Unlike other classic monsters, zombies are a 20th-century pop-culture phenomenon who have muscled into in the early 21st century. The cult-busting popularity of The Walking Dead and the Humans vs. Zombies games that enliven life on college campuses attest to the lure of the zombie.
Mansfield University Professor of English Dr. John Ulrich studies pop culture and teaches a course in monster literature. I asked him about zombie popularity.
According to Ulrich, zombies first staggered into American culture in the 1920s and '30s. After the U.S. military occupation of Haiti, soldiers and journalists brought back stories of Haitian zombie folklore. "W. B. Seabrook's 1929 book on Haitian 'voodoo,' The Magic Island, includes a short chapter on zombies called 'Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields,' and many commentators see this text as a key player in transferring the zombie from Haitian folklore to American popular culture," Ulrich says. By the early 1930s, zombies had made their way to both stage and screen. In 1932, the play Zombie ran on Broadway, and the film White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi, was released.
Both are set in Haiti, Ulrich explains. Zombies were not flesh eaters, but mindless automatons controlled by a zombie master.
"The more familiar flesh-eating zombies of contemporary popular culture first appeared in George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead," Ulrich says. Romero was influenced by the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth, adapted from Richard Matheson's 1954 novella I Am Legend. Although both I Am Legend and The Last Man on Earth depict a post-apocalyptic U.S. overrun by vampires, not zombies, both feature a survivor defending himself in a boarded-up home, and the vampires act like today's zombies, congregating around the house and trying to break in.
"Romero invented the flesh-eating concept, added graphic scenes of zombies feasting on human body parts, and then -- brilliantly -- focused on the tension and conflict among the survivors," Ulrich explains. "Night of the Living Dead is the foundational text for all subsequent zombie films and literature; everything that follows consciously imitates it or deliberately deviates from it."
The genre has steadily grown in popularity because of the indeterminate, malleable nature of zombies as a cultural sign, Ulrich says. "More than any other kind of monster, the zombie is a virtual blank slate, a screen upon which we can project a variety of meanings. At its most elemental level, of course, the zombie represents our fear of death."
The zombie, Ulrich says, is a walking, desiccated corpse whose sole purpose is to consume human flesh. They force us to confront the material reality of our inevitable demise, that we will be consumed by death.
However, Ulrich adds, the zombie also gives us a way out -- by killing zombies, we temporarily defeat death. "As an added bonus," Ulrich says, "zombies can be killed with impunity, without guilt or shame, since they are already dead. They lack consciousness and their condition is irreversible. This is the bedrock of their appeal."
But when a writer or producer paints a zombie's blank slate, it can represent such different cultural fears as:
- the loss of individuality due to the homogeneity of global consumerism.
- the mind-numbing, repetitive, stultifying effects of everyday work life.
- the planet's destruction due to the mindless overconsumption of its resources.
- the eradication of the human race through an unstoppable, global, viral pandemic.
"Though inarticulate, the zombie speaks to us by raising the spectre of our anxieties, and providing us with the opportunity to shoot those anxieties in the head," Ulrich said.
I pointed out that in a culture overwhelmed by youth, beauty and sex, zombies are dirty, partially eaten, rotting and have no purpose but feeding off of living humans.
"Zombies are the flip side of the culture's obsession with youth, beauty and sex," Ulrich answers.
"Vampires feed off of that obsession. Zombies undermine and subvert it. The zombie aesthetic is an anti-aesthetic, the negation of beauty and youthfulness. Zombies force us to confront the naked truth about our lives: the relentless process of aging, our slow amble toward death and decay." I asked him why zombies move in groups. He said the zombie tendency to swarm is related to the tradition of B-grade horror films about nature gone awry -- birds, bees, spiders, bats, ants, rats, piranhas, etc., overwhelming their human victims.
"Swarms of flesh-eating zombies, however, have the unique ability to convert their victims into more flesh-eating zombies," Ulrich added. "Monstrous consumption generates even more monstrous consumption, on a global scale. This is Zombie Economics 101. And this economic model is, of course, unsustainable. The fear of zombies, in this respect, is the fear of ourselves, of our inability to reverse, or even slow down, our voracious appetite for consumption.
"We are both the zombie swarm and its hapless victim."