Zombie (fictional)

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George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead is considered a progenitor of the fictional zombie of modern culture.

Zombies are fictional undead creatures regularly encountered in horror and fantasy themed works. They are typically depicted as mindless, reanimated corpses with a hunger for human flesh, and particularly for human brains in some depictions. Some zombies are inspired from Haitian Vodun; while others, like the ones in George A. Romero's film Night of the Living Dead, do not have that same direct connection.[1][2] Zombies have a complex literary heritage, with antecedents ranging from Richard Matheson and H. P. Lovecraft to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein drawing on European folklore of the undead. The popularity of zombies in movies has led to them sometimes having been taken out of their usual element of horror and thrown into other genres, for example the comedy film Shaun of the Dead. The "zombie apocalypse" concept, in which the civilized world is brought low by a global zombie infestation, has become a staple of modern popular art.

Evolution of the zombie archetype[edit]

The flesh-hungry undead have been a fixture of world mythology dating at least since The Epic of Gilgamesh,[3] in which the goddess Ishtar promises:

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living![3]
The actor T. P. Cooke as Frankenstein's Monster in an 1823 stage production of the novel

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, while not a zombie novel in particular, prefigures many 20th century ideas about zombies in that the resurrection of the dead is portrayed as a scientific process rather than a mystical one, and that the resurrected dead are degraded and more violent than their living selves. Frankenstein, published in 1818, has its roots in European folklore,[4] whose tales of vengeful dead also informed the evolution of the modern conception of vampires as well as zombies. Later notable 19th century stories about the avenging undead included Ambrose Bierce's The Death of Halpin Frayser, and various Gothic Romanticism tales by Edgar Allan Poe. Though their works could not be properly considered zombie fiction, the supernatural tales of Bierce and Poe would prove influential on later undead-themed writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, by Lovecraft's own admission.[5]

In the 1920s and early 1930s, the American horror author H. P. Lovecraft wrote several novelettes that explored the undead theme from different angles. "Cool Air", "In the Vault", and "The Outsider" all deal with the undead, but the most definitive "zombie-type" story in Lovecraft's oeuvre was 1921's Herbert West–Reanimator, which "helped define zombies in popular culture".[6] This Frankenstein-inspired series featured Herbert West, a mad scientist who attempts to revive human corpses with mixed results. Notably, the resurrected dead are uncontrollable, mostly mute, primitive and extremely violent; though they are not referred to as zombies, their portrayal was prescient, anticipating the modern conception of zombies by several decades.

Avenging zombies would feature prominently in the early 1950s EC Comics such as Tales from the Crypt, which George A. Romero would later claim as an influence. The comics, including Tales, Vault of Horror and Weird Science, featured avenging undead in the Gothic tradition quite regularly, including adaptations of Lovecraft's stories which included "In the Vault", "Cool Air" and Herbert West–Reanimator.[7]

Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, although classified as a vampire story would nonetheless have definitive impact on the zombie genre by way of George A. Romero. The novel and its 1964 film adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, which concern a lone human survivor waging war against a world of vampires, would by Romero's own admission greatly influence his 1968 low-budget film Night of the Living Dead;[8][9] a work that would prove to be more influential on the concept of zombies than any literary or cinematic work before it.

The name "zombie"[edit]

Tor Johnson as a zombie with his victim in cult movie Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

How these creatures came to be called "zombies" is not fully clear. The film Night of the Living Dead made no spoken reference to its undead antagonists as "zombies", describing them instead as "ghouls", though this is inaccurate if compared to the original "ghoul" of Arabic folklore because in Arabic myth ghouls are demons. Although George Romero used the term "ghoul" in his original scripts, in later interviews he used the term "zombie". The word "zombie" is used exclusively by Romero in his 1978 script for his sequel Dawn of the Dead,[10] including once in dialog. According to George Romero, film critics were influential in associating the term "zombie" to his creatures, and especially the French magazine "Les Cahiers du Cinéma". He eventually accepted this linkage even though he remained convinced at the time that "zombies" corresponded to Bela Lugosi's creatures.[11]

One of the first books to expose Western culture to the concept of the Vodun zombie was The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook in 1929. Island is the sensationalized account of a narrator in Haiti who encounters voodoo cults and their resurrected thralls. Time claimed that the book "introduced 'zombi' into U.S. speech".[12]

In 1932, Victor Halperin directed White Zombie, a horror film starring Bela Lugosi. Here zombies are depicted as mindless, unthinking henchmen under the spell of an evil magician. Zombies, often still using this voodoo-inspired rationale, were initially uncommon in cinema, but their appearances continued sporadically through the 1930s to the 1960s, with notable films including I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

Voodoo related zombie themes have also appeared in espionage or adventure themed works outside the horror genre. For example, the original "Jonny Quest" series (1964) and the James Bond novel and movie "Live and Let Die" both feature Caribbean villains who falsely claim the voodoo power of zombification in order to keep others in fear of them.

George A. Romero and the modern zombie film[edit]

A young zombie (Kyra Schon) feeding on human flesh, from Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The modern conception of the zombie owes itself almost entirely to George A. Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.[1][13][14] In his films, Romero "bred the zombie with the vampire, and what he got was the hybrid vigour of a ghoulish plague monster".[15] This entailed an apocalyptic vision of monsters that have come to be known as Romero zombies.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times chided theater owners and parents who allowed children access to the film. "I don't think the younger kids really knew what hit them," complained Ebert. "They were used to going to movies, sure, and they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else." According to Ebert, the film affected the audience immediately:

"The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying."[16]

Romero's reinvention of zombies is notable in terms of its thematics; he used zombies not just for their own sake, but as a vehicle "to criticize real-world social ills—such as government ineptitude, bioengineering, slavery, greed and exploitation—while indulging our post-apocalyptic fantasies".[17] Night was the first of six films in Romero's Living Dead series. Its first sequel, Dawn of the Dead, was released in 1978.

Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 was released just months after Dawn of the Dead and acted as an unofficial sequel (Dawn of the Dead was released in several other countries as Zombi or Zombie).[1]

1980 and 1990's[edit]

The 1981 film Hell of the Living Dead referenced a mutagenic gas as a source of zombie contagion, an idea also used in Dan O'Bannon's 1985 film Return of the Living Dead. Return of the Living Dead featured zombies that hungered specifically for brains instead of all human flesh.

The mid-1980s produced few zombie films of note. Perhaps the most notable entry, The Evil Dead series, while highly influential are not technically zombie films but films about demonic possession, despite the presence of the undead. 1985's Re-Animator, loosely based on the Lovecraft story, stood out in the genre, achieving nearly unanimous critical acclaim,[18] and becoming a modest success, nearly outstripping Romero's Day of the Dead for box office returns.

After the mid-1980s, the subgenre was mostly relegated to the underground. Notable entries include director Peter Jackson's ultra-gory film Braindead (1992) (released as Dead Alive in the U.S.), Bob Balaban's comic 1993 film My Boyfriend's Back where a self-aware high school boy returns to profess his love for a girl and his love for human flesh, and Michele Soavi's Dellamorte Dellamore (1994) (released as Cemetery Man in the U.S.). Several years later, zombies experienced a renaissance in low-budget Asian cinema, with a sudden spate of dissimilar entries including Bio Zombie (1998), Wild Zero (1999), Junk (1999), Versus (2000) and Stacy (2001).

2000's and 2010's[edit]

The turn of the millennium coincided with a decade of box office successes in which the zombie sub-genre experienced a resurgence: the Resident Evil movies (2002, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2012); the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004),[1] the British films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later (2002, 2007)[19][20] and the comedy/homage Shaun of the Dead (2004). The new interest allowed Romero to create the fourth entry in his zombie series: Land of the Dead, released in the summer of 2005. Romero returned to the series with the films Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2010).[1]

Generally the zombies in these situations are the slow, lumbering and unintelligent kind first made popular in Night of the Living Dead.[21] Motion pictures created within the 2000s, however, like the Dawn of the Dead remake, and House of the Dead,[22] have featured zombies that are more agile, vicious, intelligent, and stronger than the traditional zombie.[23] Some are not cannibals craving "brains", but instead behave as "vectors" in spreading the infection to the non-infected, (as in Helix and World War Z). In many cases, these fast-moving zombies are depicted as living humans infected with a genetic-mutating and/or mind-altering pathogen (as in 28 Days Later, Zombieland and Left 4 Dead) as a result of an epidemic or biological agent, instead of being supernatural "undead" or "re-animated" corpses.

Zombie apocalypse[edit]

Intimately tied to the conception of the modern zombie is the "zombie apocalypse"; the breakdown of society as a result of an initial zombie outbreak which spreads. This archetype has emerged as a prolific subgenre of apocalyptic fiction and has been portrayed in many zombie-related media after Night of the Living Dead.[24] In a zombie apocalypse, a widespread (usually global) rise of zombies hostile to human life engages in a general assault on civilization. Victims of zombies may become zombies themselves. This causes the outbreak to become an exponentially growing crisis: the spreading "zombie plague/virus" swamps normal military and law enforcement organizations, leading to the panicked collapse of civilian society until only isolated pockets of survivors remain, scavenging for food and supplies in a world reduced to a pre-industrial hostile wilderness.

Subtext[edit]

The usual subtext of the zombie apocalypse is that civilization is inherently fragile in the face of truly unprecedented threats and that most individuals cannot be relied upon to support the greater good if the personal cost becomes too high. The narrative of a zombie apocalypse carries strong connections to the turbulent social landscape of the United States in the 1960s when Night of the Living Dead was first created.[25][26] Many also feel that zombies allow people to deal with their own anxiety about the end of the world.[27] One scholar concluded that "more than any other monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic ... they signal the end of the world as we have known it."[24]

Due to a large number of thematic films and video games, the idea of a zombie apocalypse has entered the mainstream and there have been efforts by many fans to prepare for the hypothetical future zombie apocalypse. Efforts include creating weapons and selling educational material informing people on how to survive a zombie outbreak, although most of these are tongue-in-cheek and do not represent an authentic belief that a zombie apocalypse in the near future is likely.[28]

Story elements[edit]

Night of the Living Dead established most of the tropes associated with the genre, including the unintelligent but relentless behavior of zombies.[21]

There are several common themes that create a zombie apocalypse:

  1. Initial contacts with zombies are extremely dangerous and traumatic, causing shock, panic, disbelief and possibly denial, hampering survivors' ability to deal with hostile encounters.[29]
  2. The response of authorities to the threat is slower than its rate of growth, giving the zombie plague time to expand beyond containment. This results in the collapse of the given society. Zombies take full control while small groups of the living must fight for their survival.[29]

The stories usually follow a single group of survivors, caught up in the sudden rush of the crisis. The narrative generally progresses from the onset of the zombie plague, then initial attempts to seek the aid of authorities, the failure of those authorities, through to the sudden catastrophic collapse of all large-scale organization and the characters' subsequent attempts to survive on their own. Such stories are often squarely focused on the way their characters react to such an extreme catastrophe, and how their personalities are changed by the stress, often acting on more primal motivations (fear, self-preservation) than they would display in normal life.[29][30]

In popular culture[edit]

Movie poster for the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead

The figure of the zombie has appeared several times in fantasy themed fiction and entertainment, as early as the 1929 novel The Magic Island by William Seabrook. Time claimed that the book "introduced 'zombi' into U.S. speech".[31] In 1932, Victor Halperin directed White Zombie, a horror film starring Bela Lugosi. This film, capitalizing on the same voodoo zombie themes as Seabrook's book of three years prior, is often regarded as the first legitimate zombie film, and introduced the word "zombie" to the wider world.[32] Other zombie-themed films include Val Lewton's I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow, (1988) a heavily fictionalized account of Wade Davis' book.

The DC comics character Solomon Grundy, a villain who first appeared in a 1944 Green Lantern story, is one of the earliest depictions of a zombie in the comics medium. In 2011, Image Comics released a four issue miniseries entitled Drums, by writer El Torres and artist Abe Hernando. The story consists of Afro-Caribbean zombies that have been created using voodoo.

The zombie also appears as a metaphor in protest songs, symbolizing mindless adherence to authority, particularly in law enforcement and the armed forces. Well-known examples include Fela Kuti's 1976 album Zombie, and The Cranberries' 1994 single "Zombie".

A new version of the zombie, distinct from that described in Haitian religion, has also emerged in popular culture in recent decades. This "zombie" is taken largely from George A. Romero's seminal film The Night of the Living Dead,[1] which was in turn partly inspired by Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend.[33][34] The word zombie is not used in Night of the Living Dead, but was applied later by fans.[35] The monsters in the film and its sequels, such as Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, as well as its many inspired works, such as Return of the Living Dead and Zombi 2, are usually hungry for human flesh although Return of the Living Dead introduced the popular concept of zombies eating brains.

Sometimes they are victims of a fictional pandemic illness causing the dead to reanimate or the living to behave this way, but often no cause is given in the story. Although this modern monster bears some superficial resemblance to the Haitian zombie tradition, its links to such folklore are unclear,[34] and many consider George A. Romero to be the progenitor of this creature.[36] Zombie fiction is now a sizeable sub-genre of horror, usually describing a breakdown of civilization occurring when most of the population become flesh-eating zombies — a zombie apocalypse.

In art[edit]

Artist Jillian McDonald has made several works of video art involving zombies, and exhibited them in her 2006 show, "Horror Make-Up," which debuted on 8 September 2006 at Art Moving Projects, a gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.[37] Artist Karim Charredib has dedicated his work to the zombie figure. In 2007, he made a video installation at villa Savoye called "Them !!!" where zombies walked in the villa like tourists.[38] He has also made a series of collages, inserting zombies in the background of famous movies.[39]

In comics[edit]

The DC comics character Solomon Grundy is one of the earliest depictions of a zombie in the comics medium if not the first. Grundy's first appearance as a zombie super villain against the original Green Lantern came in the October 1944 edition of All-American Comics #61. In 1973, Marvel Comics launched a black and white magazine series entitled Tales of the Zombie featuring the adventures of Simon William Garth aka the Zombie. From 2005, Marvel Comics used zombies and the zombie apocalypse scenario as the focus of their series Marvel Zombies, in which the superheroes of the Marvel Universe were transformed into zombies. DC Comics' Geoff Johns introduced a revenant-staffed Black Lantern Corps, consisting of the maliciously animated corpses of fallen DC metahumans during its "Blackest Night" story arc. DC Comics continued producing zombie comics on their digital imprint Zuda Comics. The Black Cherry Bombshells takes place in a world where all the men have turned into zombies. Robert Kirkman, an admirer of Romero, launched a self-published comic book The Walking Dead, and wrote Marvel Zombies in 2006.

In anime and manga[edit]

There has been a growth in the number of zombie manga in the last decade, and in a list of "10 Great Zombie Manga", Anime News Network's Jason Thompson placed I Am a Hero at number 1, considering it "probably the greatest zombie manga ever". In second place was Living Corpse and in third, Biomega, which he called "the greatest science-fiction virus zombie manga ever".[40]

In gaming[edit]

Zombies are a popular theme for video games, particularly of, but not limited to, the stealth, survival horror, first-person shooter and role-playing game genres. Important horror fiction media franchises in this area include Resident Evil, Dead Rising, House of the Dead, Dead Island, Left 4 Dead, Dying Light, State of Decay, The Last of Us and the Zombies game modes from Call of Duty title series.[41] PopCap Games' Plants vs. Zombies, a humorous tower defense game, was an indie hit in 2009, featuring in several best-of lists at the end of that year. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game Urban Dead, a free grid-based browser game where zombies and survivors fight for control of a ruined city, is one of the most popular games of its type.[42] DayZ, a zombie-based survival horror mod for ArmA 2, was responsible for over 300,000 unit sales of its parent game within two months of its release.[43]

Outside of video games, zombies frequently appear in trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering, as well as in role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop wargames such as Warhammer Fantasy and 40K.

The game Humans vs. Zombies is a zombie-themed live-action game played on college campuses.[44]

In merchandise[edit]

Many companies from around the world have also put strong focus on creating products geared towards the 'zombie' culture. This list includes a company in California, Harcos Labs, that sells bagged Zombie Blood and Zombie Jerky in specimen style pouches;[45] and an array of small companies creating novelty products such as Zombie Mints, Screaming Zombie Energy Drink, and Gummy Brains. These items have been incorporated into cosplay during zombie walks around the world.

In print and literature[edit]

One of the various zombie panel discussion at the 2012 New York Comic Con featuring writers who have worked in the genre (l-r): Jonathan Maberry, Daniel Kraus, Stefan Petrucha, Will Hill, Rachel Caine, Chase Novak, and Christopher Krovatin. Also present but not visible in the photo was Barry Lyga.

Lovecraft touched on the theme of zombies, with the short stories In the Vault, Cool Air and the Thing on the Doorstep. He also used zombies of a sort in his "collaboration the Mound with Zealia Bishop.

In the 1990s, zombie fiction emerged as a distinct literary subgenre, with the publication of Book of the Dead in 1990 and its follow-up Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2 in 1992, both edited by horror authors John Skipp and Craig Spector. Featuring Romero-inspired stories from the likes of Stephen King, the Book of the Dead compilations are regarded as influential in the horror genre and perhaps the first true "zombie literature".

Recent zombie fiction of note includes Brian Keene's 2005 novel The Rising, followed by its sequel City of the Dead. The Rising proved itself to be a success in the subgenre, even winning the 2005 Bram Stoker award.[46]

Famed horror novelist Stephen King has mined the zombie theme, first with his 1990 short story "Home Delivery". In 2006, King published Cell, which concerns a struggling young artist on a trek from Boston to Maine in hopes of saving his family from a possible worldwide outbreak of zombie-like maniacs. Cell was a number-one bestseller upon its release.[47]

Aside from Cell, the best-known current work of zombie fiction is 2006's World War Z by Max Brooks, which was an immediate hit upon its release and a New York Times bestseller.[48] Brooks had previously authored the cult hit The Zombie Survival Guide, an exhaustively researched, zombie-themed parody of pop-fiction survival guides published in 2003.[49] Brooks has said that zombies are so popular because:

Other monsters may threaten individual humans, but the living dead threaten the entire human race.... Zombies are slate wipers.

David Wellington's trilogy of zombie novels began in 2004 with Monster Island, followed by two sequels, Monster Nation and Monster Planet. Jonathan Maberry's Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead, released in August 2008, interviewed over 250 experts in forensics, medicine, science, law enforcement, the military and similar disciplines to discuss how the real world would react, research and respond to zombies. In 2009, Katy Hershbereger of St. Martin's Press stated "In the world of traditional horror, nothing is more popular right now than zombies.... The living dead are here to stay."[49]

The mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) by Seth Grahame-Smith combines the full text of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen with a story about a zombie epidemic within the novel's British Regency period setting.[49]


In television and video[edit]

Thriller (1983), a Michael Jackson music video featuring choreographed zombies dancing with the singer, is one of the most iconic videos ever made.[50][51] Many pop culture media have paid tribute to this video,[citation needed] such as a viral video (nearly 50 million views) which featured 1500 prisoners in orange jumpsuits recreating the zombie dance,[52] and zombie films such as Return of the Living Dead 2.

In 2013, the AMC series The Walking Dead had the highest audience ratings in the United States for any show on broadcast or cable with an average of 5.6 million viewers.[53] The show's racial "issues" were parodied on Saturday Night Live.[54]

Government and media response[edit]

On 18 May 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a graphic novel, Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse providing tips to survive a zombie invasion as a "fun new way of teaching the importance of emergency preparedness".[55] The CDC goes on to summarize cultural references to a zombie apocalypse. It uses these to underscore the value of laying in water, food, medical supplies, and other necessities in preparation for any and all potential disasters, be they hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, or hordes of zombies.[55][56]

On 17 October 2011, The Weather Channel published an article, "How To Weather the Zombie Apocalypse" that included a fictional interview with a Director of Research at the CDD, the "Center for Disease Development".[57] Questions answered include "How does the temperature affect zombies' abilities? Do they run faster in warmer temperatures? Do they freeze if it gets too cold?"[57]

Use in theoretical academic papers[edit]

According to a 2009 Carleton University and University of Ottawa epidemiological analysis, an outbreak of even Living Dead's slow zombies "is likely to lead to the collapse of civilization, unless it is dealt with quickly." Based on their mathematical modelling, the authors concluded that offensive strategies were much more reliable than quarantine strategies, due to various risks that can compromise a quarantine. They also found that developing a cure would merely leave a few humans alive, since this would do little to slow the infection rate.

On a longer time scale, the researchers found that all humans end up turned or dead. This is because the main epidemiological risk of zombies, besides the difficulties of neutralizing them, is that their population just keeps increasing; generations of humans merely "surviving" still have a tendency to feed zombie populations, resulting in gross outnumbering. The researchers explain that their methods of modelling may be applicable to the spread of political views or diseases with dormant infection.[58]

A follow-up to the above paper explored the possability that a zombie apocalypse may already have occurred at other locations in the universe. The study by Kane & Selsis[59] showed that even a conservative estimate of outbreaks of zombie infections (referred to as Spontaneous Necro-Animation Psychosis or SNAP) would mean that there are are least 2,500 contaminated planets within 100 parsecs of Earth. They thus conclude that this helps to explain the Fermi Paradox due to the devastating effect of encountering such planets during the planetary exploration phase of an advanced civilization.

Adam Chodorow of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University investigated the estate and income tax implications of a zombie apocalypse under United States federal and state tax codes. He notes that being dead is different from being undead, and states that "most self-motivated zombies likely would be considered alive under most state law definitions", similar to victims of strokes or Alzheimer's Disease, or those in a persistent vegetative state. Whether a reanimated zombie should be considered the same being as when it was originally alive is, according to Chodorow, much less clear. Due to such potential legal complications, he recommends that legislators enact special tax laws for the undead.[60]

Neuroscientists Bradley Voytek and Timothy Verstynen have built a side career in describing the nature of a zombie brain in considerable detail, based heavily on real world neuroscience ideas. Their work has been featured in Forbes, New York Magazine, and other publications.[61]

As social activism[edit]

A Zombie Walk in Pittsburgh

Organized zombie walks have been staged, either as performance art, or as part of a political protest.[62][63][64][65][66]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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