Heard this piece from The Why Factor on BBC World Service, all about zombies. It was the noise at the start that got me – this sort of clicking, vocal low growl. It was a little unsettling. But listening through, it got me thinking.
It seems that AMC’s The Walking Dead led this current phase of popularity, and while I thought that maybe the zombie was waining, it seems to still be going strong. Last year’s Zombieland 2 (which I still haven’t seen), popular games like The Last of Us, and the white walkers from HBO’s Game of Thrones all point to a strong showing by the reanimated corpse.
The zombie, and the wider horror genre, is a cyclical beast. While zombies have been en vogue starting from the October 31, 2010 airing of Days Gone By, the first episode of The Walking Dead, they were made popular first, and in their current iteration, by George Romero in his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Though Romero lost the rights to that film, it became a lucrative franchise for him as he created five more films in his Dead Saga. Dani Di Placido at Forbes wrote this history of the zombie legend following Romero’s death in 2017.
Before Romero, Americans knew of the zombie mostly from White Zombie, a 1932 film about a Haitian honeymoon with voodoo and raised corpses. The Haitian zombie wasn’t bloodthirsty – it was merely a resurrected person to be used as a slave by a sorcerer. Director Wes Craven revisited this aspect of the zombie legend in 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. In A History of Zombies in America from NPR’s Rachel Martin and Rund Abdelfatah, the Haitian beginnings of zombies are explored in depth.
Through the 80s and the 90s, zombies got more of a B-movie treatment. Slasher films were the mainstay, with films like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Sleepaway Camp following up on the popularity of 1978’s Halloween. The masked killer got a revamp in 1996 with Wes Craven’s Scream, ushering in a smarter, meta-version of the slasher film.
While the film industry wasn’t doing great with zombies, video games were killing it. The Resident Evil series, started in 1996 for Playstation, was immensely popular and eventually got its own film adaptations as well. Additionally, new life for the zombie came in the 2000s, including the 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and the 2004-remake of Dawn of the Dead. In 2003, Robert Kirman began the long-running series Walking Dead for Image Comics, which would be adapted to television by AMC.
And books as well get the zombification treatment, with popular novels like Max Brooks’s World War Z, Stephen King’s Cell, and M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, not to mention the Seth Graham parody mashup of Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.
So while I echo Romero’s sentiment that the zombie genre has become overrun in recent years, there is still plenty of material to pull from for a bevy of stories to tell about the living dead. I suppose horror, and its fan-base, is just waiting for the next resurgence – maybe it’ll be Universal Monsters this time around.