space race, Night of the Living Dead uses a radioactive Venus probe as its cause for corpse reanimation.
From zombie walks to movies, video games, and literature, zombies have thoroughly embedded themselves in media and entertainment. Their similarity to humans, combined with a relentless hunger for human flesh and epidemic nature make them both a consistently terrifying and incredibly versatile monster. And I for one would pick a zombie over a vampire movie any day.