The History of the Zombie in Popular Culture

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“Zombie” by Jean-noël Lafargue is licensed under free art license 1.3

The zombie myth can be traced back to Hattian folklore of the 17th and 18th centuries, as slaves believed their punishment for committing suicide would be to exist as the walking dead rather than returning to their African homeland. Over time, the idea of the zombie became part of Voodoo tradition, and evolved slightly. Hattians believed zombies were corpses brought back to life by Voodoo priests, often for use as free labor.

The story of the zombie drastically changed, however, when it became a dominant icon of American popular culture in the late 1960s. The event which many would claim started the trend of zombie films is the release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Although the living dead in the film are never actually referred to as zombies, their lumbering gait and hunger for human flesh became forever associated with the modern idea of the zombie, and are seen in numerous zombie movies since.

The symbolism of the modern zombie

Although many may initially think of zombie movies as gratuitously violent and lacking intelligent plots, there is actually much more to be said for many zombie movies than meets the eye. As an element of popular culture, zombies have often represented common fears or anxieties held by the country at the time. Some examples of this can be seen below.

“Zombies” by t f is licensed under CC by 2.0

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

This movie launched a string of sequels, knockoffs, and remakes, and holds an especially important place in the history of zombies as an element of American culture. The film follows the story of a group of survivors who have barricaded themselves in a house after the dead in a nearby cemetery have begun to reanimate and attack living humans. Although exactly what brought on the reanimation of these corpses is never entirely explained, it is strongly suggested that it is the result of radiation from a space probe which has returned from Venus. Given current events at the time of its production and release, including the Cold War and the Apollo Missions, it is easy to see the zombies in the film as the incarnation of anxieties held by many Americans at the time. It is also easy to see the racially charged interactions throughout the film, which come with significant importance when remembering that the film was released just five months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Directed by George A. Romero, who also directed Night of the Living Dead, this installment in the zombie genre follows a group of survivors, seemingly from the same apocalyptic event as the previously mentioned film, who take refuge in a secluded shopping mall. Many aspects of consumerism can be seen throughout the movie, especially as the zombies are theorized to be visiting the mall because it was such a large aspect of their lives when they were alive. According to film studies professor Kyle Williams Bishop, the characters in the film are brainwashed by capitalist ideology, and see the world around them only in terms of consumption and possession. Although based on the same event leading to the reanimation of the zombies, this film plays off noticeably different concerns of the time, and especially on the economy of the late 1970s.

28 Days Later (2002)

In this film, zombies represent yet another prevalent fear: mass contagion. In this film the “zombies” are caused by a rage-inducing virus, which quickly spreads throughout the world. With issues including AIDs nearing their peak in the early 2000s, the fear of a global pandemic was very real, and this could easily be seen in 28 Days Later and similar films of the time.

Many other examples can be found of the symbolic nature of the zombie in popular forms of media, one of which being Cell. This leads us to the importance of the year when Cell was released, and how this plays into the significance of the technophobic narrative presented. You can read about this in the other sections of this website.