The Evolution of the Zombie

March 8, 2012
By , logan, OH
Zombies are one of the most popular and well known monsters in the horror genre. There are numerous reasons that have been put forth to explain the success of these undead terrors. Zombies can symbolize almost anything, from war to humanity being stripped of its personality. They can also show us how individuals react to apocalyptic situations. “It’s up to the viewer, really, whether to view Night of the Living Dead as mindless, hack – and – slash entertainment or profound social commentary in fantastic guise” (Clasen). Since the introduction of the Haitian voodoo zombie, the zombie has continually evolved along with the psychological state of society.

According to Kevin Boon, there are nine classifications of zombies. Zombie Drones are oblivious slaves, like the zombies of Haiti. The flesh eating Zombie Ghouls, created by George A. Romero, are the best known. Bio Zombies are zombified by an outside entity. Cultural Zombies gain zombie characteristics while retaining some human intelligence. Zombie Channels have been possessed by another being, and Psychological Zombies have been hypnotized or brainwashed. Zombie Ghosts are spirits that have returned from the dead, but don’t have physical bodies. Finally, a Zombie Ruse is when a product has the word ‘zombie’ in it, but in reality has nothing to do with zombies (Boon). Most of the zombies in these categories, excepting the last, have returned from the dead and/or lost something that once made them human.

Haitian Voodoo Zombies

The legend of the zombie comes from Haiti, where voodoo priests were thought to raise the dead with black magic. These Zombie Drones (Boon) supposedly worked as slaves on plantations for the zombie master. The concept of the Haitian zombie was introduced in the 1920’s, and this concept was used regularly in films as well as radio dramas. One of the first books about voodoo zombies was The Magic Island, written by William Seabrook and published in 1929. The book astonished and horrified Americans with tales of voodoo rituals and corpses that walked but had no awareness. This story inspired the 1932 play Zombie and one of the first zombie movies, White Zombie (1932).

Zombie and White Zombie both had similar plots. Foreigners visiting Haiti fell victim to an evil zombie master’s plot, but were able to defeat him and his zombie followers. Anyone who was turned into a zombie was turned back, and they all lived happily ever after. At this time in history African – Americans were moving north, so to Americans this may have symbolized regaining their control over blacks (Kee). The fact that White Zombie featured a white woman being zombified by a black man also probably had to do with racism. Later movies, such as Ouanga (1935), follow these themes as well.

In White Zombie’s sequel, Revolt of the Zombies (1936), the zombie master attempts to create a zombie army using Haitian locals as well as outsiders. Movies such as King of the Zombies (1941) and Revenge of the Zombies (1943) contained Nazis using voodoo to create zombie armies. Films such as these, released just before World War II, suggested that the Nazis might use zombies as pawns against the U.S., and even turn Americans themselves into some type of zombie. These zombies were not necessarily dead, but were more like Psychological Zombies (Boon) under mind control. This type of zombie is also seen in The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964).

Flesh Eating Zombies

Until 1986, zombie narratives took place in exotic places such as Haiti, far away from America. Zombies were generally considered dangerous, but only because they were acting under the will of their leader. But when George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released, the Zombie Ghoul (Boon) was born. Even though the creatures in Night of the Living were originally called ghouls, they quickly became considered zombies. This marked the beginning of the time were zombies were no longer kept at a safe distance, but instead attacked and ate people right here in America.

When he made Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero was greatly inspired by Richard Matheson’s book I am Legend and its first film adaptation, The Last Man on Earth (1964). In I am Legend, a virus kills or mutates everyone on Earth except the main character, Robert Neville. Neville is left to fight the bloodthirsty mutant vampires that are trying to create a new society on Earth. Basically, Neville goes through a lot of mental trauma and turns into a bigger monster than most of the vampires. Night of the Living Dead also deals with apocalypse scenarios, namely, the zombie apocalypse, where the hungry enemy is always around the corner (Crudge).

The zombie apocalypse scenario was used in the next two Living Dead movies, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), as well as countless other movies and books. People are attracted to these zombie stories not only because of the violence and gore, but also because of the human dramas they contain. When people turn into disgusting monsters, it tends to be highly stressful for other people. The many flaws of humanity are revealed as some characters go bad, betraying other survivors and sacrificing them for the sake of their own continued existence. Others can’t handle the fear and anguish, so they give up and commit suicide or even suicide by zombie. The characters that remain alive without losing their humanity, either by becoming a zombie or an evil person, show the better aspects of humanity. This is featured prominently in the book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.

As the physical aspects of the zombie evolved, the things they represented also changed. For example, zombies are thought to be related to nuclear weapons. The shunned Japanese hibakusha, victims of bombs in Hiroshima, greatly resembled zombies. They were said to just wander around, covered in radiation burns and barely alive. Zombies also resemble the muselmanner, who came from Nazi concentration camps. These individuals were emaciated and nearly brain-dead, as they had completely given up on life (Muntean). Zombies are also associated with the soldiers of modern warfare. Films like Full Metal Jacket (1987) show how soldiers become cultural zombies (Boon) through the “dehumanization” of war. Other films, like Universal Soldier (1992), contain the former element as well as soldiers who have become Tech Zombies or Bio Zombies (Boon). In these movies soldiers are abused and denigrated until they become insane killing machines (Ni Fhlainn).


Modern Zombies

Having evolved from slaves controlled by voodoo magic to staggering, man-eating corpses, zombies in the modern day have undergone yet another radical change. In the films 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007), as well as several video games, zombies have gained both speed and intelligence. Some find these zombies far more terrifying then the classic Romero zombies. Others prefer the slow and steady approach of the Zombie Ghouls (Boon). “Discussion threads on online forums often debate ‘do you think fast or slow zombies are scarier’ and partisans on both sides of the issue argue the relative merits vociferously” (Dendle). Since they have some degree of brainpower, fast zombies are thought by some to not really count as zombies at all, because by definition zombies have had all of their human qualities taken from them. However, others believe that the slow but relentless approach of slow zombies just doesn’t cut it in the 21st century.

Gaining agility is not the only way the zombie has changed recently. Zombies are now seen, not only in the horror genre, but also in comedy. A prime example is the movie Shaun of the Dead (2004), in which the atypical hero is confronted with the zombie apocalypse. Shaun, a stereotypical slacker, doesn’t even realize at first that his neighbors have turned into zombies, as their dull lives had already practically zombified them. Once he and his best friend Ed realize what’s going on, Shaun’s plan is to get his mum and his ex-girlfriend and then hole up in a bar called the Winchester. Though it is humorous, Shaun of the Dead contains as much symbolism as the best zombie horror stories. It even brings back the original Haitian concept of zombie slaves, for in the conclusion the zombies are under control and being used for labor (Pifer). Other examples of using zombies for comedy are The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks as well as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Movies and books aren’t the only places one can find zombies in these days. People gather in masses to participate in zombie walks, sometimes for fundraisers, but more often to disrupt the peace. Participants wear elaborate costumes and makeup, showing open wounds and pale, dead skin. Some places, especially colleges, host very involved games of zombies tag, where people role-play as zombies and victims. The zombies attempt to turn the victims into zombies, while the victims try to shoot zombies with air guns. These events are made even more fun by the clueless bystanders, who don’t know what’s happening. Some people are concerned with the excessive violence displayed in these types of games, but zombie fans happily persist in bringing their beloved monster into the real world (Juliet Lauro).

Zombies are fascinating and complex creatures, no matter what their form. From voodoo slaves to Romero’s shufflers to the new fast zombies and all forms in between, zombies are far superior to any other monster. They have invaded our lives, sparking philosophical debates and haunting our imaginations with images of things that were once human, overwhelming and eating the population. They can be found in music, games, smartphone apps, literature, movies, clothing, and so many more aspects of our lives. The study of zombie evolution gives one a unique view of how the human psyche has changed since the Haitian zombie’s introduction. The large variety of things that zombies can signify is also very exciting to learn about. These two thought provoking things, combined with blood, guts, and gore, make zombies and the study of their evolution just plain awesome.


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