With The Walking Dead still dominating the airwaves and receiving its own spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, it is safe to say that zombies are a major part of our culture. However, it is largely thanks to a number of earlier pieces that laid the groundwork for the current zombie craze that we are able to enjoy the most recent adventures regarding the undead.
The original concept of the zombie as it is known today draws from Haitian legends that a Vodou sorcerer, known as a Bokor, could use a special toxic powder to enslave a person, making them appear to be in a state of living death and completely subject to their master’s will. There are even people today in Haiti that will claim to have been servants of a Bokor and either escaped or been released.
This first translated to film early in the medium with the German expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which you can catch, in full, on YouTube. In the film, the doctor uses a “somnambulist” to commit murders for him at night and keeps him in the titular cabinet when not out killing. More directly related to the Haitian myth, Bela Lugosi played a Bokor in White Zombie (also available in full on YouTube), commanding the first film hordes of shambling minions.
What really set the stage for the modern zombie was George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, which is frequently rerun on the El Rey network (check here for details). Romero is on record stating that this film is a metaphor for what he considered to be the failure of the 60s to change the world in an appreciable way. Given that context, it is easy to see the zombies as representing a society that relentlessly pursues a black protagonist and a group of misfits trying desperately to consume them, make them one with the horde. They are relentless, seemingly endless, and the heroes have only a slim chance of escaping with their sense of self intact.
28 Days Later, available instantly through Vudu, gives us another application of the zombie metaphor. In this case, the infected are a nameless fear of sudden and complete societal collapse, reminiscent of our views of terrorism in the post-9/11 world. What works so well about this film, other than showing how quickly our carefully constructed civilization falls apart under pressure, is that it doesn’t just let the metaphors for terrorists be the villains. By the third act we are introduced to the soldiers led by Christopher Eccleston. At first they offer security, but it soon becomes clear that they are no preferable to the infected, willing to kill the men and rape the women to build a new society. Terrorist or authoritarian police state: both are monsters.
The comic for The Walking Dead is a little more direct in how it approaches its central message. Perhaps the best articulation of that message comes in issue 24 where a bruised and bandaged Rick Grimes famously pronounces,”We are the Walking Dead.” In Kirkman’s book mere survival is not the same as life and as humans we need to aspire to more.
What works about the zombie as a cultural metaphor is that is is a blank slate onto which we can apply our fears and anxieties. From the anti-consumerist message of Dawn of the Dead to the support of bioethics represented by the Resident Evil series, the only requirements for a zombie metaphor are that the problem be bigger than us and seem unstoppable.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about zombies is how easy it is to become one. A single bite turns you into the Other, an inferior and dangerous creature that will rip apart everything you love. One moment we’re us, the next moment we are them and we only have so much control over that.
Zombie culture looks like it will be a major part of our world for a while now. The way that zombies can be changed so drastically without ruining the core of their mythos means that we can keep imposing our fears on them, taking the intangible terrors that hide in the back of our minds, giving them form, and shooting them in the head.