In the 1970s and 1980s, zombies lingered in the background, appearing on late-night movies and drive-in double features, as well as the occasional gory comic book. They were popular among horror aficionados and die-hard fans, but they hadn’t yet broken out into mainstream media. This all changed in the early 2000s when filmmakers, comic book writers, and TV executives took the zombie to the next level to scare a new generation of gorehounds.
Zombies were first, and most notably, brought to life by director George A. Romero in 1968 with his low budget, black-and-white film Night of the Living Dead. Although the concept of the “zombie” was used in previous horror films as early as the 1930s, and has roots in Haitian folklore, it was Romero who created the stumbling, dead-eyed zombies who had died and come back to life. He revolutionized the idea of the undead monster—zombies were different, once human, once dead, and now monsters hungering for our flesh—presenting a horrifying concept and new level of gore for modern moviegoers. This trend continued in Romero’s films throughout the next several decades, and inspired a number of other gorified classics like The Evil Dead and Dead Alive.
In the mid-2000’s, zombies came back into the horror spotlight. They became faster in movies like the Zack Snyder remake of Dawn of the Dead and the infection film 28 Days Later…, and they were even parodied in the hilarious Shaun of the Dead. Then, in 2010, AMC’s The Walking Dead brought zombies to the small screen, terrifying audiences with intense gore and human drama that continues to this day.
When it comes to fully understanding these popular antagonists, it can be difficult to believe that they could represent anything more than just the moaning, shuffling former humans they appear to be on the surface. However, zombies change as we change, making them the perfect canvas on which to project society’s commentary and fears of the time.
For example, in the original 1978 Dawn of the Dead, the zombies gravitate towards a popular shopping mall, forever doomed to roam the discount stores and food court stalls. Though this made for an entertaining survival story, it also commented on the growing consumerism in America. The zombies went there for a reason—the mall was a familiar place where they went to wander and waste time at, making it a likely purgatory for half-human monsters. The zombies share the mall with the group of unlucky survivors, making it a prison for both.
But this is only the beginning; these metaphors pop up in a number of films. While it’s been said that Romero’s Night of the Living Dead commented on the racism and class warfare of the 1960s, others have tackled what-if scenarios and the fears of mass audiences using the post-9/11 world full of terror as a building block. 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, and I Am Legend all represent fears of a global epidemic wiping out humanity. The Happening touches on angst of a terrorist threat, and World War Z looks at a loss of government control and breakdown of civilization. While zombies are scary as-is, they make us even more uneasy when they hit so close to home.
One of the most popular zombies depictions of all time, The Walking Dead, resonates with audiences for many reasons, but one of them reveals much about why we love zombie media so much. The characters in The Walking Dead are relatable and fully characterized. They make us fall in love with them and root for them, which makes it even harder to see them get bitten and turn. The zombies in the AMC show, as well as the new companion program Fear the Walking Dead (both can be streamed on Hulu, DTV, and AMC) represent what happens when humanity turns on itself. These monsters scare us because they are us—or, at least, what we could become in the worst-case scenario. The show also frightens us so much because the bulk of the violence and murder occurs at the hands of the human characters with the zombies moaning passively in the background.
Zombies have now thoroughly infected mainstream pop culture and are alive and well with the sixth season of The Walking Dead just beginning and a slew of zombie films set to premiere within the month. For a relatively new trend on horror media, zombies have undergone drastic changes over the past fifty years, morphing to reflect the things we fear most in modern society. As we continue to consume horror films and thriller shows, there’s no telling what zombies will reveal about us next.