Zombies weren’t always an epidemic; did you know that?
And I don’t mean ‘epidemic’ in that pop culture is and has been glutted with zombie stories for decades now. I mean literally epidemic, as in an easily spread disease—that’s not what zombies originally were.
If you go back to the mythology (Haitian, and West African before that), they were mindless slaves created through black magic and bloody rites. They were difficult to create and tied to the corrupt priests who rose them, not the hungry, spreading hordes we know today.
We have George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) to thank for many of our current ideas about zombies, the hunger, bites causing infections, kill the brain = kill the monster. Before him, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) was about the only zombie game in town, and it largely conformed to the monsters’ Haitian roots.
There are lots of reasons that Romero decided to rework the zombie mythology the way he did, social commentary, various European folklore surrounding the undead, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) all likely played key roles in his inspiration. I’ll leave that for film scholars to dissect, debate, and decide on.
For whatever reason, zombies—zombies that are perpetually hungry and boundlessly spreading—are here to stay.
I’ve got a bit of a vested interest in keeping an eye on the current state of the zombie mythos. For two years now I’ve taught a class grounded in 18th and 19th century plague and apocalypse literature, but with an eye towards modern apocalypse texts and what they say about our society.
One of the great joys of teaching my own class is that, within the confines of my classroom, I get to define “text” however I want, and for apocalyptic purposes I throw those doors wide open:
A comparison between Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Bethesda Studio’s Fallout video game series (1997-2018)? I am here for it.
A reading of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) in the light of Lord Byron’s poem ‘Darkness’ (1816)? Yes please.
The Malthusian implications of Thanos’ snap in Avengers: Infinity War (2018)? You didn’t even have to ask.
You believe the narrator of Max Brooks’ World War Z (2006) can be contrasted with Defoe’s narrator in Journal of the Plague Year (1722)? Make your case and know that I’m rooting for you.
Being able to make these connections for my students means staying abreast with games, comics, movies, TV shows, and literature. If I haven’t read it, watched it, or played it, I’ve watched a YouTube video about it, scanned the Wikipedia page, the IMDB page, or the fan message boards because if my students are excited about something, then I want to be excited about it to so we can all talk about it in class together.
And that means getting to continue my appreciation for zombies even as I move towards “outgrowing” that kind of thing. It means that I cheerfully watched Zac Snyder’s new zombie flick, Army of the Dead (2021) on a Friday afternoon, and called it two and a half hours of “research”.
And it was. Besides the opening title sequence alone being one of the best zombie movies I’ve seen in a while, there are some comparisons to Poe’s Masque of the Red Death (1842) that I would love to crack into with an unsuspecting bunch of teenagers.
Because there’s nothing better than catching them unawares; than asking them about their favorite disaster movies, video games, TV shows, books, comics, or whatever, and proving that the texts they’re assigned in class aren’t dead and locked in centuries past. They live and breathe and expand through all their myriad textual descendants, and the astute observer can see that lineage.
They are, in that sense, zombies. Creating new images of themselves in every era and speaking new truths for each generation.