Voodoo, Romero, and the Apocalypse: The History of Zombie Culture

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Maria Jasmine gets bitten by the zombie craze...


No matter where you turn these days, the odds are pretty good that you will find a zombie. The undead are everywhere from the big screen to the little screen and everyplace in between. The latest addition to this zombie invasion is AMC's Fear the Walking Dead, a spin-off from their widespread hit The Walking Dead. Instead of simply following survivors in another part of the country, this new series goes back to the beginning of the zombie outbreak and follows a group in the Los Angeles area. As Fear the Walking Dead takes us back to the start of the zombie uprising, I figured it would only be fitting to take a look back at this zombie craze and get to the bottom of the obsession.


To the casual viewer, it can easily seem as though this zombie fascination came out of nowhere. In fact, zombie culture has been lurking in the shadows for a long time. Pop culture first began its love affair with the dead back in the 1930s. After a sensationalized account of a oversea adventure featuring Haitian zombies was published in 1929, a trickle of Voodoo zombie films were produced. Most notable of these zombie flicks is White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, and marked the first appearance of the undead in film. These early films often centered around a magical being or Voodoo practitioner turning the living into mindless slaves or bringing the dead back to do their bidding. It wasn't until 1968 that the monsters we know as zombies today first crawled from the grave.

When a handful of friends gathered to begin filming an extremely low-budget horror film in Pennsylvania, little did they know that the film they were struggling to complete would change the face of pop culture forever. This ragtag group was led by first-time film director George A. Romero. His experience consisted of commercials and short television segments, and oddly enough it was actually an early piece he did for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood that convinced him to try his hand at horror. But by combining the known zombie mythology with popular vampire lore, Romero and co-writer John A. Russo came up with the most deadly creatures ever caught on film in Night of The Living Dead.


For the first time, the dead were mysteriously brought back to life to feast on the flesh of the living. Even though there is actually little blood shown on-screen, NOTLD shocked moviegoers with its extreme violence and gore. The controversy surrounding many of these gory scenes remained strong, including one particularly disturbing scene of a recently deceased young girl attacking her mother with a gardening trowel.



Even with this controversy surrounding it, NOTLD went on to gross $30 million worldwide after its initial release. Since 1968, Romero's classic has gone on to gain cult status and single-handedly change an entire genre forever. Even though the term zombie was never used in the film, every zombie flick since, including Romero's own Dead films, have been based off this iconic film.

In the years since, critics and fans have read countless commentaries into Romero's films, as well as zombie films in general. Romero himself has said that he intended to make a scary movie and not one with a message, but that has not stopped the commentary from pouring out. By casting a black man in the lead role who has to slap a white woman out of hysterics, some fans have taken NOTLD to be a commentary on the racial and civil rights movements of the time. Other Romero Dead films seem more blatantly message laden than the original.


Other zombie filmmakers have intentionally used the blank slate of the zombie mythos to portray their views on modern society as well. In his film 28 Days Later, Alex Garland harnessed the worldwide fear of an infectious virus after the 9/11 attacks. While the actual classification of 28 Days Later as a zombie film is the topic of many heated internet debates, the infected in the film were close enough to zombies to jumpstart the entire genre again, this time is a whole new light.

The popularity of Garland's 28 Days Later got Hollywood looking at George Romero's films again, and a following remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead took stabs at America's lust for consumerism. It was these two films that helped change the slow-moving zombies of the past into the frantic, high-speed running and jumping killing machines we know today. It was hordes of these fast-moving killing monsters that permeated the pop culture landscape until AMC's The Walking Dead came onto the scene.


The future of the zombie genre is uncertain. Ratings for The Walking Dead are still at an all-time high, but films like World War Z are looking less appealing to theater audiences. Still good for rainy day marathons though, zombie classics like Evil Dead 2 and Zombie can be caught on the El Rey Network (most cable providers have a local channel). Unfortunately, just as it has done in the past, zombie culture will most likely slip back into the shadows and await its chance to feast on our flesh once again.

Fear The Walking Dead premieres on AMC, Sunday August 23rd.

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.

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