I'm sure most of you probably know at least one, if not more, people like me. You know, the friend you invite to dinner who, instead of appreciating the spectacular view from that big old picture window in your living room, lectures you about the impossibility of boarding it up efficiently when the zombies come.
Yeah, I'm that person. And it used to be there weren't very many of us; just a relatively small fringe group of people given to eye-balling his or her surroundings at any given moment, planning just what we'd do if the zombie apocalypse should happen to start right then and there. We were like a small, select club, but instead of a secret handshake we'd all laugh knowingly when someone else said, "Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up."
Now you can't turn around without running into zombie-savvy civilians. Over the last few years zombies have taken over publishing, movies, television and pop culture as relentlessly as they've overrun farmhouses and malls in George Romero's films. Even the CDC has gotten into the rotting, shambling spirit of things. Some people are proclaiming zombies are the "new vampire" (and if, by "new vampire" they mean zombies are the currently the monster du jour for film and literature, I take their point. I don't, however, see them taking over as romantic heroes, sparkling or otherwise). Others state that zombies have already "jumped the shark" and are on their way out, end of story. Not likely, says I. People like me have been waiting a long time for enough zombie fodder to satisfy our appetites.
Not that the concept of a zombie apocalypse is new. There are references to the flesh eating dead in the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest surviving work of literature. And one has only to take a peek at a few choice passages in the bible to see that the dead returning to life is not a new theme.
Throughout history most cultures have had, if not precisely zombies as we've come to define them (i.e. reanimated corpses with a voracious appetite for human flesh), assorted critters close enough for government work: vengeful reanimated corpses called revenants (think Creepshow's "I want my cake!" segment); nachzehrers and gjengangers (ghouls that feed on corpses, but also attack the living and spread disease); and the Norse draugr (dead Vikings who attack, eat and infect the living).
Haitian folklore brought us the "zombi" (which translates as "spirit of the dead"), in the form of either an animated corpse or living human controlled by a Bokor (voodoo priest) after being zapped with a nasty toxic powder called "coup poudre." These zombies didn't eat human flesh, but they were still creepy. Early movies like White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, and the '80s film Serpent and the Rainbow featured this relatively benign incarnation of the walking dead.
George Romero's 1968 release Night of the Living Dead brought us the classic (and now ubiquitous) slow, but relentless flesh-eating zombies. Subsequent films/books/games/television have since brought us more slow zombies; zombies that could win gold medals for sprinting; smart zombies (Day of the Dead); brain-eating zombies (Return of the Living Dead); shark fighting zombies (Zombie Flesh Eaters); funny zombies (Shaun of the Dead/Zombieland); pathetic zombies (Zombie Honeymoon); and sensitive zombies (Fido). Reasons for the zombacalypse range from exploding space probes, biological warfare, demonic possession, tainted meat, mutating viruses/bacterial nasties, biblical prophecy, and more. And now, thanks to The Walking Dead (AMC) and Dead Set (BBC), zombies have successfully infiltrated network television.
With so many epic moments to choose from as zombies have lurched their way through history and into the mainstream, I suspect each of us has our own list of the most noteworthy. And here, fellow zombiephiles, is mine. Your mileage may vary.
Dana Fredsti is the author of Plague Town [Titan, $7.99].
The Epic of Gilgamesh features this choice passage, uttered by Ishtar after Gilgamesh refuses her amorous advances: I shall set my face toward the infernal regions, I shall raise up the dead, and they will eat the living, I will make the dead outnumber the living! And two of numerous examples from the Bible: And the LORD will send a plague on all the nations that fought against Jerusalem. Their people will become like walking corpses, their flesh rotting away. Their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. Zechariah 14:12 But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Revelation 11:11 Sounds pretty zombie-apocalyptic to me, sir.
The 1932 release White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi as evil voodoo master Murder (not a lot of subtlety with the name there) who, at the bequest of a wealthy plantation owner, uses his powers to turn the heroine into a zombie. Why? So the plantation owner can win her affections away from her husband (I know, not the best thought out plan, but love makes people do funny things). White Zombie opened to mixed reviews back in the day, but is now considered a classic and (more importantly to the topic at hand), the first feature-length zombie movie ever made, paving the way for more films of its kind and at least partially setting the stage for zombies as we know (and love) them today.
Is there anyone out there who would disagree that George Romero is pretty much responsible for zombies as we know them today? His low budget indie film Night of the Living Dead about a group of people trapped in farmhouse and besieged by reanimated flesh-eating corpses, frightened, fascinated, and grossed out audiences worldwide, earning a place in the Library of Congress. Over the last forty years it's spawned multiple sequels (my personal favorite being the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead--best first date movie ever!), rip-offs, remakes, and reimaginings. NotLD gave birth to the entire zombie genre -- although ironically Romero never uses the "Z" word in any of his movies, referring to his monsters as "flesh-eating ghouls" instead.
If Romero is the father of modern zombies, Italian director Lucio Fulci is their bastard uncle. His 1979 release Zombi (originally titled Zombie Flesh Eaters). Originally marketed as a sequel to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, it was the first of a slew of low-budget foreign zombie movies chock full of eviscerations, decapitations, and what I like to call the Intestinal Taffy Pull. It also brought us the first and (to my knowledge) only scene of a zombie going mano y fin-o with a shark (note I did not say a "zombie jumping the shark"). A more annoying addition to the genre are heroines who do nothing but scream and throw their heads back when confronted by zombies, thus baring necks for convenient zombie snackage. But zombie versus shark makes it all better.
I first saw Dan O'Bannon's admittedly hilarious Return of the Living Dead (the supposed "true" story behind Night of the Living Dead) at ComicCon at a special preview. I loved it. However, it also is solely responsible for the notion that zombies favor brains, and those of us who know better have to put up with people intoning "Bra-a-a-ains!" whenever they hear the word "zombie." Although this drives me crazy, I also must acknowledge a movie that so completely (entrenched) a one-shot plot gimmick into the psyche of the general population. It also had the first fast zombies, adding the "oh, crap!" factor of being chased by a mob of undead marathon runners, and it's the first zombie comedy.
I love saying "zombie literature." It sounds so high-falutin' and all. But seriously, there are a lot of really good books out there dealing with our favorite flesh-eaters. Max Brooks' Zombie Combat Manual was fun and informative, but it was his history of the Z-Wars cracked open Hollywood to the point where Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt got in a bidding war over the rights to World War Z, a collection of interviews with people who survived the zombie apocalypse. Probably the best audio-book I've heard (Mark Hamill, you rock in this). And a shout out to the other influential authors dealing in the zombie genre: John Skipp, Brian Keene, Jonathan Maberry, David Moody, Joe McKinney, David Wellington, Mira Grant, Stacey Graham, Roger Ma, Z.A Recht... and anyone I haven't mentioned 'cause I haven't read your work yet. If you write it, I will read.
Considering that zombies have been the ginger-haired stepchild amongst the monsters who've populated TV shows over the last few decades (yes, yes, more sexy angst-filled vampires), who would have thought they'd not only end up with their own TV show, but a ground-breaking, ratings-devouring, Emmy winning series on AMC? Britain's BBC jumped on the zombie bandwagon first with their "Big-Brother-Meets-Dawn-of-the-Dead" mini-series Dead Set, but AMC leapt to the forefront with their adaption of Robert Kirkman's excellent comic series The Walking Dead. As someone who's read the series from the beginning, I'm thrilled that it's made it onto prime time television ... even though I'm seriously upset at Dale's untimely death. My response? "Oh my god, they killed Dale! You bastards!"