The Zombie in Popular Culture


The Zombie in Popular Culture

The zombie. The sometimes lumbering, undead, flesh eating creature of our nightmares. In recent history, they have become the most popular creature to inhabit all forms of pop culture, invading our comic books, video games, movies and television sets. But, the question is, how in the world did they get so popular in the first place? Exactly where did the phenomenon that is the zombie begin?

Zombie Origins

The word zombie as known today is vastly different from its original origins. Zombies as we know them in pop culture are defined as, “a person or reanimated corpse that has been turned into a creature capable of movement but not of rational thought, which feeds on human flesh.” The original origin of the word, however, is as an element of the Haitian religion of Vodou, where it was used to describe an individual that had recently died and was revived, only to have their every movement controlled by a bokor or sorcerer. The revived individual has no free will of their own and is said to be in a ‘zombie-like’ state.

In the 1980’s, anthropologist Wade Davis who traveled to Haiti, claimed that a zombie-like state could be introduced pharmologically using substances such as tetrodotoxins(typically obtained from the puffer fish). The substance substantially reduces the heart and respiration rates to the point that the person exhibits the symptoms of clinical death, and as a result are treated as dead. After being buried, the victim is exhumed, and having been severely traumatized by the experience, exhibit zombie-like symptoms including memory loss, limited speech and confusion. After his trip, Davis used his finding to write several books, the most popular of which is The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was subsequently turned into a motion picture by Wes Craven staring Bill Pullman.

The First Zombie Movie

deadSource: IMDB

It is widely accepted that in 1932, a film called White Zombie based on the 1929 William Seabrook novel, The Magic Island is the first ever zombie film created. The movie stars horror legend Bela Lugosi, and was directed by Victor Halperin. The film depicts zombies in the traitional sense; people who are taken over and controlled by a potion, and forced to work on a plantation in Haiti by their master. The film opened to negative reviews, but has since gained a more positive reception. Other zombie films followed in the 1930’s and 1940’s, all with similar thematic elements, including Voodoo drums, the blank-eyed stares of the zombified people and the ‘turned’ doing manual labor. It would not be until 1968 and a little film by George A. Romero that we are introduced to the zombie as we know them today.

Night of the Living Dead

deadSource: IMDB

In the fall of 1968, Night of the Living Dead, directed by George A. Romero was released to theaters. Filmed on a budget of $114,000, peanuts by today’s standards, the film became a financial success, taking in $12 million at the domestic box office, and $18 million internationally. At the time, the film was heavily criticized for its excessive gore, which today, amounts to nothing. It eventually garnered critical acclaim, and is highly recognized as the father of the zombie genre.

Staring Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea, the story follows Ben, Barbara and five other characters as they try to survive inside a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse which is under attack by creatures that at the time of the film release were unnamed ‘living dead.’ The inspiration for Romero’s living dead creatures came from earlier depictions in pop culture of the ghoul, which eventually led to this type of shambling creature being referenced as ‘zombies.’

The film was originally conceived as a ‘horror-comedy’ by co-writers Romero and John Russo, under the title  Monster Flick. The early draft of the screenplay sees aliens visiting Earth and befriending teenagers. The second draft of the film sees a young man discover aliens using rotting corpses as a food source. The final draft of the script, mostly written by Russo, focuses on reanimated corpses, which Romero called ghouls that eat the flesh of the living. Romero has said in interviews that his story for Night of the Living Dead is basically a rip-off of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel,  I Am Legend which also went on to become three different films(however there is a fourth film that does not credit Matheson as the inspiration.)

 Night of the Living Dead is also known for its social commentary of the time. The civil rights movement was strong in 1968, and violence among African-Amercians by the police was widely known across the country. The end of the film sees Ben, an African-American as the only one to survive the night, walk through the front door to what he thinks is freedom, and be shot in the head and killed by a police posse who had cleared the fields outside the farmhouse, having mistaken him for a zombie. Romero has said that there was no significance to casting a black actor in the lead role.

The Zombie from the 1970’s to the 1990’s

After the runaway success of Night of the Living Dead, George Romero took a full ten years to release the second of his Living Dead films, titled,  Dawn of the Dead. While no characters or references to the original film are presented in Dawn, it expands its borders to show the wider effect of the zombie outbreak on the United States. Taking place in a shopping mall, it is a sharp social commentary on the effects of consumerism that had taken hold of the populace at the time and since.

deadSource: IMDB

Filmed on an estimated budget of $1.5 million, Dawn is the highest grossing film in the Living Dead series, taking in $55 million worldwide. It is also the goriest of all the Living Dead films, earning an initial rating of X in the United States, which Romero rejected outright releasing the film unrated to commercial success.

Between the release of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, there were a few zombie films released, but the real explosion would not take place until the runaway success of Dawn, and the start of the 1980’s. During this decade, close to seventy films depicting the zombie in one form or another were released, with some of the more popular films including, The Fog, Evil Dead, Creepshow, Return of the Living Dead, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Pet Semetary, and the second sequel to Night of the Living Dead titled, Day of the Dead.

It is also during this decade, almost coinciding with the downfall of the home gaming console that the first video games starring zombies are released, beginning with the Atari 2600 game Entombed in 1982. Several other games follow sporadically throughout the 80’s, most being released on the Commodore 64. With the advent of gaming for MS-DOS, and the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985 as well as more powerful consoles later on, the zombie video game would begin a whole new chapter and near runaway success in the 1990’s.

While games featuring the zombie were trying to gain a foothold at the start of the 1990’s, movies were moving full steam ahead. The remake of Night of the Living Dead in 1990 opened to a very negative critical response, with many critics claiming it was basically a shot for shot remake of the original, and eventually bombed at the box office. With a hit film remake bombing, the 90’s were unkind to zombie films, many of which filmed with low budgets and released straight to video.

At the end of the decade, it seemed the zombie film had had its time, and would be relegated to the bargain bin or the horror section of the local video store waiting to be rented. In 1996 however, there would be a fundamental shift in the way that the zombie would be viewed by the consumer thanks to two major companies, one fictional and one very real, and very determined.

deadSource: Capcom

On March 22, 1996, the world was introduced to The Umbrella Corporation thanks to Capcom. Originally released on the Playstation, and later ported to other gaming systems, Resident Evil would take the world by storm. The first ‘survival horror’ game ever released, Resident Evil garnered critical and commercial success and led to many sequels, several films, and another form of entertainment that was widely left behind until 1998, the novel.

After the massive success of Resident Evil, author S. D. Perry was tapped to write the novelization of the game. An author of tie-in novels based on movies and gaming, S. D. Perry would go on to write seven titles related to the Resident Evil gaming series, five based off the games, and two original titles that are related to the games.

With this sudden resurgence in the popularity of zombies at the end of the 90’s, it wouldn’t be until the early 2000’s that another tectonic shift would take place. This time, it would be across all forms of media, and the zombie would take popular culture by storm.

The Zombie in the 2000’s

At the start of the new millennium, zombies continued their slow chug against the world, in the form of novels, video games and movies, but a change was coming, something that would surprise and delight the world, thanks to director Danny Boyle in 2002.

deadSource: IMDB

Filmed on a modest budget of $8 million dollars, 28 Days Later significantly changed the way the world viewed the zombie. No longer were the creatures slow shambling corpses, now they were super-fast, rage filled humans, bent on destruction. It was the first time that an ‘infected human’ moved at such a speed, and it delighted movie goers. The film brought in nearly $85 million dollars worldwide and is considered to be a critical success. It led to the 2000’s having the most zombie film releases of any decade, many of which went on to commercial success, including five films based off of the Resident Evil game series and three more sequels to Night of the Living Dead.

Not to be outdone by film, in 2003, zombies in print were about to explode. On September 16th of that year, Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide was released to the world and landed on the New York Times bestsellers list. The book itself is a manual dealing with how to survive if there was a zombie attack. The book was the start of the explosion of novels featuring zombies, with Max Brooks writing another novel, World War Z in 2007.  However the greatest success story in zombie history would be made only a few weeks after the release of Zombie Survival Guide, and it would change everything.


Written by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead shambled its way onto comic book store shelves in October of 2003 and became an absolute monster. It focuses on the story of Rick Grimes, a deputy who is shot and awakens from a coma to the devastation of a zombie apocalypse. As the comic series continued its success, it spilled over into every form of entertainment imaginable, including a hit T.V. series, and a spin-off, novelizations, video games, toys, conventions, etc. As far as the genre is concerned, The Walking Dead is now the de facto standard for anything zombie related.

With successes spreading across all forms of entertainment, it is no wonder that television has now opened its doors to the zombie. With shows including IZombie and Z Nation becoming major hits, it seems that the lowly zombie has risen to the top of the monster list and has taken over the world. No longer are zombies relegated to slow moving, speechless corpses. They can now be intelligent, witty, funny, speaking creatures that occasionally reach for a brain sandwich for lunch. However that doesn’t mean that the zombie is not giving a commentary on the state of the world today.

If we stop and look around once in a while, what do we see? Technology has taken over the world. As our phones got smarter, our attention spans drifted and we shut the world out almost completely. While Night of the Living Dead gave us commentary on race relations, and Dawn of the Dead was commentary on consumerism, we could interpret the world today as living in a ‘zombie-like’ state. Remember, the zombie is a shambling, unspeaking creature incapable of rational thought. How is that any different than any of us with our heads in our phones as we shamble along the sidewalks and streets of our towns or cities, unspeaking, and unaware of any dangers that exist outside of that glowing screen? As a nation, or a species, we have taken over the mantle of zombie, be it in our phones, meandering through our jobs or binge-watching our favorite new show. As humans have we evolved or devolved as zombie culture continues to elevate itself?

Popular as ever, the zombie does not seem to be going the way of the dinosaur anytime soon. We are continually deluged with all sorts of entertainment to snack on, and it seems that many of us, really don’t want to give it up. If we are continued to be given the same high value for our buck, why should it go away? Could a new monster phenomenon be on the horizon? Only time will tell.


Gene Grasso

Ever since his first viewing of Star Wars at 3 years old in 1977, Gene has been interested in all things nerd. Podcaster by day, writer by night, fan everytime, there is nothing in the pop culture world that Gene doesn't enjoy.

One Comment:

  1. Excellent article, Gene; well done!

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