By Erin Keating
In honor of Halloween and last week’s crazy Walking Dead episode – don’t worry; no spoilers here! – Flash Back Friday is exploring the history of zombies.
The word zombie originates from Louisiana and Haitian Creole cultures. Their word zonbi meant “a person who died and was then brought to life without speech or free will” (anthropology.msu.edu). According to legend, people could be turned into zombies by voodoo priests who practiced black magic. These zombies would then be under the control of the voodoo priest until that person died.
Fear of zombies, or simply that the dead will come back to life, is a multicultural fear. The traditional practice of using gravestones came from the ancient practice of placing rocks on top of graves to keep the dead from rising again.
The first real “zombie” movies were made in the early thirties and forties with White Zombie being released in 1932, and I Walked with a Zombie in 1943. These movies focused on the Haitian voodoo portrayal of zombies. Night of the Living Dead, directed by George Romero in 1968, was the first appearance of zombies as we’ve come to know them. However, at the time, Romero and his crew didn’t know what to call his brain-thirsty, stumbling monsters. The production team and early critics referred to the undead as ghouls (Rolling Stone).
These movies became a way of exploring whether humans – in their relentless desire to survive at all costs to others – were actually worse than the zombies. Romero’s sequel, Dawn of the Dead, released ten years after the first movie, first coined the term zombies and had them invading a shopping mall in an attempt to comment on how consumerism has made people mindless zombies (Rolling Stone).
In the eighties and nineties, zombies’ purposes transitioned from social commentary to humorous enjoyment. This can be seen in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, and the subgenre of “splatstick” which featured comically overdone gore. It also became prevalent in video games, such as Resident Evil, that allowed the audience to actively participate in zombie fighting (Rolling Stone).
The early 2000’s saw a resurgence of zombie-horror, which most critics believe was caused by the mass fear created by the 9/11 terror attacks. This led to a remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004, and Romero’s own Land of the Dead in 2005. Zombies also spread into comics with Max Brooks’s Zombie Survival Guide in 2003, and literature through his novel World War Z in 2006. This post-apocalyptic trend has translated into the insane popularity of The Walking Dead whose season premiere reached almost twenty million viewers (deadline.com). Regardless of how zombies came about, it’s clear that they are here to stay for quite some time.