The early success of AMC series Walking Dead confirms it: Though zombies have been hot for a while, they are now officially the new vampires. Why do Americans love zombies, and what does it say about us?
World War Z fan art by Daniel LuVisi
Though some of the greatest zombie stories in recent memory have come out of the UK, namely 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, the modern zombie seems to have risen in America. Since the early days of pulp fiction, Americans have been scribbling about zombies; and this country also spawned some of the world's most recognizable zombie imagery in movies like Night of the Living Dead, the book World War Z, and now the TV series (based on an American comic book) The Walking Dead.
Image via Zombies and Toys
It was even in the United States that the first zombie walks started, public events where dozens or even hundreds of people dress and zombies and shamble slowly through city centers. These zombie walks quickly spread to Canada and beyond, but the fact remains: People in America really like to pretend that they're dead, rotting husks of human beings who eat each other. Now why would we want to do a thing like that?
Zombies and slavery
In America, the legends of zombies grew out of the cultures created by African slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean. Folklore experts have traced the idea of the zombi back to Vodoun practices in Haiti, where tales have long been told of people brought back from the dead as shambling shadows of themselves. Sometimes these zombis are under the control of a master, and sometimes they simply wander mindlessly.
So when did the flesh-eating, Americanized "zombie" emerge into pop culture, out of African-Caribbean myths circulated during slavery? Probably in the early 1920s, when sensationalistic accounts of "Voodoo" from white tourists in Haiti began to percolate into pulp fiction by authors like H.P. Lovecraft. And then came the turning point: In 1932, Bela Lugosi starred in White Zombie, about an evil white colonialist in Haiti whose sugar mills are run entirely by zombies. Here's an amazing sequence from the film, where we meet the protagonist, a plantation owner in Haiti, who is in love with another man's fiancee. He seeks out Lugosi at the sugar mill to get some zombie serum so he can zombie up his beloved and marry her:
This was the first cinematic zombie moment in America. Not only are these shambling zombies pretty instantly recognizable, they are also entirely connected with imagery of slave labor and African-Caribbean culture. Zombies are black slaves. In fact, the movie was called White Zombie to highlight the unusual connection between white people and zombie culture in the film.
In the incredible 1940s film I Walked With A Zombie, which shares a lot of plot points with White Zombie (including the "let's turn this white chick into a zombie so she'll marry me" subplot), we see more blatant connections made between zombies and slaves. Here, a nurse has arrived on the island of St. Sebastian to care for the zombified wife of a plantation owner. She goes out for a drink with the man's brother, and overhears a calypso singer (played by an actual calypso superstar of the era, Sir Lancelot, from Trinidad) singing about the cursed family she's working for.
This was one of the first times American audiences would have seen calypso singing on film. Once again, African-Caribbean culture is associated with zombies. Indeed, the plot of this film shows how an evil white plantation owner has appropriated Voodoo traditions of the local people to retain control of the people who work on her plantation.
There are a number of other zombie-related films like these released in the mid-twentieth century - from Revolt of the Zombies to King of the Zombies - where the zombies are firmly rooted in the slave cultures where they began. Starting in the 1960s with George Romero's revolutionary Night of the Living Dead, all that changed. In that movie, a black protagonist has to deal with hordes of white zombies. Though stories about the undead continued to change over the next half-century, their roots remained planted firmly in stories about slavery and race relations.
In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, zombies became the rotted flesh version of rebellious robots. They're creatures created to be slaves, who rebel by losing their minds and biting everybody. Unlike robots, zombies have no lasers and infrared vision to help them along. They have only tooth and claw, just like human beings.
The monsters of disease and starvation
After the rise of the Romero zombie, our undead alter-egos became much more focused on consumption. I mean that literally, in the "eat brains" sense, but also metaphorically too. Dawn of the Dead, arguably the greatest zombie film of the 1970s, takes place in a shopping mall for a reason. As one of the characters remarks, the confused dead come back to places they knew in life. But they are also hungry to consume. First, they want to eat your flesh. Second, they want to buy sports equipment.
The unquenchable appetites of the zombie is now a fixture of pretty much every zombie story you'll see. These appetites come with another relatively recent twist in the zombie story, which is the idea that zombie-ism spreads like a disease. Undead slaves in White Zombie were made with a potion, while today's zombies are self-replicating. They can turn you into one of them with one juicy chomp.
From the disease model of zombies comes the inevitable zombie horde, and from that the apocalypse model of zombies which you see in World War Z, The Walking Dead and Zombieland. Indeed, zombies have become so commonly associated with extinction-level plagues that a Harvard Medical School doctor has just published a book called The Zombie Autopsies, which is intended to be a fun way of introducing novices to the basics of real-life epidemiology and forensic science.
One of the most common images we associate with zombies today is the urban horde of hungry, diseased monsters roaming a post-apocalyptic landscape. It's a fantastical vision of the human future: In a world without health care, with inadequate food, we turn into mindless animals willing to kill anyone to survive. That's why apocalypse movies and zombie movies are so stylistically similar these days. I Am Legend and The Road looked and felt like zombie flicks. The undead have moved from the realm of gothic horror to science fiction.
And yet their roots in slavery, in the past, are never forgotten.
The dead come back because you can't escape the past
Like the earliest of zombie movies, The Walking Dead is at many points explicitly about race relations in America. The group of surviving humans is seething with racial tension, which occasionally breaks out into deadly violence. Other zombie stories, like World War Z, are direct references to the history of class warfare in America. Max Brooks explicitly based his novel on the work of Studs Terkel, whose oral histories of the Great Depression and World War II exposed commonalities between people from all walks of life - but revealed also their shared experiences of racial and class conflicts.
Of course no fantasy icon as popular as the zombie can ever be boiled down neatly into an allegory about any single issue. Race and class conflicts are one part of zombie tales, as are fears about famine, disease and war. A few years ago, we at io9 even did a massive analysis of times in history when the most zombie movies came out, trying to discern a pattern. What we found was quite remarkable: Periods of social unrest and war were almost always followed by big spikes in zombie movie production.
If anything, what all these zombie movies have in common is a shared origin in mass historical trauma. When millions of people go through something horrific together - whether that's slavery, war, or plague - they seem to hunger for stories about zombies.
Zombies are like the memories of terrible events that we've tried to stash away, tried to forget. And they're not just one memory - they're our mass memory of lives lost, homes destroyed, nations crushed. I think that's why zombies always come in hordes. They return to us the way traumatic memories always do, unbidden, in our fantasies, in a form even more distorted than the original. They're here to make us remember what we've been through and what we've done.
What those zombies are asking you, with their rotted jaws and bleeding eyes, is whether we will ever escape from the histories that hurt us.