Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
Representing the 99%!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Zombies in Popular Culture By Marilyne Trépanier

In our society, many events have created fear among the public. Some of the events include, but are not limited to, the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to ongoing wars between countries like Israel and Palestine, as well as natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Social conventions have led us to fear the day when we will be no more and people are often afraid to lose their loved ones. Zombies in popular culture have been used in many texts as metaphors for the fears felt by society at a given time. They are a part of a widespread phenomenon which reflects some of the worse and at times, best parts of our culture. With reference to Kyle Bishop’s Dead Man Still Walking: Explaining the Zombie Renaissance (2009), I will describe the history of the zombie genre, will then explore how the widespread zombie phenomenon is linked to society’s fears at a given time, and will conclude by explaining why is important to discuss and understand this issue.

History of Zombies

Photo @ George A Romeo
George A. Romero is the founder of the zombie genre. In 1968, he produced the movie Night of the Living Dead, which started the hippie-gothic movement, as film theorist Joseph Maddrey called it. Night of the Living Dead exposed to the public the atrocities which were taking place in the Vietnam War and confronted the issue of racism. It aimed to convince the population that violence is not the way to go to solve conflicts. The director used graphic images, detailing the horrors of death, which were unprecedented at the time, to shock the public. The movie was extremely successful and made more than 30 million dollars worldwide.  

Following Romero’s genre, many other films were produced, such as Garden of the Dead (1972), Return of the Evil Dead (1973), Horror of the Zombies (1974), and another by Romero entitled Dawn of the Dead (1978). Dawn of the Dead explored the failings of capitalism and consumerism, when survivors of a zombie apocalypse barricade themselves in a shopping centre to escape the ravening living dead. In the end, the survivors are led to their doom by other survivors themselves. The movie was extremely successful on the global scale, as it grossed 55 million dollars worldwide. Romero’s film was quickly followed by an unofficial sequel by Lucio Fulci, Zombie (1979). Fulci’s movie describes the story of a zombie infestation which originated from a Caribbean Island. These last two movies greatly defined the zombie genre and were followed by other classic zombie movies such as Night of the Zombies (1981), Revenge of the Zombies (1981), Mansion of the Living Dead (1982) and Kung Fu Zombies (1982). (Bishop, 2010)

Photo @ Rolling Stones Magazine
The zombie movie proliferation eventually died out by the mid 1980’s, with the creation of Michael Jackson’s short movie video “Thriller” (1983). In the video, zombies start dancing along with Michael Jackson, which killed the seriousness and danger related to zombies. Romero tried to revive the flame with his 1985 Day of the Dead, which related to the Cold War and the general feeling of paranoia; however the public wanted something different. Romero’s zombie genre was modified to a more comical genre, with zombies that could talk and that ate brains. The American public, which was insulated from global warfare, had other things on its mind rather than global genocides and massacres. By the 1990’s, the Cold War had ended, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Gulf War had been resolved, and with President Clinton in power, the public was feeling general self-satisfaction and stability. The general mood did not allow for zombie movies to be prosperous, as these films reflect on the fears of society at the given time. (Bishop, 2010) Thus, it seemed as though that zombies themselves could finally rest in peace. Or could they? 

The Proliferation of Zombies in the 21st Century

Photo @ Pat Dollard.com
It was in 2002, however, that Romero’s zombie genre came back to life. It is believed the collective acceptation of zombies in popular culture was due to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. After this event, Americans realized that they were not as safe as they believed they were, and zombie movies reflected this fear. In 2002, Danny Boyle produced the enormously successful 28 Days Later, the first movie of the zombie renaissance. This frightening scenario transports the public to London, where the main character wakes up from a coma and realizes there is a full blown zombie apocalypse. The movie amassed 45 million dollars in the United States. Even though the genre was based on Romero’s original idea of a zombie movie, the public responded as if it was something completely new, and demanded more. Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002), shortly followed by two sequels, in 2004 and 2007, where also very popular and reflected the national mood. Many remakes of popular zombie movies were produced, such as Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Night of the Living Dead (2006). Other prosperous movies of the time were Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005). Zombies returned with a vengeance.

Almost all media became prone to the zombie genre during this decade. Zombies were in books, art, music, films, theatre, television series and online. Max Brooks wrote the acclaimed The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) as well as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006). Stephen King took part of this movement by writing Cell (2006), where terrorists brainwashed most the American society and turned them into flesh eating zombies. Furthermore, a hard-rock band named Zombie Ritual produced an album in 2004 entitled Night of the Zombie Party. An all zombie version of the classic story Romeo and Juliet, title Warm Bodies (2013) was also produced. Additional, online zombie blogs were widespread. Zombies became much more popular than any other supernatural being such as vampires, werewolves or mummies. The public demanded more and more zombies as a way to exteriorise their fear of the other. And fear in our society was not lacking. (Bishop, 2010)

Photo @ The Walking Dead AMC
Zombies are everything we don’t want to be. They are rotting dead beings that are driven by one basic need, and that is the goal to feed. According to Romero’s genre, zombies cannot think, they do not feel emotions, such as happiness, pain and fear. However, they were once human, and that is the scariest part of all. The public both fears, and identifies with zombies. Unlike other supernatural beings, they have no superpower; they are a simpler, but more violent form of human being. I believe that this is exactly why zombies are so popular in our society. Zombies resemble human beings in many ways, but at the same time, they are a completely unknown creature. We do not understand zombies; they are the core of what we have never seen before. And what we don’t understand, we have learned to fear. We have come to identify them as the other: The unknown enemy we must destroy. For film makers, writers, artists and others, zombies can be used as a metaphor for the things we dread in our society. Humans often don’t like to face their problems head on since this requires a lot of energy and time, and can be very scary. Producers and writers know this, so they write about zombies to exteriorise this fear felt by the general public.

Resident Evil

In the movie Resident Evil, the extremely dangerous T-virus was propagated into the air conditioning system of the Hive, owned by the Umbrella Corporation. Before any worker knew what was happening, the Red Queen had locked all doors and exits of the underground facility. The scenes of rapid death can easily be related to the events of September 11, 2001. This fear is represented in the movie in many different scenes. First, many workers are killed when the elevator plummets to the bottom of the elevator shaft. This likely represents the death of hundreds of people on September 11, which died because the World Trade Centres collapsed. Another relevant scene to the events of September 11 is when some workers are trapped in an office unable to get out. They die from asphyxia, which again, relates to September 11 when hundreds of people died because they could not get out and smoke suffocated them. As Bishop (2009, p. 270) writes “All these plot elements and motifs are present in pre-9/11 zombie films, but they have become more relevant to a modern contemporary audience.” For the public who have viewed these scenes on the news, the passages in the movie can be very eerie as they remind them of the deadly events of September 11. This is the main reason why the public like the zombie genre; because they can relate to these movies.

Dead Snow
Photo @ ListofImages.com
Another example in the film relevant to the attacks of September 11 is the idea of the other. In real life, the other are the terrorists. Since September 11, Americans have been under great fear that there will be other terrorist acts on the country. The enemy is no longer seen as a human being, but as a threat to our way of life. We do not understand why these people committed the terrorist acts, and frankly, we like it better this way. To understand their reasoning would led to compassion, and we do not want to feel compassion for murders. By not understanding them, it is easier to put all the blame on them and not feel bad for them when we do kill them. This is exactly what happened in the movie. At the instant the first zombie viewed tried to take a bite from Rain Ocampo, she declares the women crazed, and does not hesitate to shoot the women several times. To identify the zombies as the other is a good way to feel no remorse for their death. When Rain Ocampo becomes a zombie, her friend, Matt Addison, shoots her with almost no hesitation. If Matt hadn’t identified the zombies as the other, to shoot his friend would have been a lot more difficult.

World War Z

Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) is another lens through which we can view the anxieties felt in today’s society. The zombie epidemic, which led to the fall of many nations, can be seen as a metaphor for the declining power of the United States, and the threat of the increasing power of developing countries. Not too long ago, the USA was inevitably the most powerful country with regards to its defense and its technological advancements. Any country that attacked them, or any of their allies for that matter, would be suicidal. Taking World War II for example, many say that the involvement of the United States in the conflict was one of the main reasons why the war was won. Today, many fear this has changed. Especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, the once great superpower has lost credibility. In the past decade, the United States have struggled to keep their economy alive. This situation touches a lot of people in the United States as many have lost their jobs and had their possessions seized. The economy is what keeps everything else rolling. A good economy signifies technological advancements in all fields, and this is necessary for the development of the country. Max Brooks (2006) shows this fear in his book with the spreading of a virus which leads to the fall of the United States, as well as many other countries, as we know them today. The virus first came from Japan, China and other Eastern countries. We fear these developing countries, which are advancing beyond expectation in the past decades, will one day be able to overthrow Western governments. 

The Zombification of Human Fears

Since the zombie renaissance, zombies have become faster, more violent, more transparent, all in all, deadlier. (Bishop, 2010) They have adapted to our state of mind, and this tells us a lot about our society in the past few years. Even though we have made great technological advancements, natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, still bring enormous damage to our infrastructures and constructions. This proves that, even though we often think of ourselves as powerful beings, we often find ourselves to be powerless. As another example, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, many survivors interviewed said that the whole thing seemed as if it was pulled out of a movie. (Bishop, 2010) We often perceive movies like exactly that, scenes that could not be possible in real life. However, to describe an event that did happen in real life, people use the phrase “it was just like in a movie”. This proves how life can often be more threatening than we think it is. 

As Bishop writes (2009, p. 266), “because the after effects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters so closely resemble the scenarios of zombie cinema, such images of death and destruction have all the more power to shock and terrify a population that has become otherwise jaded by more traditional horror films.” Many people are frightened by zombie movies; they find them disturbing and atrocious. But in my opinion, people fear zombies not because they look scary; they fear zombies because of what they symbolize. By analysing the zombie genre, one can come closer to comprehend the society we live in today. The zombie genre is always reinventing itself. This is done so it can be adapted to a given society at a given time. The zombie movies from the 1970’s are less relevant to our society than the zombie movies that were made only a few years ago. However if one wants to analyse the society’s values, beliefs and fears of the 1970’s, zombie literature of that time would reflect upon that society very well. As the human race evolves, we adapt and so does the common zombie.


Bishop, K. (2010). Dead Man Still Walking: Explaining the Zombie Renaissance. In M. Petracca & M. Sorapure (Eds.), Reading Popular Culture (pp. 264-282). USA: Penguin Academics.

Brooks, M. (2006). World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. New York, NY:  Three Rivers Press.

Eichinger, B., Hadida, S., Bolt, J. & Anderson, P. W. S. (Producers), & Anderson, P.  W. S. (Director). (2002). Resident Evil [DVD]. USA: Screen Gems.

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