If someone asked you to describe a Zombie I’m pretty sure you would detail a decaying corpse shambling along in tattered clothes, driven only by its need to eat human flesh. A creation of a virus, chemical mishap or just maybe there being no room left in Hell. That is the accepted modern take on a Zombie. How that came to be though is not completely clear.
The reanimated dead appear in literature dating back thousands of years in different interactions. The most common origin for the modern iteration comes from the Island of Haiti. In these traditions the Zombie is a person brought back from the dead using magic to act as a slave to whoever resurrected them. This very often gets lumped in with the generic understanding of Voodoo, although Zombies have no actual basis in the Voodoo belief system.
In fact the Haitian Zombie beliefs are a mixture of different belief systems brought over by enslaved Africans and incorporating belief systems that existed in the “New World”. These ideas and beliefs became a part of popular culture in the 1920s, when America occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934. During this time stories emerged from soldiers on the island of Zombies and how they were created and used by the inhabitants. These garnered so much attention that a book was written on the subject in 1929, The Magic Island, by William Seabrook. Following this further research was done on and around the folklore and actual case studies form the island. The result was more books and articles being published, further raising awareness of the supernatural creature.
So that’s how the walking dead entered the American conscious, but they were still to evolve, or decay if you prefer. The first time a Zombie appeared in a film was “White Zombie” in 1932, which sticks with the Haitian traditions. In fact the distributors used the case studies that had been published in the films marketing, mixing real life fear with the Horror of the film.
In the following decades Zombies would appear in several films, but a closer representation of what we know as the modern Zombie would appear in the Horror comics of the 40s and 50s. These depicted decaying bodies returning from the grave, usually to exact revenge on someone. The design was there but these were not referred to as Zombies out right. Also, they usually had a level of conscious or intelligence that would soon be stripped away.
It is not until “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968 however that we get the first sight of a shambling flesh eater. Were these Zombies though? Romero didn’t think so to begin with. In the film and its marketing, they are never referred to as Zombies. They are called Ghouls, which is a different creature of myth altogether.
It was only after the film was released that the media started to use the term when reviewing or describing the film. This was then picked up by the film maker and his audience. By the time “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978 was released the term was accepted for what we know today.
This of course has evolved since then and the name Zombie is now synonymous with the undead flesh eating walking corpse. There have been several sub-interactions that have sprung up in the decades since Dawn of the Dead. In the 80s “Return of the living dead” (1985) brought us brain eating Zombies. More recently we have had the introduction of the running Zombie in films such as “28 days Later” (2002) and the “Dawn of the Dead” (2004) remake. The original Zombie form does occasionally pop up again though. Most notably in the 1988 Wes Craven film “The Serpent and the Rainbow”.
Whether in the fore or back ground of a story Zombies can be used to have an impact on an audience. They have become so popular for simple low budget gore horror films as an easy way to get some splatter on screen (too many to name!). They are also used as a satire of who we are as a society at our base level (Dawn of Dead – 1978). Or most recently and possibly the most popular vision is the Walking Dead in both its comic and TV format. Delving into what we would do after the Zombie Apocalypse and survive the inevitable collapse of society?
It would seem quite appropriate that as a creature of horror and storytelling, since they shambled into pop culture almost a hundred years ago, they just won’t die. So what are the Zombie films you need to check out? I have put a list of the top 10, in my opinion, below:
1. White Zombie (1932)
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
3. Dawn of the dead (1978)
4. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
5. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
6. 28 days later (2002)
7. Shaun of the dead (2004)
8. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
9. Quarantine (2008)
10. Zombieland (2009)