The Evolution Of Zombies In Pop Culture

I'm sure most of you probably know at least one, if not more, people like me. You know, the friend you invite to dinner who, instead of appreciating the spectacular view from that big old picture window in your living room, lectures you about the impossibility of boarding it up efficiently when the zombies come.

Yeah, I'm that person. And it used to be there weren't very many of us; just a relatively small fringe group of people given to eye-balling his or her surroundings at any given moment, planning just what we'd do if the zombie apocalypse should happen to start right then and there. We were like a small, select club, but instead of a secret handshake we'd all laugh knowingly when someone else said, "Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up."

Now you can't turn around without running into zombie-savvy civilians. Over the last few years zombies have taken over publishing, movies, television and pop culture as relentlessly as they've overrun farmhouses and malls in George Romero's films. Even the CDC has gotten into the rotting, shambling spirit of things. Some people are proclaiming zombies are the "new vampire" (and if, by "new vampire" they mean zombies are the currently the monster du jour for film and literature, I take their point. I don't, however, see them taking over as romantic heroes, sparkling or otherwise). Others state that zombies have already "jumped the shark" and are on their way out, end of story. Not likely, says I. People like me have been waiting a long time for enough zombie fodder to satisfy our appetites.

Not that the concept of a zombie apocalypse is new. There are references to the flesh eating dead in the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest surviving work of literature. And one has only to take a peek at a few choice passages in the bible to see that the dead returning to life is not a new theme.

Throughout history most cultures have had, if not precisely zombies as we've come to define them (i.e. reanimated corpses with a voracious appetite for human flesh), assorted critters close enough for government work: vengeful reanimated corpses called revenants (think Creepshow's "I want my cake!" segment); nachzehrers and gjengangers (ghouls that feed on corpses, but also attack the living and spread disease); and the Norse draugr (dead Vikings who attack, eat and infect the living).

Haitian folklore brought us the "zombi" (which translates as "spirit of the dead"), in the form of either an animated corpse or living human controlled by a Bokor (voodoo priest) after being zapped with a nasty toxic powder called "coup poudre." These zombies didn't eat human flesh, but they were still creepy. Early movies like White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, and the '80s film Serpent and the Rainbow featured this relatively benign incarnation of the walking dead.

George Romero's 1968 release Night of the Living Dead brought us the classic (and now ubiquitous) slow, but relentless flesh-eating zombies. Subsequent films/books/games/television have since brought us more slow zombies; zombies that could win gold medals for sprinting; smart zombies (Day of the Dead); brain-eating zombies (Return of the Living Dead); shark fighting zombies (Zombie Flesh Eaters); funny zombies (Shaun of the Dead/Zombieland); pathetic zombies (Zombie Honeymoon); and sensitive zombies (Fido). Reasons for the zombacalypse range from exploding space probes, biological warfare, demonic possession, tainted meat, mutating viruses/bacterial nasties, biblical prophecy, and more. And now, thanks to The Walking Dead (AMC) and Dead Set (BBC), zombies have successfully infiltrated network television.

With so many epic moments to choose from as zombies have lurched their way through history and into the mainstream, I suspect each of us has our own list of the most noteworthy. And here, fellow zombiephiles, is mine. Your mileage may vary.

Dana Fredsti is the author of Plague Town [Titan, $7.99].