Where Zombies Come From: A Video Essay on the Origin of the Horrifying, Satirical Monsters

Will zom­bies ever die? To zom­bie enthu­si­asts, of course, that ques­tion makes no sense: zom­bies are already dead, drained of life and rean­i­mat­ed by some mag­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal, or even tech­no­log­i­cal force. Most of us have nev­er known a world with­out zom­bies, in the sense of zom­bies as a pres­ence in film, tele­vi­sion, lit­er­a­ture, and video games. In the video essay “Where Zom­bies Come From,” video essay­ist Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, goes back to the dawn of these dead fig­ures to pin­point the ori­gin of this robust “mod­ern myth.”

The first men­tion of zom­bies appears in 1929’s The Mag­ic Island, a book on Haiti by “jour­nal­ist, occultist, and gen­er­al­ly eccen­tric minor celebri­ty” William Seabrook. “The zom­bie, they say, is a soul­less human corpse, still dead, but tak­en from the grave and endowed by sor­cery with a mechan­i­cal sem­blance of life — it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive.”

That 90-year-old descrip­tion may sound more or less like the zom­bies that con­tin­ue to scare and amuse us today, but the mod­ern image of the zom­bie did­n’t emerge ful­ly formed; 1932’s Bela Lugosi-star­ring White Zom­bie, the very first zom­bie film, may not strike us today as ful­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the genre it found­ed.

But “in 1968 every­thing changed.” That year, the young film­mak­er George A. Romero’s Night of the Liv­ing Dead (watch it online) laid down the rules for zom­bies: they “devour liv­ing human beings. They hob­ble for­ward awk­ward­ly but relent­less­ly. They’re dumb, able to use objects as blunt-force instru­ments but noth­ing else. They can only be killed by being shot in the head or burned, and if one bites or scratch­es you, you’ll die not long after, then trans­form into one and pur­sue whomev­er is near­by, fam­i­ly or not.” To Puschak’s mind, the film holds up not just as a zom­bie movie, but as a movie: “In its neo­re­al­ist, black-and-white style, it is a smart, tight­ly craft­ed sto­ry made on a shoe­string bud­get with a third act that is absolute­ly bru­tal and pun­ish­ing even now, 50 years lat­er.”

Night of the Liv­ing Dead did­n’t call its zom­bies zom­bies, but its sequel, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, put the label of zom­bie on not just them but us: “The film, which takes place almost entire­ly in a mall, uses zom­bies to cri­tique con­sumerism: as the zom­bies lum­ber through this famil­iar place, we see our own behav­ior as a grotesque reflec­tion. A zom­bie’s thought­less­ness, Romero under­stood, is the per­fect mir­ror for our own.” Dawn of the Dead bol­stered the poten­tial of zom­bies not just as as “cre­ative, pri­mal mon­sters,” but as satir­i­cal devices, and the finest zom­bie movies know how to use them as both at once. (So far I’ve seen that bal­ance no more impres­sive­ly struck than in a Kore­an zom­bie movie, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan.)

Over the past half-cen­tu­ry, post-Night of the Liv­ing Dead zom­bie sto­ries have made all man­ner of tweaks on and vari­a­tions to the stan­dard zom­bie for­mu­la. Dan­ny Boyle’s 28 Days Lat­er, for exam­ple, pop­u­lar­ized the fast-mov­ing zom­bie, and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead pio­neered the full-on zom­bie com­e­dy. Most recent­ly, no less astute an observ­er of Amer­i­can cul­ture and re-ani­ma­tor of seem­ing­ly dead cin­e­mat­ic tropes than Jim Jar­musch has offered us his own entry into the zom­bie canon, The Dead Don’t Die. Jar­muschi­an zom­bies sham­ble com­pul­sive­ly toward that which they desired in life: cof­fee, wi-fi, chardon­nay, Xanax. As long as we can still see these our­selves in these both fun­ny and ter­ri­fy­ing crea­tures, the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse will always seem dead ahead.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Night of the Liv­ing Dead, the Sem­i­nal Zom­bie Movie, Free Online

How to Sur­vive the Com­ing Zom­bie Apoc­a­lypse: An Online Course by Michi­gan State

Decay: Zom­bies Invade the Large Hadron Col­lid­er in Movie Made by Ph.D. Stu­dents

Mar­tin Scors­ese Cre­ates a List of the 11 Scari­est Hor­ror Films

What Makes a Good Hor­ror Movie? The Answer Revealed with a Jour­ney Through Clas­sic Hor­ror Films Clips

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • April S. says:

    Ok, some­one please explain this to me.

    1. Zom­bies are dead.
    2. Zom­bies are in var­i­ous states of decay.
    3. Zom­bies have miss­ing limbs, eyes, jaws, etc.
    4. Zom­bies can die only if you shoot then in the head.

    On an episode of The walk­ing Dead, an arm­less and leg­less zom­bie is seen lay­ing against a tree. He’s been there for quite some­time as his tor­so is cov­ered in moss and under­growth.

    If they con­stant­ly decay, then why don’t they sim­ply fall apart? Why are they still around?

    This is how my brain works, always try­ing to explain things log­i­cal­ly.

    Yes, I know they don’t real­ly exist, but it would be cool to have an answer.

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