A History of Zombies in Pop Culture

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The Walking Dead is back for season six, and there have already been some tragic casualties. The characters aren’t the only ones doing battle – there are also miniature wars raging throughout the web between the fans posting spoilers and the fans who are, well, less than appreciative. These debates just highlight the growing popularity of the show, which exploded onto the scene six years ago with over five million viewers per episode and opened the latest season with almost 20 million viewers. Vampires may have dominated popular culture in the past, but passionate fans are helping propel brain eaters past bloodsuckers. Series like The Walking Dead and iZombie are bringing a new humanity – and differing viewpoints – to these formerly human protagonists.

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Of course zombies are not a new phenomenon in pop culture. Some might argue that Frankenstein’s monster himself was an early version of a modern zombie. Other early examples of proto-zombies included depictions by H. P. Lovecraft, who followed in the mad scientist footsteps of Mary Shelley. This representation of animated corpses as being purposefully brought back to life fits into their origin in Haitian folklore, though in the folklore it is sorcerers doing the reanimating, not supposed men of science. These early tales generally started as books or short stories, and were adapted to the screen only later. They featured creatures that were less deadly than their modern descendants. 

The Night of the Living Dead in 1968 helped usher in a new era of zombies, and its depiction has stuck around till today. Modern zombies are often shown as being ravenous and mindless, feeding on the flesh and brains of any human they can get their hands on. They are more likely to have been infected by a contagious agent, of either biological or supernatural origin, rather than being purposefully created in a lab one by one. They are also numerous. A wall of shuffling undead, arms outstretched, is a common sight in a zombie movie. While they often don’t move fast, their relentlessness and their sheer numbers add greatly to their horror.

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In this, they also differ from their undead cousins, vampires, who tend to need to be “brought over” intentionally by a vampire sire and are often loners. Zombies are more like werewolves in that they are created through bites and scratches and they travel in packs. They also resemble werewolves in their lack of control when in their changed form. 

This depiction has clearly struck a chord with audiences, who continue to flock to movies such as World War Z and tune in to series like The Walking Dead in ever increasing numbers. Though there has been some evolution of the traditional depiction, such as the faster and more agile zombies shown in the aforementioned productions, many of the tropes put into place by George A. Romero are still used today. The ability of audiences to watch older zombie movies online while catching up with popular new depictions such as The Walking Dead on AMC, available through Comcast and DirecTV, has helped expand the fanbase even further.


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Another new addition to the zombie universe has been kinder, gentler zombies. Warm Bodies was an unexpectedly tender zombie-human love which came out in 2013 and turned the genre on its head by depicting the stricken hero as able to overcome his desire to snack on his beloved. He instead saved her and in doing so regained his own humanity. Taking this representation a step further is iZombie, a new series in which zombies are completely in control of their hunger and are able to pass as human – as long as they get their fill of brain, that is. Society’s own evolution to being more accepting of outsiders may be one thing feeding this genre change. Another may be a growing belief that medical science is capable of both curing and causing almost anything, including this. In these newer depictions the zombies are not monsters but victims, not soulless but still very human.
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Fans of both the more traditional growly zombies and the newer more lovable ones are enjoying their surge in relevance. Fans can participate in zombie runs or, for those who prefer a slower pace themselves, zombie bar crawls. The Pentagon has even put together a tongue-in-cheek zombie apocalypse plan, just in case. Vampires had better watch their back – zombies are coming slowly but surely for their own time in the sun.

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About the author

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Maria is a writer interested in comic books, cycling, and horror films. Her hobbies include cooking, doodling, and finding local shops around the city. She currently lives in Chicago with her two pet turtles, Franklin and Roy.