Zombies, the genre that won’t die | Sunday Observer

Zombies, the genre that won’t die

5 February, 2023

The zombie refers to a hugely popular trope of reanimated corpses, most popularly used in horror fiction. Though the concept of the living dead has been a common one throughout history, the modern idea of the zombie is fairly recent and has since quickly become one of the most beloved horror iconographies in all of fiction.

Though the basic idea of the zombie is so widely recognizable, a walking decaying corpse looking to consume the living and spreading its condition through a bite, the characteristics of this trope have varied greatly over the years and barely resembles its origins in Haitian folklore.

Though the idea of a zombie might seem quite specific, the concept of the dead returning alive has existed for as long as fiction has been written down. Ancient Mesopotamians have had at least one mention of the dead rising up to consume the living, even in the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, the oldest written story.

However, more recently, the term zombie is known to have been derived from Haitian Voodoo folklore, wherein zombies were corpses reanimated and enslaved by a bokor, a sorcerer.

These Voodoo zombies have very little in common with modern zombies, being characteristically no different from a human, and in some stories, are living humans put in a death like trance. These zombies were curable by making them ingesting salt, returning them to death, or making them turn on their master.

Haitian folklore

It was these zombies from Haitian folklore that began to appear in popular fiction during the early 20th century, starting with the 1929 novel ‘The Magic Island’ by W.B. Seabrook, which depicted the classic voodoo zombies as reanimated corpses enslaved by voodoo cults.

This resulted in “zombies” entering American pop culture, resulting in more books, movies and comic books to be centered around them. The 1932 film White Zombie released soon after, is widely considered to be the first feature length zombie film and also features a magically revived voodoo zombie.

Its popularity was such that the idea was even mentioned in the James Bond story, “Live and Let Die” which heavily features voodoo.

Flesh eaters

Zombies didn’t stray from their voodoo origins until the 60s and 70s with the release of George A. Romero’s classic ‘Night of the Living Dead’ franchise. Romero’s films depicted zombies as flesh-eating monsters with no master and their bites turning people into one of them, a concept that became a staple of the zombie genre.

However, Romero never explicitly referred to them as Zombies, instead calling them Ghouls, and also notably gave no reason for their revival from the dead, be it magical or scientific. He admits to basing his story on the 1954 Richard Matheson novel ‘I Am Legend’, which is considered to be a zombie apocalypse story that predated the classic zombie.

‘I Am Legend’ used vampires, and Romero considered his ghouls a mix of voodoo zombies and vampires, who consumed their victims and spread their infection through bites.

Though the ‘Living Dead’ franchise was an immediate success from the first movie’s release, due to a copyright error in the credits, the movie quickly entered the public domain, which allowed media to directly ape Romero’s unique take on zombies without legal issues.

This resulted in these new zombies quickly becoming a genre in and of itself, and an extremely recognizable global horror icon. And though the concept would continue to be popular in pop culture and media, the 80s saw a slight decline in zombie movies, with the rise of other horror icons taking over.

Renewed interest

But the genre would see a slight surge in the East, and games like ‘Resident Evil’ and ‘House of the Dead’ renewed interest in zombies, at least in the new medium.

Today, zombies continue to be a staple of popular culture. Since ‘28 Days Later’ jump started interest in zombies in the 2000s, new films, television shows, and video games were released on a regular basis. Stand out hits like ‘The Walking Dead’, the revived ‘Living Dead’ franchise, ‘The Last of Us’, have kept interest in zombies well and truly alive. Despite some lulls in interest throughout the years, zombies have refused to stay dead, with its endless applicability, timeless commentary and creative evolution keeping it coming back time and time again.