Why popular culture is obsessed with Zombies

Oh God the Aftermath EXPLORED!Flesh-eating marauding monsters – frightening? You betcha. Like many of us, I love a good scare every so often and Halloween is a great time to do it. In terms of nightmarish thoughts, there’s little to top a zombie apocalypse. The prospect of being chased by a half-decomposed Granny truly scares me.

They say adrenaline-stimulating shocks quench our pent-up neolithic instincts. Unlike vampires, demons and ghouls, zombies have found phenomenal appeal in recent years. I expect that this year zombie costumes will be more popular than ever. Moreover, other bump-in-the-night-nasties are literally being devoured by the zombie theme. Entertainment is awash: when I last checked, there were 1,400 zombie games in Apple’s iTunes Store (My personal favourite is the bizarrely named ‘Plants vs. Zombies’. There are hundreds of zombie books (I tried counting and gave up) and about 500 movies.

Vampires have been trendy amongst the teens – thanks to the Twilight saga and the adolescent-teenboy-pinup, Buffy. They have probably had their day. I’m convinced the Z-uprising will to outlive other horror fiction and prove to be far more than a passing fad. Yes, the lumbering undead are here to stay. Why? Because like all classic fantasy, they can speak into our world today. Good zombie stories are not only about cheap thrills but can resonate with popular culture on many levels: our fears, our politics and our world views. And no, their significance has nothing to do with the thought of shooting a granny in the head.

You don’t need God to kill a zombie

Ripley's Believe It Or Not! museum - history - 1850 vampire killing kit - (by Ryan S)
1850s Vampire killing kit. Seriously.
Increasingly Western culture is ‘God’-less. Religious doctrine and morality has made way for rationalism. For many, logic and reasoning long ago trumped scripture and dogma. If you take a look at traditional Halloween monsters – ghosts, demons and vampires – you will probably notice that they are all ‘evil’. They are inseparable from Christian symbolism and are defeated with crucifixes, holy water and exorcisms. The modern zombie on the other hand is the result human misadventure, not hell, and these rotting cannibals have no moral compass. No priest will can save you from these shuffling blood-fiends… unless they are a dab hand with a shotgun.

In today’s humanist culture – piety plays lesser fiddle to the greater virtues of courage, co-operation and mistrust. Zombie tales are more easily related to because they esteem the individuals who can overcome through the human spirit – not a supernatural one.

Zombies are political: it’s ‘Us v Them’

There is one man more responsible for making a Caribbean superstition today’s Hollywood cash cow. That man’s name is George Romero. In 1968, he released the low-budget cult classic Night of the Living Dead. Pre-Romero, zombies weren’t very scary. They were benign, shambling creatures. He transformed them into unstoppable cannibals.

For all their nastiness, Romero’s monsters are ultimately mindless. An infected, then reborn cadaver lives (or rather doesn’t) to chomp on living flesh. His movie trilogy chronicles the living vs the dead – the free vs the enslaved – us vs them. It’s a simple premise that can is used to satirise bigger issues. In Romero’s second movie Dawn of the Dead he pokes fun at US consumerism showing brainless people staggering around a shopping mall (that’s the zombies). Yet this ‘us vs. them’ theme can apply to any political enemy, be it capitalism, communism or religion: “Gosh, how I would hate to be turned into a zombie. I can’t imagine having my thoughts and free-will taken away!” No one wants to be a zombie to another power.

Zombies evolve with our fears

The original ‘zombi’ is from Haitian folklore. Unfortunate souls were raised from the dead by a sinister sorcerer to forever serve their master. The superstition fit snugly with the Catholic tradition of purgatory, and for the Haitians it was taken very seriously. Relatives would bury their loved ones face down, guard their tombs, sew up their mouths or even ‘kill’ them twice to prevent them being reanimated as a slave. Ever since the zombie revival of the 1960s, the undead have continued to tap into the greatest fear of the day.

In the 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead, zombies came about from a spaceship crashed to Earth. Day by Day Armageddon by J. L. Bourne, explains zombie spread via a radiation leak. The Return of the Living Dead (dir. Dan O’Bannon) points the finger at a gas leaking from an Army canister. Nearly all recent zombie accounts are due to a virus infection. See a theme emerging?

Each iteration of zombie stories evolves to the fear of the time. From the pseudo-Christian beliefs of old, to UFO angst, to Cold War fears to now – society’s dread of a worldwide virus pandemic.

For each generation’s deepest fear, there is a zombie.

So what’s yours?

Have a great, fright-filled Halloween!

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to discuss in the comments below…


Harper, S (2002). Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead Journal of American Popular Culture, 1 (2)

Twohy, M (2008). From Voodoo to Viruses: The Evolution of the Zombie in Twentieth Century Popular Culture Trinity College London

Deborah Christie, & Sarah Juliet Lauro, ed. (2011). Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human Fordham Univ Press Other: 0-8232-3447-9, 9780823234479

3 responses to “Why popular culture is obsessed with Zombies”

  1. Dear Proof Reader,

    *grater virtues* -> *greater virtues* (Although with zombies, the former may be considered semantically correct).

    – andrew

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