Richard Matheson wrote I am Legend in 1954. The novel tells the story of Robert Neville. Neville survives a bacterial pandemic which was the aftermath of a war. His survival should be a good thing, but he soon discovers he is the last human survivor in a world now infected with vampire/zombie like creatures. Matheson’s works envisions the zombie apocalypse as a moment where mankind dies but also a moment when a new race is born. It is a rejection of the old in favor of something new. Much like other writers at the time, Matheson’s work speaks to the fears about the new instruments of war. Matheson wanted us to understand that humankind was actively pursuing its death instinct through the marriage of war and science. Our ability to build and drop bombs that wiped out entire cities fundamentally changed the psyche of western society. What happens when mankind harnesses the power to destroy the world? For Matheson, humans could become the stuff of legend.
It is not until 1968, however, that we have the first work that embraces the gothic machine of the zombie as we know it today. George Romero borrowed the term zombie from Haitian voodoo practice. George Romero’s use of the word is the first in western pop culture. George Romero’s Living Dead Series presented a new kind of undead creature. Romero’s zombies were reanimated humans eating the flesh of the living. And in particular, they craved brains. Romero’s works, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985) are generally cited as firsts in the zombie canon. So what was it that inspired Romero to create his Living Dead Series?
It is not insignificant that the creation of these works coincides with the Vietnam War and the rising tide of mindless materialism. In the 1960s, the United States was engaged in an unpopular war and at home, there were public calls for peace and a rejection of barbarism. In the 1978 Dawn of the Dead, the pandemic survivors shelter in a mall to which zombies are mindlessly drawn out of routine. The setting could not be more symbolic. The survivors hide in the bastion of consumerism while the unthinking undead are drawn siren-like toward the scene of the crime. By 1985, when Day of the Dead was filmed, we were living in the material world of the “me” generation. The United States had become a society basking in yet totally unfulfilled by its consumerist tendencies. The zombies craved brains. The government tried to pry the human back out zombies. Zombies, and society, found reason delicious. The human spirit struggled to preserve in an age of violence and consumerism.
“Night of the Comet,” a 1984 film, also features a world filled with Romero-esque zombies. Two California valley girls survive a comet-evoked pandemic, and what is the first thing they do? Go shopping. The protagonist, Reggie, pronounces “the stores are open!” The film then cuts to a shopping montage set to 80’s ballad, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cindi Lauper. In the back-drop of this story, the “evil government” plots to use the organs of the healthy survivors to prolong their own lives. Materialism and mistrust of the government, also themes in Romero’s work, run rampant in this cult classic.
While the undead have been lurking about in folklore since the ancient period and made their way into popular literature in the 1950s, recently there has been an explosion of zombie films, TV shows, graphic novels, video games, and literature. Even the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has contributed to the zombie trend boasting a “Zombie Preparedness” plan on their website. While the CDC has used the zombie apocalypse as a means for educating the masses on how to respond in the face of a pandemic, their contribution to the zombie phenomenon gives us a sense of just how pervasive zombies are in modern society.
Like the vampire, every age has its zombie. Contemporary zombies consume. While there is some variation as to why the zombie apocalypse happens, from medical treatments gone array, to pandemic flu strains, to environmental factors, one thing modern zombie writers agree on is the function of the zombie. Zombies want to eat the living.
In the next installment of The Zombie Papers, we'll discuss contemporary zombies and what they say about us!