“Sometimes dead is better”
-Stephen King (maybe)
Why are Zombies so Popular?
It’s not a coincidence that one of the most highly acclaimed shows of the past decade, The Walking Dead, has found so much success amongst the ravenous Zombie fan base that has arisen since the turn of the century. The Walking Dead (the show based on the comic book/graphic novel) alone has spawned the TV show Talking Dead (a talk show solely discussing the newest episodes of TWD), the prequel series Fear of the Walking Dead, and even a video game titled The Walking Dead. And most importantly, it spawned the weekly conversation on Monday of “Shut the f*ck up, I haven’t watched it yet!”, followed by a social media blackout until you are caught up. Zombie books, zombie fan pages, zombie survival kits, even zombie running apps. The dead are living large right now, but why are zombies so popular?
It didn’t start with the TV show, and not even the comic that inspired it. It’s origins go a little further back.
The existence and the reference to “Zombies”, dates all the way back to the mid 19th century to Western Africa, but was popularized much later into the 20th century. The book The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook was released in 1929, and is widely considered to be the jumping off point for the modern concept of “zombies”, in which the main character is exposed to the Voodoo culture of Haiti.
This archetype of zombies will reappear in movies such as White Zombie featuring horror icon Bela Lugosi, The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price (inspired by the book I Am Legend), and The Plague of the Zombies in 1966.
Night of the Living Dead
In 1968, George A. Romero directed the independent film entitled Night of the Living Dead, which ended up changing the entire landscape for the zombie character, as well as starting a brand new horror revolution.
Starring Duane Jones and Judith O’dea, the two main characters, are stuck in a farmhouse which is surrounded by the “living dead”. Shot in black and white, the film adopted an extremely unsettling, secluded, and claustrophobic atmosphere. Not only did it emotionally disturb viewers, but it was widely criticized at the time for an unprecedented amount of onscreen gore. It provided one of the most terrifying horror experiences to premiere on the silver screen, and has stood the test of time as one of the corner stones in the horror genre.
With just a $114,000 budget, they ended up grossing $18 million world wide and spawning a series of “Dead” films. Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009) all being directed by George A. Romero.
There would be numerous spinoff, remakes, series and sequels to the original Night of the Living Dead movie, but only a few have found the same level of success as George’s original series. But we’ll talk about that later.
With the lull of the zombie genre in film, came a substitute which carried the undead into the new millennium. The 90’s saw a boom in the video game industry and gave way to the newest form of zombie culture; the Resident Evil game series.
Debuting in 1996 for the Sony Playstation, Resident Evil saw you working your way through the world of the undead, collecting items, and overall scaring the sh*t out of all the people lucky enough to experience it.
Due to it’s massive success, 8 sequels were made all before the end of 2002, officially milking the series as dry as it possibly could. The series has yet to end, with the latest release (at the time of writing this article) coming in June of 2016, with Umbrella Corps coming out for the Playstation 4.
28 Days Later
Although the zombie genre had seen its expansiveness explode ever since the first two revolutionary films of Night of the Living Dead, and Dawn of the Dead, it seemed to have reached a breaking point by the 1990s. Many of the films released did not receive much critical acclaim, and subsequently the classic zombie genre saw a dip in interest by the average movie goer.
Luckily, as mentioned above, the zombie culture didn’t see its death, with a boom in the video game industry and the massive craving for a new way to experience zombies in the 21st Century. Patching over interest with the Resident Evil video game series, the silver screen saw the release of 28 Days Later, reigniting the flame for watching zombies on the big screen.
Although some of the success can be attributed to the Resident Evil movie, which was released the same year as 28 Days Later, the latter saw the critical acclaim to cement zombie films in early 2000s.
Starring Cillian Murphy, the film opens in a post apocalyptic England, watching as the dumbfounded main character navigates the new world. With the low budget of only $8 million, it was able to recoup their investment ten-fold, making $84 million at the box office.
This proved to be the catalyst to encourage zombie themes across all genres, including comedy with Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009), romantic-comedy with Warm Bodies (2013), and action with Planet Terror (2007).
The Walking Dead
Starting as a comic/graphic novel written by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead was originally released in 2003 and has continued to present day, releasing 27 volumes and 162 different issues.
With a diverse and empathetic group of characters once again experiencing a post apocalyptic world of the undead, it instantly became a success falling into the reemerging zombie niche. Due to it’s success, the television channel AMC began to produce a TV series based on the popular comics in 2010, riding the waves constant popularity of the zombie genre.
To present day there have been 7 seasons, showcasing an alternate timeline of events to the comics, but featuring many similar characters and events.
Future of Zombies
Although not at the height of its popularity, there have consistently been a steady release of new blockbuster films, video game series, and television programs that take a stab at recreating (and adding their own flavor) to the zombie genre. It seems to have found a strong hold on the mainstream viewer, always being able to reinvent interest in one form of media or another.
The true success of the zombie phenomena coming, not just from one inciting trend, but from multiple rebirths of the character, with its next incarnation yet to be seen.