No matter what you call them — the undead, living dead, reanimated, returners, infected, walkers, rotters, or just the z-word — zombies are upon us. (You thought you could outrun them!) Maybe it’s because it goes hand-in-decaying-hand with the current rage for apocalyptic stories, but the dead have risen with a vengeance: mash-ups of zombies with classic literature are a solid industry, while the undead stagger regularly across television and movie screens, video games, and even political ads.
On June 21, the much-discussed adaptation of Max Brooks’ acclaimed 2006 bestseller World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War opens in theaters. A companion to his monster (ha) 2003 hit The Zombie Survival Guide, the novel documents an international pandemic via a series of fictional first-person accounts gathered in the aftermath by Brooks’ character, a United Nations worker. The film, directed by Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace”), streamlines the book’s complexity into a thriller about a United Nations field specialist, played by Brad Pitt, in the thick of the zombie apocalypse.
An instant classic, World War Z is an addictive page-turner that also throws down a devastating commentary on epidemics and geopolitical relations, while honoring the zombie genre. Brooks, an avowed zombie obsessive, cites George A. Romero, the patron saint of undead cinema, as an influence, and his meticulously researched work not only recognizes the international currency of zombie stories (almost every nation has one), but also reflects their evolution in pop culture.
The earliest zombie pictures, such as 1932’s “White Zombie” (considered the first zombie feature) and 1943’s “I Walked with a Zombie,” used the original Haitian notion of a “zombi”: a normal person hypnotized or bewitched into an unconscious but animated state and open to outside stimuli. These movies played into western anxiety about the foreign, exotic Other, centered on white colonialists “infected” by voodoo. Later productions, even B-movies like Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space” or Del Tenney’s “The Horror of Party Beach,” heightened this by literally bringing the threat home. Drawing on the atomic age, the space race, and Communism, they showed we could be invaded and controlled in familiar situations. But it was Romero’s landmark “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) that took these themes and transformed them into real horror. Filmed in a grim black-and-white that reflected its despair, “Living Dead” was no schlockfest but an angry critique of American society that has been read as commentary on the Vietnam War, the government, and race and gender relations. It also established the popular conception of the zombie as a flesh-eating, reanimated corpse. Romero followed this with five sequels: “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” (2010).
Though Brooks has said that he’s not a fan of the Return of the Living Dead series (unrelated to the Romero films) or its campy contemporaries, these movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s laid the foundations for the modern zombie. While many of them felt more like B-movie throwbacks than social commentary (not always a bad thing), they broadened the scope of zombie lore. “The Return of the Living Dead” (1985) introduced the now-popular idea that zombies eat brains. Like his “King Kong” remake, Peter Jackson’s gory 1992 comedy “Braindead” (released as “Dead Alive” in the U.S.) illustrated the danger of international travel with the transport of an infected species to suburban New Zealand. Meanwhile, “Day of the Dead” and the 1994 adaptation “Dellamorte Dellamore” (called “Cemetery Man” in the U.S.) explored the potential humanity of the undead.
In 2002, the genre was revived by the critical and commercial success of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” which established the major themes of the millennial zombie narrative. Like Romero’s work, it evoked horror through stark realism: glimpses of an entire nation undone by a virus, the terrifying physicality of the (here, fast-moving) undead, or the realization that almost nothing separates humanity and savagery. The popularity of Boyle’s film led to hundreds of productions of varying quality, but the best mix entertainment and social commentary. The “rom-zom-com” “Shaun of the Dead,” the blockbuster adaptation “I Am Legend,” the comedy “Zombieland,” and the television hit “The Walking Dead” examine issues of national and global identity, human versus animal instinct, the individual and the community, and the efficacy and dangers of science. Along with the genre, these questions continue to evolve; this year, the adaptation “Warm Bodies” and the new BBC miniseries “In the Flesh” had sentient zombies as lead characters, using this development as metaphors for nationality, class, race, and sexuality. Whether it’s incisive social critique or just good old-fashioned brain eating, we look forward to seeing where the “World War Z” film will rank in this zombie pantheon.