Dan Birlew

Las Vegas Web Developer, Designer, Programmer, and Author

Why Are Zombies So Popular?

Posted September 15th, 2010 at 5:18pm by Dan Birlew in Humor. 6 Comments on Why Are Zombies So Popular?

Zombies are killing it. Not just on your game console or your local movie screens, but soon they’ll take over television when Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Walking Dead comics debuts on AMC this Halloween. Though zombies have been a part of popular culture for almost half a century, there’s simply no doubt that they are currently a prevalent topic of entertainment and media coverage these days. It’s as if a virus was released into the media back in the 1960’s that is spreading and taking hold of more creative properties every year.

“Let’s do a horror movie,” the screenwriter says to the producer.

“Does it have zombies in it?” replies the producer.

Sensing that his next paycheck is in danger if he says no, the screenwriter happily smiles and says “Yes! Yes, it’s all about zombies!”

Why do zombies continue gaining popularity? What’s so lovable about them?

Frankly, nothing is lovable about zombies. Zombies are dead people who should be flat on morgue gurneys or buried six feet underground. They’re bluish-pale, vein-y, leaking bodily fluids from all their orifices, and (I imagine) they smell like unflushed wet feces stirred into old hamburger that’s been sitting out for a week. They shouldn’t be walking around, but they are, and it’s disgusting. To top it all off, they want nothing more than to consume living human flesh, which basically means you and me… and maybe the dog. There is no reason that any sensible person should like zombies. Yet the sales numbers prove it; we don’t just like zombies, we love them. Resident Evil Afterlife debuted this weekend at #1, earning $43 million. The 2009 film Zombieland took in $24 million during its opening weekend. The Dawn of the Dead remake took in $102 million worldwide before leaving theaters. And the reason the DotD remake got a green light was because the zombie-deviant film 28 Days Later exploded in America after a more modest release in England. The next zombie film is more successful than the last.

The modern zombie evolved very gradually. The word “zombie” is derived from African and Haitian legends regarding voodoo doctors who could temporarily resurrect the dead and turn them into mindless slaves. But researchers like Wade Davis later figured out that these voodoo doctors were administering a powerful narcotic to people that induced a coma-like near death state, making them seem dead to anyone without a medical degree. The person was thought dead, buried, and then dug up by the voodoo doctor and sold into slavery. But Davis then went on to write The Serpent and the Rainbow and let Wes Craven make a zombie movie out of it, so maybe he was just making all this up for cash. He’s had problems proving his story ever since.

So… what major films and media are calling a zombie isn’t really a zombie at all. There’s not even any flesh eating involved. A shambling corpse with a hunger for living flesh is much closer to the ancient Arabian legends of ghuls, or “ghouls” in our Western spelling. Ghouls arise from burial grounds or abandoned houses. They are shape shifting demons that typically assume the form of hyenas. They slay desert travelers, attack small children, and dig up graves to consume rotten flesh. They can take the form of what they eat, thus sometimes appearing as the recent dead.

Ghouls appear in literature as far back as the 9th century, in the Arabian compilation of folk tales titled One Thousand and One Nights. Poets Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe reference these creatures in their works. And it’s well documented that Lord Byron was summering with Mary Shelley when she came up with the idea for possibly the most enduring piece of Gothic literature to this date: Frankenstein. The monster in the famous story is basically a vengeful ghoul, returned to life to wreak havoc on its creator. At first the creature is wild and violent, but quickly becomes more thoughtful in plotting its revenge; yet the wild and violent version is a lot like what we see in zombie films these days.

But the author who played with the archetype and blurred the line between ghouls and zombies to give us our modern day version is H.P. Lovecraft. In one of his most famous short stories of the 1920s, Herbert West — Reanimator, Lovecraft came up with a Frankenstein-inspired mad doctor who brought the dead back to life scientifically. However, Dr. West’s zombies came back to life as murderous and violent cannibals. The full serialized story features dismembered limbs still working independently, severed heads speaking. The mad doctor continues his experiments without regret or conscious, reanimating corpses until there’s a freely roaming zombie army running around seeking revenge. West is eventually murdered by his test subjects in the most gruesome way: live disembowelment. Even while watching Shaun of the Dead or Night of the Living Dead, you can tell what an influence this one story had on the zombie genre.

Then in 1954 one of the greatest writers in horror, Richard Matheson, published the novel I Am Legend, in which the “infection” element of vampirism causes the apocalypse. After all, while books like Dracula depicted vampires biting a person and turning them into another vampire once every few years for purely romantic reasons, Matheson’s book explores the more realistic idea that a vampire would need to feed all the time, thus creating several vampires per night, who each would then create several more vampires per night, in a widening outbreak pattern that turns pandemic. Main character Robert Neville is immune to the virus, and thus is forced to prepare daily for a nightly siege by the undead: furiously repairing his house, boarding windows, hanging garlic over every portal, burning corpses and gathering supplies. After dark, the infected emerge from their coffins and holes and try to tear apart Neville’s house to get at him. They know his name by now, thanks to the fact that one of the undead is a recognizable former friend who calls his name out repeatedly all night long. Neville is legend.

This scenario is readily familiar to anyone who’s seen George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the independently-made horror film in which the recently departed return to life as flesh-craving zombies. People trying to survive converge on a remote farmhouse, which they board up and try to defend themselves from a zombie siege that continues gaining momentum as more and more undead join the crowd outside. One of the zombies (who eventually break in) is none other than Barbara’s brother Johnny, who was killed by a zombie just a few hours ago. So these zombies can make other zombies, just like vampires; no voodoo required. Romero cited Matheson’s novel as an undeniable influence on the film. Night depicted flesh eating, matricide, patricide, and other acts considered so barbaric at the time that controversies arose, especially since the MPAA wasn’t rating movies yet at the time. Roger Ebert spent most of his film review warning parents that it wasn’t the typical silly Universal monster movie, not to let their kids see it, and that theater owners should be ashamed for showing it in afternoon matinées. The review was republished in 1969 in Reader’s Digest, and contributed heavily to Ebert’s early fame.

While Night of the Living Dead was largely criticized for its sadism and violence, movie producers only saw that it was made on a tiny budget and went on to gross millions of dollars domestically alone. Therefore…

Zombies = Profit.

As such, Hollywood is always willing to do a zombie movie, no matter how good or bad the script.

Romero went on to direct five more Dead sequels, the last of which was released straight to DVD this year. The co-writer of Night went on to create a parody version called Return of the Living Dead, which featured a black ooze covered skeleton that shouted loudly for “Braaaaaains!” Return made zombies seem silly and laughable, and other films such as The Evil Dead and it’s sequels took on a similar mocking tone. So the genre gradually lost momentum until recent years.

The turn of the century and the rise of technology have given the zombie apocalypse genre new life. 28 Days Later depicted a virus that infects people with uncontrollable rage, causing them to want to beat other people to death. The infected are quite frightening looking, suffering from pale skin and bloodshot eyes. While it’s a heavy deviation on the zombie archetype (the infected aren’t actually dead, and eventually they starve), there’s no doubt that the pandemic nature of the virus lends itself to the zombie apocalypse genre. The film led to the birth of the “quick zombie,” who rather than shambling slowly and laughably after its much faster prey is capable of sprinting and tackling its prey to the ground before tearing the person apart, usually as a group. The “quick zombie” is really the catalyst of the recent popularity surge, which has caused the undead to pop up again in movies. However, there are still some throwback zombie films featuring the slow and shambling “Romero zombies,” such as Shaun of the Dead (a parody that features characters making fun of stereotype zombie behaviors).

Video games have aped what we see in zombie films, in interactive form. The first Castlevania game featured zombies, which rise from the floor one at a time but quickly form a slow-moving group that the player must chop through. But the game that really brought zombies into players’ gun sights was Resident Evil. Originally released for the PlayStation and then ported to other systems, Resident Evil was heavily based on Night of the Living Dead. The player is a member of a tactical squad who is trapped in a zombie-infested mansion and must find a way out through exploration and puzzle solving. Eventually the player finds out that a pharmaceutical company was funding a side project where scientists were experimenting with viruses. The game has spawned nine sequels, a series of novelizations that are very popular with game fans, and the movie franchise starring Milla Jovovich that debuted in 2002, the most recent of which just swept up the box office.

Resident Evil the game had many clones, which started to bore gamers and make them lose interest. But zombies rose up once again when Hollywood’s “quick zombies” debuted in Left 4 Dead, a popular multiplayer game in which four players must work together and share supplies to escape from zombie infested areas. The game occasionally throws a running horde at you just for setting off a car alarm, or for staying in one location for too long. The online version allows four players to take on the roles of the undead and attack the survivors team. Now there’s a slew of zombie games hitting the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, and Dead Rising 2 is coming out at the end of this month. The game is basically Dawn of the Dead turned into a sandbox you can play in.

Zombies are becoming more popular in print and literature as well. Brian Keene’s 2005 novel The Rising and its sequel City of the Dead feature an outbreak of intelligent zombies, caused by demonic possession. Stephen King published Cell the very next year, in which a worldwide “pulse” causes everyone talking on their cellphone at the time to turn into zombie-like, violent maniacs, kinda like 28 Days Later. But King’s zombies eventually begin moving around the country in “flocks” and develop psychic powers, including being able to compel “non-flockers” to do whatever they want. In typical King fashion, you can expect this one to be a movie any day now. Another King short story, Home Delivery, was optioned for film development a year ago. It concerns the inhabitants of an island off the coast of Maine dealing with a sudden outbreak of zombies caused by an alien satellite settling over the North Pole. And writer Max Brooks left Saturday Night Live to become famous as the “zombie author,” publishing parodies like The Zombie Survival Guide and serious socio-political fiction such as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Recently, author Seth Grahame-Smith revised the full text of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen to include a zombie epidemic taking place within the British Regency period, hilariously titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

So what makes zombies so popular with the public? What is it that makes us want to watch zombies come back from the dead, vomiting blood and bile, and go after the living with mindless glee? This is what researchers who study the fascination tend to focus upon: the zombie itself. They believe that people are fascinated with being frightened, and that the thought of being bitten by a zombie and then turning into a zombie is scary. The alternative in the context is to fight to survive against a foe that is impossible to beat: mindless, shuffling masses of cannibals. But as I stated near the start, zombies are disgusting. Some of the fascination with zombies is to see what kind of disgusting stuff they’re going to do, that much I admit. But that kind of fascination takes just a few minutes to satisfy, and really doesn’t explain an enduring popular culture that’s been going on and gaining popularity for more than fifty years.

Other attempts at explanation point to the idea that zombie films reinforce paranoid belief systems, such as distrust your neighbor, everyone else is a zombie except me, avoid joining the horde, etc. This would assume that everyone who watches zombie movies and plays zombie games is some kind of nut bag NRA member. While I’m sure those kind of people exist, they are a niche market whose small numbers don’t explain an opening weekend box office of $40 million dollars.

I’m going to cut this short and tell you exactly why people like zombie movies. The ugly truth no one wants to admit. The fascination is not because of the zombies themselves, they are merely the catalyst; the real fascination is with surviving a zombie apocalypse.

Being a survivor, playing the odds, making your own rules. You don’t have to report to some stupid job every day; in fact, if your boss or someone else you hate is bitten, you may have a opportunity to bash their smelly head in. Food, liquor, cigarettes, cars and guns are all free for the taking, if you can find them, regardless of your age, because no one’s standing behind the counter waiting to collect money or check your ID. That cute girl or guy you’ve always wanted a chance to kiss is now a possibility, because everyone else is a zombie and suddenly that makes you a whole lot more attractive. Plus you might get an opportunity to rescue them from being eaten, making you a real hero. Then you’re certain to get a kiss.

The zombie apocalypse scenario changes all the rules for the people who must live on afterwards. And compared to other apocalypses that could happen, it remains the most appealing. The film 2012 showed us its version of what the Mayans predicted millenniums ago, that the climate is going to shift suddenly and the entire planet will be rocked by earthquakes, volcano explosions, and tidal waves. Even if you’re one of the lucky 1% to survive all this, you get to look forward to a lifetime of scrounging for food and drinking water, not to mention breathable air. That’s probably why 2012 tanked at the box office, and not just because of its implausible scenario or horrific dialog. This apocalypse just doesn’t have any appeal.

The other apocalypse scenarios basically all involve deities presiding over the fate of mankind. So it’s important to be good now so that you’ll be okay on Judgement Day. It’s all out of your hands. This apocalypse has no box office value whatsoever, unless you only hint at it, just a little bit, like in the original Omen series of films.

The zombie apocalypse is the only end of the world scenario with real appeal, because it’s all up to you. If you don’t freak out and lose your mind (like Barbara in Night of the Living Dead) then there’s a very good chance that you might be able to avoid danger, even if that means leaving others behind to be eaten. All you need is a weapon, and when you think about it, virtually everything is a weapon, not just guns. Grocer shelves are lined with food packed with preservatives, meaning it will never spoil, so you can go around picking up whatever you want whenever you like. And there’s a good chance that people will like you better just because you’re good at surviving zombie attacks. Your personality or entertainment connections won’t be such a factor anymore.

Plus, there’s an entire world full of walking punching bags. People are now zombies, and you have to kill them before they kill you. So it doesn’t really matter what you do to them, because they’re not people anymore. They’re former people that you can beat down and tear apart in the most gruesome ways you can think of. The more clever and savage, the better. Take out all your frustrations in all the ways you ever dreamed, it doesn’t matter anymore. No one’s going to stop you from killing a monster, even if it used to be a person.

Researchers reading this say “No, that’s not why people like zombies. Otherwise, people wouldn’t dress up like zombies and parade around.”

To which I retort, “There’s no easier Halloween costume. And that’s also part of zombie appeal. Your old clothes and rags regain some value for one night. All you have to do is paint your face, apply some fake blood, tear up your clothes, and voila! The perfect Halloween costume for less than $10, and everyone knows what you are. You’re a zombie. Because that’s how popular zombies really are.”

Why zombies sell so much more lately may be due to the state of the world. Things have been pretty rough for Americans the last ten years: hijackers are flying passengers into the sides of buildings; the economy has crashed not just once, but a few times; people who’ve worked extremely hard their entire lives are now out of jobs; everyone’s getting paid half or less of what they used to; people have invested their life savings into homes that are now more valuable as scrap. Perhaps swinging on a guy’s head with a cricket bat is starting to sound like a good way to blow off some steam. But the only problem is, you’re talking about a person. So you need something that’s not a person, but a kind of rudimentary semi-person with no intelligence.

That’s what a zombie is, that’s what role it fulfills.

And if that’s the case, swing away.


6 Responses to “Why Are Zombies So Popular?”

  1. I completely agree with your last paragraph and final assessment. I live within a 40 minute drive of NYC, and there’s not a natural vantage point from which you can’t see the NYC skyline. The entire attitude of the area has changed since 9/11 due in large part to the fact that the “new” (now 9 year old) skyline is inescapable.

    Stuff that was never talked about is now very foremost in the minds of the population– stuff like, “Imagine if a bomb went off in here” or “How’d we get out of here if….” People, whether consciously or subconsciously, are thinking about escape plans, just in case. They think about the people trapped in the towers and what they would have done if they were there instead. I’m not going to say it’s paranoia. It’s a paradigm shift, and surviving a massive catastrophe where you’re faced with the choice of saving yourself or helping others haunts people. It haunts me, and I was on the I-5 freeway in San Diego when the towers went down.

    Zombie movies are unlike other mainstream horror in that it pits a group of survivors (usually) against a horde of something that seems like it’s human, but isn’t quite right. Other horror themes are more 1:1 or small group vs. small group, and the antagonist is often unknown, unfamiliar, or behaves in a way that is clearly inhuman. Also, in other horror, the baddie doesn’t turn his victims into versions of himself (save vampires, but they’re sexy-cool, not scary-evil). In zombie movies, the survivors are faced with something that’s familiar but oh so wrong and are almost always put in the position of having to choose whether to help their fellows, or go it alone, and if one gets infected/attacked, keep him/her alive, or put her out of her misery before s/he becomes one?

    From my perspective, this scenario is all about the fear of death and more specifically regarding recent times, it is a replay of the terrible fear thrust into the public consciousness after 9/11. We don’t want to die. If you’ve ever been at a funeral, you know how creepy weird open caskets are– the deceased is there, as in life, but isn’t quite right. We don’t want to catch what they have– we don’t want to be touched by death. 9/11 was this feeling on a massive scale. Watching it in a fantasy helps people cope or at least get in touch with the issues without having to recall the actual events of the day.

    The other interpretation, that zombies are our attackers and that “anyone can be one” works, I guess, but it’s too literal and doesn’t hold up for me. I suppose this explanation holds some water if we’re talking about zombie movies from 1980 to 2001. During that time, AIDS was the big boogey man. Early AIDS sufferers looked sickly, maybe like zombies, and like the zombification process, AIDS progressed slowly but predictably– sweats, bruising, weight loss, then the development of sores and that cancer whose name I never get right. It’s a slow death, and the infected can infect others before they are visually symptomatic. This is an extremely terrifying concept, but with the advancement of medical science, publicity about prevention measures, and a notable increase in public sympathy towards AIDS victims and really towards all sick people, it seems morally wrong now to consider zombies as metaphors for illness.

    The 9/11 hijackers and the people who bombed the Underground in London and Madrid looked like normal people. The shoe bomber looked like an average guy, and the dude who set up the car bomb in Times Square over the summer was a well-liked coworker and friend, who was either pursuing citizenship or had gone through the process proudly. We never saw these things coming.

    The only way I can really accept the zombie-as-attacker metaphor is if we examine the emergence of the slow-vs-fast zombie, but even then, I still say it’s about death, not about our neighbors. AIDS killed slowly. You weren’t chased down and had AIDS beaten into you. Normally-paced activities could transmit the virus. It was a creeping fear and a creeping death. The 9/11 scenarios are all about able-bodied people doing things quickly. Explosions, aircraft, bombs and guns. All things that you can’t even outrun, overwhelming things that are inescapable, particularly when they’re all around. With the AIDS zombies, you got to watch your slow death. With the fast zombies of recent films and games, you didn’t even stand a chance. Wrong place, wrong time, overwhelmed, and dead before you could call for help. So it’s not really about the people but the pace of death from the thing we fear. Like everything else today, death comes too fast, and so our zombies run.

    The terror with zombies is that they were once your neighbor, but now you have to choose to do something about him/her because s/he’s impeding your chance of survival. “That wasn’t mommy” is the talk Chuck Greene gives his daughter Katie in Capcom’s DLC preview for Dead Rising 2. Even if the zombie is a stranger, s/he was once a human, like yourself. Can you be OK with killing him/her? He or she could have been you.

    In all, I suppose what I’m saying, in simple terms, is that zombies are so popular because they are a form of national (and perhaps international) group therapy for survivor’s guilt and provide make-believe practice in dealing with a future such scenario. The security blanket was pulled out from under the US on 9/11. The stories that followed were equal parts tales of heroic altruism and “I had to make the choice” stories about people who couldn’t help their coworkers escape. In the stairwells, there was a sea of humanity trying to get to the concourse before the building collapsed. On the way to the stairs, survivors stepped over people who couldn’t get up or wouldn’t. How do you process something so terrible as leaving the living to die, although you know they’re most certainly dead, anyway? How can you kill the fear that it will happen again or you will be faced with the choice again?

    You arm yourself with a Boomstick or chainsaw, or you partner up with someone like Alice or Shaun or Ash or Chris Redfield and let them make the decisions of who or what lives or dies.

    Zombies in their current incarnation are so popular today because they offer us a safe confrontation with our worst fears about our drive for self-preservation, combined with a wish for a savior who will take the burden on himself or herself to face the things we cannot. Given the way things are going politically and socially, I can’t imagine a reversal of this trend any time soon.

    • Great points all, Jayne. Like many I do know that the zombie resurgence is partly due to 9/11. And since that anniversary just passed it was well on my mind while I was writing this. But I couldn’t figure out how to suggest it, and still be funny, and not offensive. Plus my article was already going over 3000 words at that point. 😛 Thanks for the comment!

  2. Maybe zombies aren’t “lovable,” but I argue they can be endearing, especially when they are break dancing in a Michael Jackson video. Who doesn’t love a zombie who can dance? Holla!

  3. @ Lollie–

    That’s part of it. Being able to laugh is a major coping mechanism. Turning something gross and stinky that represents your potential fate into something funny is a time-honored way of living in the now, without fear of what may happen. Shaun’s acceptance of his zombiefied buddy at the end of “Shaun of the Dead” was particularly touching and funny because it kinda represents the peace we hope we can come to in regard to our own fears of death.

    And for what it’s worth, I hate to harp on 9/11. Americans act as though we’ve cornered the market on tragedies in the modern age, forgetting that we annihilated two cities full of civilians during WWII and were party to some other unsavory activities that amounted to a good deal of suffering of innocent people all over the world. (Not to get overly political here, but I have to agree with the NYC Imam Rauf when he said we didn’t deserve 9/11, but it’s not like it was completely out of the blue.) We’re still a great nation of mostly decent people, but a little humility in admitting our past mistakes would go a long way in propping up this idea of American nobility, which has lately degraded into some jingoistic BS that I, and I think the rest of the world, could do without.

    Is it ironic that we produce zombie movies to help cope with what “they did to us” while “they” can watch the same films and feel that it’s about what we did to them? I think it cuts both ways.

    Who’d have thought that zombies could be the great universal metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man? Maybe that’s why Resident Evil does equally well in Japan and the US.

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