The concept of dead people returning to life is probably as old as civilization. Ancient Egypt and mummies aside, Child Ballads such as The Unquiet Grave and The Usher’s Wife (Lady Gay) date back to at least the 1400’s. It’s arguable that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817) may be considered the first literary zombie (barring Lazarus), a man made of dead parts brought back to life, even if he wasn’t after brains.
The true zombie was born in 1968 with the release of George A. Romero’s cult classic Night of the Living Dead, about grisly undead ghouls who feasted on human flesh – the term zombie hadn’t really been invented yet. Made for a paltry $114,000, filmed in black and white, it contained a level of violence and gore never before seen. There was only one problem – the MMPA rating system wouldn’t be in place for another month: Night of the Living Dead, the most gruesome movie ever made at that time, was essentially a General Audience film, and unsuspecting children (and adults) were never the same again.
For a few decades, hard core zombies were relegated to third-rate theaters and 2 am film slots, but began to stagger slowly into the mainstream. Although you have favorites like Scooby Doo at Zombie Island (1998), “Modern” zombies – those whose roots are usually virus-oriented – surged in popularity with the graphic novel The Walking Dead (2003), which spawned the highly popular television series The Walking Dead (2010-present). This was followed by the spoof Shaun of the Dead (2004), the novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War which became a major film in 2013, and a veritable epidemic of zombie books, television shows, and films, including The Zombie Survival Guide, The Zombie Combat Manual, and The Art of Eating Through the Zombie Apocalypse. Strangely, these books are more serious than they should be. Even the Centers for Disease Control got in on it, posting their preparedness recommendations for dealing with zombies in 2011 in a push to get people to be prepared for disasters .
If you’re hard core, of course stick to the masters: Night of the Living Dead, and Day of the Dead. If you’re nerves can’t handle that (like mine), there are plenty of other choices that are less gory or humorous. Zombieland is an A-list take on the issue that is full of humor and lower on gore. Maggie stars Arnold Schwartzenegger in probably his most serious role ever, as a father whose daughter is slowly becoming a zombie. Z Nation is an enjoyable TV series that isn’t quite as serious as The Walking Dead. The Last Ship is a new television series about a group who survives the apocalypse on a boat, and tries to round up survivors.
If you only like classical literature, fear not. Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies will not leave you behind. There is a book and a newly released DVD, which is utterly delightful, full of classic period speech and women in romantic Empire gowns slicing zombies with ninja skill. Slightly different but still in the realm of classic undead, give Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a try. Like your films completely different? No mention of zombies would be complete without some reference to Michael Jackson’s 1983 Thriller video, which, at 13 minutes, would qualify as a short film.
Whether you take them seriously or not, whether your zombies are what they are because of curses or disease, whether you like to watch saws cut through flesh or you’re battling nuisance zombies on a quest to find the last box of Twinkies, there’s a zombie book or film for you.