Image by D Simmonds
AMC’s The Walking Dead has become a cultural phenomenon, a standout in a decade dominated by zombie fiction, which honestly comes as no surprise considering its depiction of strong multidimensional characters. Now, much to everyone’s excitement, a companion series, Fear the Walking Dead has just premiered through multiple providers, such as DirecTV and Dish, and is hungry for our brains – and viewership. Our obsession with zombies may seem like a recent trend, but it’s been building ever since the debut of George Romero’s seminal film Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
Many may not realize this but the undead didn’t become the undead through viruses or failed experiments at first. Zombies have their origins in Haitian voodoo folklore, as corpses reanimated by black magic, and made their film debut in the 1932 Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie as thralls to an evil sorcerer. Night of the Living Dead changed the conception of zombies to harbingers of the apocalypse, and was seen by many as a commentary on the brutal carnage of the Vietnam War, as well as an America in conflict with itself. In subsequent films, Romero used zombies to explore social themes like consumerism, slavery and exploitation. His work inspired countless other directors, including such notables as Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and Lucio Fulci.
Since Romero’s positioning of the zombie as an unexplained and mindless occurrence, filmmakers have used it as a sort of blank slate for satire and thematic exploration. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later took a closer look at a culture obsessed with violence in the post 9/11 world. Edgar Wright’s hilarious Shaun of the Dead drew telling comparisons between the walking dead and the masses stuck in repetitive and banal working lives because, let’s face it. Many of us are mindless zombies in our own offices. Romero has continued his work in the genre, using Land of the Dead as a commentary on class and income disparity, and Diary of the Dead as an examination of the craze over viral videos on the Internet as well as our obsession with the Internet itself.
One of the reasons the genre continues to generate popular content is its potential for creating conflicts among survivors. During a zombie apocalypse, teamwork among the living is crucial to survival, and those with certain skills and personality types tend to fare better. The most chilling aspects of stories like The Walking Dead are not the horrors perpetrated by the zombies themselves, but the atrocities committed by desperate humans in the name of self preservation, including cannibalism, rape, and unprovoked murder. The response by government and military organizations in the face of a zombie outbreak is often depicted as weak, slow, or even ineffectual, reflecting our fears about the inherent failings in the institutions we trust to protect us and figure out the next steps.
Modern works take the concept even further, into the realms of comedy and action. The wildly successful Zombieland uses clever dialogue and sharply drawn characters to bring a great deal of humor to an otherwise morbid concept. An example of action-packed zombie films is the thriller World War Z, which introduces the terrifying idea of zombies who think and act very quickly, and collaborate to achieve their goals.
There has been a rapid escalation of violent content in all creative media recently. Fifteen years ago, shows like The Walking Dead and Hannibal (both of which you can catch on demand via Vudu and DirecTV offers) would have been far too gory and disturbing for broadcast television; now they are the norm and for some sick, twisted reason, we love it! The surging popularity of zombie fiction has lined up perfectly with our new-found thirst for blood. Related works like The Zombie Survival Guide and the survival horror game H1Z1 allow us to drop ourselves into the zombie apocalypse and test our survival instincts and skills or lack thereof.
While it seems unlikely that the current high output rate of zombie fiction will continue for much longer as many themes and stories have been played out already, we certainly haven’t seen the last of it. Set at the very start of the outbreak, Fear the Walking Dead promises to be an emotional and wrenching experience. As long as creative minds find new ways to make use of them, these shambling, lurching corpses will be terrorizing audiences for years to come.Read More »