Zombies: You Can’t Outrun Them


Brains. Braaaaains.


The groaning, shambling rant immediately instills recognition in most people. Zombies. ZOMBIES. Rotting, undead terrors that prey upon our most basic fears and insecurities. They have attacked pop culture in the hordes they are so famous for, carving a definite cult-like following. Zombies have infiltrated pop culture to the point where everyone is familiar with at least a small bit of zombie mythos whether they have an interest or not. The world's obsession with zombies is apparent everywhere – from movies to music to costumes to COMICS. Especially in the last ten to fifteen years zombies have really infected people's imaginations, constantly being re-invented in ways previously unheard of.

So why are zombies so appealing, to both consumers and creators alike? What is it about rotting flesh and the insatiable need to feed that drives our imaginations so much? With the dawn of the Walking Dead TVshow upon us, and the world's "first" zombie convention "ZomB Con" here in Seattle this weekend, I've decided to take a stab at why we are so fixated upon the undead.

As with all pop culture phenomenon, zombies had to start somewhere. They are a fairly new addition to the monster spectrum, though they have existed in folklore throughout different cultures and times. The first "modern zombie" addition to pop culture was the Bela Lugosi film "White Zombie" in 1932. Initially, zombies were inspired by the voodoo "reanimated" corpses that have actually been recorded in places like Cuba due to concentrated doses of puffer fish poison. But by the sixties zombies were reinvented by the kind of zombies himself, George Romero. He popularized a lot of the cliches and "rules" that zombies have to this day with his movie Night of the Living Dead and its subsequent sequels.

Zombies are popular to creators for this very reason. Due to their infancy as a pop culture and monster realm staple, they are constantly able to be re-invented. Zombies come in many shapes and sizes now, from shambling, groaning half rotten corpses raising from the graves to running terrifying ruthless hunters whose bodies are re-animated by a ravaging virus. If you are a creator and can think of a new angle for zombies, chances are it's going to be incredibly popular (as proven by Walking Dead, which blew most of its competition out of the water). The general public eat zombies up like candy, and if one can offer a unique storyline or perspective on this fairly young but very popular genre you will have yourself a winner.

Just when it seems like every zombie "thing" has been done someone will come along and offer a fresh spin. Wild west zombies, "species" of zombies, talking zombies, smart zombies, summer camp zombies… And consumers just can't seem to get enough.

So why is this? Why do we as a public lurch at more zombie media just as voraciously as a hungry undead in need of brains? Psychologically, there are many theories, though not any in particular have been proven or disproven. Zombies can mean different things to different people, but it's quite obvious that the genre is here to stay.

Recently, perhaps our obsession with zombies has come from the downfall of the economy. It is hard to visualize shrinking employment opportunities or a recession, but zombies lurching down a street? That's an easy one. As we feel powerless to the collapses around us, so we identify with zombies: controlled by a need for something, a purely instinctual drive to do nothing but survive. The last time zombies were popular as they are now was during the great Depression, which is certainly not a coincidence.

Zombies also offer a unique opportunity to deal with one of our most basic fears: death. The big question is: Is their life after death? Zombies simplify that. If your loved ones re-animated and came towards you, it's still a certain amount of comfort that there's SOMETHING there, albeit a terrifying alternative. It's a perverse way to deal with our need for immortality. Others have plans for the ZA (Zombie Apocalypse) as an excuse to keep that chainsaw well oiled and machete freshly honed. It's a situation that will separate the Men from the Boys and planning is half the fun.

As George Romero proved with several of his earlier films, zombies also offer an environment for social commentary. Night of the Living Dead challenged things like the breakdown of the "American Dream", race, and class. Zombie media has since tackled subjects like mass viral outbreaks, animal and human rights, and conspiracy theories.

Disease is a prominent issue within society right now, with things like AIDs running rampant, viruses evolving to avoid antibiotics, SARS, Mad Cow Disease, etc. Zombies offer a healthy way to discuss these more "taboo" subjects without being distasteful, as most zombie stories put society in a position where it is confronted with a global epidemic where one can either fight to survive or succumb to it.

Zombies offer an extraordinary environment where absolutes dictate. At times it is not so much about zombies as a character than a setting where people are able to show their true character as need for survival demands. Media like The Walking Dead is a perfect example of this, where none of the characters are "good guys." Instead they are merely human beings at the brink of cracking in their need to survive day to day, and the pressure of this instinctual basic need shapes them into extreme examples of their former selves. Zombies offer the setting where the choice of whether or not to shoot a loved one in the face is a reality and the stories that result show the characters' deepest identity, not just the one they have on display in situations less severe. These flesh hungry monsters offer a prime backdrop for stories where humans are pushed to their most intense levels.

But don't let all of this psycho-babble that I am spouting make you question your love of the zombie genre. Its duality is wonderful, in that there is a simpleness to a good gory movie or comic book that includes gratuitous headshots and lots of blood and guts.

So whether you're strapping a lawn mower to your chest, keeping your infected buddy in the shed, or simply want to join a massive throng of made up undead mumblers, zombies have taken pop culture by the throat and aren't letting go until they've had their fill.


Molly McIsaac oftentimes dreams of the Zombie Apocalypse happening in her lifetime but will make due with movies and comics until then. You can follow her misadventures on twitter.


  1. famous theorist Jaques Derrida actually used zombies once to aid in his explanation of his theories, and it proves to be a great example of why we as a society are frightened by zombies. a qucik summarization of this follows as: the western world, with the help of language, polarizes a good number of things; Man is this, women is this, you’re a republician, you’re a democrat, that guy is black and that guy is white. Then there is dead and alive, you are either one or the other, but never both, and when we come across something that isn’t one or the other, we have a tendency to try to make categorize it. Zombies are great examples of this; they are neither alive or dead; they occupy a middle ground. now when classifying the zombie as dead, you have to kill, but you can never bring it back to life, this is where Molly’s article comes in, this fear of death.

    More importantly, what Romero did for the Zombie movie, especially with Dawn of the Dead (and I thank Max Brooks for this analysis), was give us a film where what we are frieghted of doesn’t die at the end of the film. Look at slasher films, or even the wolfman, which can hold this analogy that Derrida uses for zombies. in those films, when the police arrive at the end with their flashing lights, or when the sunrises and the wolfman is no more, what was frightening us for the rnitre film is now gone. but in Dawn of the Dead, our protagonist go off into the distance as the sun comes up, but the zombies are still there, they aren’t dead, and we know they aren’t alive. This notion then becomes very frightening. What happens next? we don’t know. And that’s one of the great things about the Walking Dead, we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

    side note, the end of Shaun of the dead presnts an alternative to romero’s work, and to a problem i proposed earlier to how do you make zombies alive.

  2. "Oh No! Zombies."  – Snake, Treehouse of Horror

    Zombies rule. I’ve got my zompocalypse plan all mapped out, too. 

  3. Zombies have replaced nuclear holocaust as the number one post apocalyptic catalyst.  For me it’s not so much the zombies as it is the post apocalyptic setting.

  4. My house is ZA prepared 🙂