The undead have been walking the earth for centuries, but it was only during the 20th century that the rotting, brain-hungry monsters with whom we’re well familiar emerged.

Zombies in folklore

zombie in a fied
Etching of a zombie in a cane field (via Wiki)

From 1915-1934 a zombie situation in Haiti gained international attention as the US occupied the country. The appearance of zombies was a recognised phenomena within their law and the Americans witnessed some strange things.

In rural Haitian folklore, zombies were dead people brought to life by the necromancy of a sorcerer or witch. The zombie would remain under the control of the sorcerer and was known as ‘bokor’.

One particular case from 1937 saw a woman named Felicia Felix-Mentor reappear, despite her family claiming that they had buried her in 1907 at the age of 29.

Science tells us that such scenes were creating using a combination of psychoactive drugs, leaving the victim stuck for words, vulnerable to suggestion, and confused which would lead to violent impulses.

African, Haitian and Caribbean folklores link zombies to voodoo practice and sorcery. American occupation and enslavement no doubt brought the lore to the west but when the undead became prominent in western culture, the mystical had element vanished.

 

Frankenstein: the rise of the mad scientists

zombie frankenstein

The notion of zombie would not have been apparent to Mary Shelley when she wrote the 1818 novel Frankenstein but she was certainly a precursor to the modern conception of zombie. Instead of magic, the monster was made up of dead bodies and resurrected—a term that previously belonged to religion—by science.

It was a reflection of the times, science was a threat to the status quo and its potentials were feared.

Frankenstein borrowed largely from elements of European folklore; of the vengeful dead, but it still had one thing in common with the Haitian zombies. It was almost sympathetic to the monster, portraying his creator as the real monster.

H P Lovecraft was hugely influential in writing the original modern zombie. Herbert West–Reanimator (1921) was a series of short stories about a mad scientist who resurrected the dead. Unlike our eloquent Frankenstein’s Monster when they surfaced they were mostly mute, primitive, and extremely violent.

Tales from the Crypt

But it was the 1950’s EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Weird Science that really got the notion of zombie into the western conscious.

These comics along with Richard Matheson’s vampire novel I Am Legend inspired the father of the modern zombie, George A Romero.

 

Zombies in film

night of the living dead zombies
Night of the Living Dead: a field of zombies

The first zombie film White Zombie (1932) dealt with the traditional Haitian zombie from a western perspective. Unfortunately, it’s generally considered an over-the-top melodrama with terrible acting. Not a good start for zombie’s first big screen outing.

George A Romero rescued the zombie from this terrible screen debut. In 1968 he created the fully formed modern zombie is his feature-length horror Night of the Living Dead. Critics were shocked, claiming it went from “delightfully scary to absolutely terrifying”, in fact, one critic witnessed a nine-year-old child burst into tears.

Romero took a blend of undead and vampire lore and the zombie evolved from a passive mind controller into murderous and relentless. It wasn’t just their unpredictable nature that was terrifying, it was their blood thirst—there was suddenly a lot more at stake if one of these mindless zombies got their teeth into you, you would become one of them, and their disease would spread across the world in epidemic proportions.

dawn of the dead blue-skinned zombie
Dawn of the Dead a blue-skinned zombie

Romero’s films were not only terrifying because of the monsters but as a critique real world problems: government ineptitude, bioengineering, greed, exploitation, and human nature.

Its sequel Dawn of the Dead was released ten years later, set in a mall—its critique of greed and capitalism very apparent. In those days the zombies were slow movers and painted blue.

The cult of zombie really hit during the video nasty period of the 1980s. They even featured in Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit video for Thriller. The video showcased another one of their primal urges not previously documented in movies: dance.

With the figure of zombie assimilated into the public conscious, they didn’t seem quite as blood-curdling as they had once been. There seemed nowhere left for the classic zombie story.

Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later not only produced vicious, souped up zombies (thanks to advanced special effects and incredible makeup, today's zombies are much faster and grotesque) but made us fearful of human nature. Safe havens would be occupied by men who had themselves turned into monsters driven by their primal urges in this apocalyptic environment.

This is a theme further explored by AMCs smash series The Walking Dead (an adaptation of Image Comics’ The Walking Dead)—after all, a TV show with seven seasons can’t last that long if the only story line involves running from the undead.

Rick Grimes and zombie
The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes and his favourite zombie. Image via Spoiler TV

Whereas 28 Days Later requires just a single bite for the victim to become infected, in The Walking Dead the zombies are only capable of killing and everyone is already infected. Could it be mother nature culling humanity or the next evolutionary step?

 

Zombies vs gamers

resident evil zombies
Resident Evil’s first zombie, made all the scarier by its poor graphics

Zombies have always been popular in video games, particularly since the rise of the PlayStation in 1994 and the consoles that followed.

They lend themselves well to first-person shooter games thanks to a little something known as the 'jump scare'. This is when a monster will suddenly, and unexpectedly lunge into frame and catch the gamer unaware causing them to jump, and if they don’t react to the situation fast enough it will also cause them to lose the game.

Notable zombie games include Resident Evil, Dead Rising, and Call of Duty (which has a special zombie mode). The current generation of consoles are more realistic and immersive than ever before and there is a heavy leaning on the story telling element of games. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us may be pushing the zombie genre further and (time will tell) adding to the zombie canon.

The Last of Us
Concept art for a ‘clicker’ in The Last of Us

The game follows a young teenage girl, Ellie, who is immune to zombies—their bites and spores having no effect—and her protector, Joel, as they journey to a science facility in order to cure humanity.

Interestingly, the zombies seem to be being controlled by some form of fungus (you have to look out for spores, and a particularly nasty zombie breed known as clickers which have a very peculiar fungal problem protruding from their heads). It seems that the modern zombie has evolved from sorcerer to mad scientists, to natural phenomena—like a virus or a bug. 

 

Real zombies in nature

Interestingly, much like The Last of Us there appear to be occurrences of real zombies in nature. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a type of insect-pathogenising fungus.

The fungus infects ants and alters their behavioural patterns. The infected ant will leave the nest and find an area with a temperature and humidity suitable for fungal growth.

Then they will use their mandibles and affix themselves to a major vein on a desirable leaf, where they remain until they die, at which point fruiting fungal bodies grow from the ants’ head and spores are released.

 

Zombie apocalypse likely?

Well, raising the dead, quite frankly, isn’t possible. But if we’re talking viruses which incite rage, then it isn’t impossible. Just think of how quickly the flu spreads. However, the closest virus baring a resemblance to zombie-symptoms is rabies, affecting the brain and central nervous system. But it moves too slowly for it to be the cause of mass violent blood lust (it can take years for the virus to even reach your brain).

It’s actually far more likely that the ‘smobies’ will take over instead. A tamer but no less dangerous beast—only the danger is done to themselves. Yes, smobies (a merger of smart phone and zombie) can be seen wandering the streets now, brain-dead, oblivious to their surroundings, eyes fixed downwards, towards their smartphones. Beware!

 

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Feature image via The Holy Web

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