‘Renaissance’ is Pi Comment’s culture column, taking a closer look at popular culture and fresh takes on the humanities. In his debut article, Leo Krapp dissects the ever-evolving role of zombies in popular culture, as symptoms of our irrationalities and fears of the unknown that are rapidly becoming an academic talking-point.
The zombie is one of the most ubiquitous and widely recognised symbols in modern media. As a generation, we have lived through an era characterized by the prolific production of horror-based films, games and TV shows. Topical trends are always in flux, but over the past decade, even the past century, the zombie has continued to capture the imagination of millions. As an agent of terror, the zombie is set apart by the contextual elasticity of the ideas it can represent. Zombies can symbolise entirely different threats founded upon entirely different fears. In outer-space, on a Georgian ranch, in London, or during war-torn France, the meaning of zombies and the way we think about them can change entirely, depending on their place in time and space. The implications of this are rather important in decoding their popularity in media today, and are the reason why zombies won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. In order to better understand the role they will continue to play in the future of media, it is necessary to dip into the history of this monster.
During the American occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century, the zombie emerged from an attempt to generate fear and disgust for the practices of the ‘savage’ locals. Rumours of voodoo rituals performed by Haitian natives allegedly created mindless, ‘undead’ workers to supplement labour. This story immediately shot to popularity in American media, capturing a post-colonial fear of the mystical ‘other’ and the dangers of non-Western practices. The movie, White Zombie, premiering in 1932, was the first of many to come.
By the 1950s, the world had entered a lethal new era, and zombies were again deployed to help Americans deal with threats from the unfamiliar. Fear of mass extinction via mutually-assured destruction, of lunatic Soviet scientists, and the most dangerous of them all, communism, swept through American pop-culture. Comic strips like Corpses: Coast to Coast (1954), fleshed out the efforts of the Soviet Union to create a zombie army from cadavers that were left unburied by a gravedigger union strike. Radiation and common ownership of the means of production were a virulent combination indeed.
Cult-classics such as the Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Dawn of the Dead (1978) also acted as allegories for the danger and pervasiveness of social and economic inequality in the 70s and 80s, dealing with race relations and consumerism respectively. It is important to note here that racial and socioeconomic inequality are common themes in a great many zombie movies. Indeed, the aforementioned Night of the Living Dead was the first ever movie to cast an African-American lead actor.
In the 1990s, in line with the explosive emergence of AIDS and Ebola, zombies began to take on yet another meaning, this time representative of global contagion. The movie 28 Days Later (2002) and video games Resident Evil (1996) and Left 4 Dead (2008) all deal with the collapse of society destroyed by infectious disease. More recently, for a plethora of reasons including the global financial collapse, the War on Terror, and globalization, zombies have come to represent our factional fears of each other. The highly popular TV show The Walking Dead (2010-present), and the movie World War Z (2012), each exemplify that the real threat is not the undead, but rather, the actions of other interconnected groups of humans at both macro and micro levels. These examples may be lambasted as American-centric, but movies like Shaun of the Dead (2004), Train to Busan (2016), and Pontypool (2008) to name a few are important global examples that convey the universal appeal of these themes. Indeed, the world today is more divided and more connected than ever before, and modern zombie media has come to reflect this too, in many instances elevating the idea of The Barrier to a sacred symbol of security from the danger of outside world.
Overlord (2018) is the newest revisionist World War 2 zombie movie in this long lineage. It is not revolutionary, but is deserving of some attention. Although it grapples with familiar fears of Nazi science, it also addresses more contemporary themes; an African-American soldier and a brave French townswoman are able to triumph over the nameless reanimated Aryans because of individual exceptionalism and strong foundational morals. This film is not perfect, perhaps not even great, but it ushers in a new era of zombie movies, one of innovation, experimentation and recombination.
Zombies are not sexy, like vampires, or technologically advanced, like Frankenstein’s monster, or historically omnipresent, like werewolves. They are aesthetically displeasing, disturbing in concept, and often physically inferior to live humans. Nonetheless, there is something captivating about these shambling monsters that turned a Voodoo myth into a staple of Western culture. That ‘something’ is different for every person depending on their fears and interests. But for me, zombies have always represented a connection, whether that was the horror of the hive mind-esque qualities of the undead horde, the appeal of the close-knit bonds forged between survivors, or the real-life friendship that was created between myself and my friends witnessing adrenaline-packed moments of zombie-spectacle.
It is this ability to create and derive meaning from cultural circumstances that makes zombies a special case of cultural phenomena, and why they have recently become topics of academic research. The idea of the mob and the virus and the irradiated and the mystic is not just entertainment: it is a mirror reflecting back at us our values, our fears, and our way of life. It is a mirror that should be polished and watched carefully to reveal reflections of ourselves and our society.