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Rule #1 Is Cardio: Zombies In Pop Culture

October 18, 2012

In two previous blog posts, we examined actor/comedian/author Patton Oswalt’s three personality types based on a teenage nerd’s preferences in pop culture. In his book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt lays out the characteristics of the three personalities: Zombies simplify, spaceships leave, and wastelands destroy. Whereas wasteland personalities want to see their boring world utterly destroyed so that they can build a new world, zombies want the world left largely intact, but with the people removed. They want a new start, but not a completely clean slate.

We’ve already wandered the wasteland and boarded the spaceship, so let’s look at the zombies. Zombies got off to a slow start in pop culture compared to such horror staples as vampires and werewolves, but in the last few years, they’ve achieved runaway success in cinema, television, and print. The original zombies of Haitian lore were simply dead people reanimated to do a voodoo master’s bidding. However, the Cold War era brought a new paradigm: zombiism as a plague brought about by man meddling with nature through the hubristic use of science and technology.

No other figure looms as large over the zombie landscape as George Romero. In his series of Living Dead zombie films, Romero combined the horror film with social criticism, and his new zombies (actually known as ghouls in the first film) were shambling cannibalistic corpses spreading a contagious plague. Also new were unprecedented levels of graphic violence and gore: gruesome scenes of zombies preying on humans who fought back with a ferocity bordering on sadism.

The next major step in the evolution of the zombie was the rise of the "fast zombie." Most often these aren’t true zombies in that they aren’t actually dead. Instead, they are humans that have been virally transformed into mindless hyperaggressive predators. These zombies aren’t shambling, rotting corpses, and thus much more dangerous.

Finally, we take it for granted that zombies are mindless monsters. But are they really? Viewing the story from the zombie’s point of view makes the human "heroes" look a lot less heroic and a lot more like genocidal murderers. It is indeed ironic when one considers that perhaps the only way for a human to survive an apocalypse of mindless killers is to abandon one’s humanity and become an inhuman killer oneself.

Given the ascendancy of the zombie apocalypse in popular culture, there's no possible way I could give a truly inclusive list of zombie films and fiction. What follows is merely a survey, and if you don't see your favorite film or book, please share it in the comments!

The Voodoo Zombies

  • White Zombie (1932) – This is where it all started. Perhaps most influential in that it posed the problem "how do you kill someone who’s already dead?"
  • I Walked with a Zombie (1943)  - Directed by Jacques Tourneur of Cat People fame, this film is similar in that the line between the mundane and the supernatural is deliberately blurred, to great effect.
  • The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) – Loosely based on the true story of a scientist who believes that Haitian voodoo priests mimic death with a drug in order to create their zombie slaves. Can he maintain his sanity while immersed in a world of voodoo spirits and the tyrannical Tonton Macoutes? A very effective psychological thriller.

George Romero’s Living Dead

  • Night of the Living Dead (1968, remade 1990) – The 1968 version is the masterwork that created the zombie juggernaut. This low-budget B&W film framed the zombie apocalypse in terms of the turbulent 1960s, featuring an African-American hero and a government unable to contain the crisis brought on by its own doings.
  • Dawn of the Dead – (1974, remade 2004) The zombie apocalypse as criticism of consumer society. That it largely takes place in a shopping mall makes it all the more ironic. Color photography and inventive special effects also took gore to a whole new level.
  • Day of the Dead (1985, remade 2008) – The zombie apocalypse as criticism of the military-industrial-scientific complex.
  • Land of the Dead (2005) – The zombie apocalypse as class war. The survivors are locked away in the ultimate gated community, and the zombies are the resentful outsiders.
  • The Diary of the Dead (2008) - The zombie apocalypse as criticism of the media society.

The Fast Zombies

  • The Crazies (1973, remade 2010) – Here the military is explicitly the cause of an outbreak of homicidal violence when the crash of a plane carrying a weaponized virus contaminates a small town’s water supply.
  • 28 Days Later (2002)  – Danny Boyle really brought the fast zombie to the fore with this tale of a man waking up from a coma to find an England devastated by a “rage virus” outbreak.  The story is continued in 28 Weeks Later (2007).

The Zombie Comedies

  • Dead Alive aka Braindead (1992) – Before Peter Jackson became a respectable Oscar-winning director, he created this over-the-top splatterfest featuring violence, blood, and gore so graphic that it ceases being horrifying and becomes hilarious. Beware the dreaded Sumatran Rat Monkey.
  • Shaun of the Dead  (2004) – This modern classic finds our British Average Joes and Jane at first unaware of the zombie outbreak around them, and then fighting it by going to the pub. Brilliant.
  • Zombieland (2009) – Zombie video games show their influence here in the gleeful depiction of creative zombie disposal. Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide is an obvious influence as well.  It also has one of the best cameos of all time.
  • Dead Snow (2008) – What could be worse than zombies? NAZI ZOMBIES, that's what.

The Books

  • The Zombie Survival Guide: complete protection from the living dead and World War Z: an oral history of the zombie war by Max Brooks. By treating the zombie apocalypse as a national disaster, Brooks lampoons the survivalist manuals of the Cold War era in the Survival Guide, and offers a vision of Americans coming together in the face of adversity in WWZ. Essential zombie reading.
  • The Newsflesh series by Mira Grant. A very good YA series about young bloggers living in a post-zombie apocalypse America.
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains." The novel that launched a thousand mashups.
  • Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry. Yep, it's good old post-biological warfare once again, but this time hard-boiled detective Joe Ledger is on the case.
  • Cell by Stephen King. King is well-known for taking the mundane and making it terrifying, in this case using cell phones as the vector for the zombie plague.
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth series by Carrie Ryan. Another fine YA series, combining zombies with a future dystopian society.
  • Brains, a Zombie Memoir by Robin BeckerIn this dark comedy, we see that  zombies may not be so mindless after all, and they're tired of being treated as enemies. Zombies have rights too!

And finally, there is The Walking Dead. Originally a series of graphic novels by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, The Walking Dead has been adapted as a critically acclaimed television series and has spawned a series of tie-in novels. The series presents the lives of survivors in a stark, morally ambiguous world where the threat posed by other survivors may be greater than that posed by the zombies.

Hey, has anyone seen Carl? Not this again...

Jeff D.
Grandview Branch

Image credit: Zombie Walk at Sitges by Flickr user rumikel via Flickr's Creative Commons.

Tags: Zombies

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