Bloodsuckers wearing lipstick may be flavour of the month in the cinema multiplex, but popular culture’s monster of the decade is less coiffured and doesn’t have the powdery make-up of a 17th Century French aristocrat. The creature that encapsulates the fevered modern era is a shambling, ragged stump of a human – it’s the breed of living dead that stumbles around the streets craving fresh brains.
There are an untold number of zombie-centric films, games, comics, literature and even live-action role-play games that you can sign up to today, should you wish to pretend the apocalypse is upon us. Zombies have certainly captured the public’s imagination, but what is it about a drooling crowd of pus-filled, rotting meatbags that so tickles our refined modern sensibilities? The first written zombie story dates back to the Bible – for what was Lazarus if not a corpse made to walk? So why, all of a sudden, are we so obsessed with the idea that the dead are going to rise out of their graves and eat us alive?
Zombies are in no way a new phenomenon – the living dead can be found in many forms of folklore and mythology, along with other traditional nasties such as vampires, werewolves and ghosts. But the recent influx of zombies into popular culture forms consolidates their position more formally in the modern hive mind.
George Romero brought zombies to the big screen, and into the mainstream psyche with a shotgun blast, in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead – a hugely successful horror flick that shocked audiences at the time with its graphic scenes of cannibalism and dismemberment. The film has been revised numerous times since, undergoing colourisation, and was brilliantly remade by special effects wizard Tom Savini in 1990.
But more than 60 years before Romero’s box-office success, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft explored the dangers of raising the dead in his macabre short story, Herbert West – Reanimator, a grisly tale of grave-robbing scientists experimenting with life-giving serums on fresh corpses. Although Lovecraft is rarely explicit when depicting the subsequent terror (being a stickler for realism and scientific explanation and often preferring to infer that the protagonists have descended into insanity), the story culminates in the revelation that the scientific experiments have resulted in homicidal abominations that roam the land, bound to their vengeful vendettas.
Lovecraft came upon a theme that has lived on in zombie mythology – that humankind, through an abuse of science, brings about its own destruction… and the living dead are the instrument of that destruction.
There are other narrative functions that zombies fulfil in literature and film. In John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, David’s undead best friend Jack is a messenger from beyond the grave. Jack’s role in the film is to steer the outcome by confirming David’s fears – that he is a werewolf and that he must kill himself to end the curse. And in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Shadow’s wife Laura fills a similar role, not only being an undead messenger of the beyond – she is also Shadow’s guardian angel, albeit a walking dead angel.
A whole century before Lovecraft’s tale of scientific experiments on cadavers, Mary Shelley created the first popular culture manifestation of a zombie in the pages of the classic Frankenstein. The monster of Shelley’s book is not only living and breathing, but conscious – it thinks and feels. And here is a key difference to the contemporary soulless undead mob, who are, without exception, an unthinking, inarticulate bunch, bound solely to wanton destruction and selfish feeding. Frankenstein’s monster, rejected by society, is not only capable of expressing emotions – it is driven by its loneliness.
There is hardly a more obvious representation of ‘the outsider’ than Frankenstein’s monster. The trials it undergoes reflect the fears and turmoil that permeated Shelley’s own life at the time. Conversely, the contemporary zombie horde found in modern cultural references represent a very different set of fears. They represent, by turns, the power of the unthinking masses, societal breakdown, a void of identity and the death of individualism.
Those fears certainly stem from the issues currently facing us as a society – economic chaos, rapid globalisation, homogenisation of culture, information overload, the (perceived) erosion of social values and the (very real) inequalities in the distribution of wealth. All of these combine to create a very real feeling that we need to ‘reboot’ society and build something that actually works.
And that’s exactly what many of the modern zombie stories are telling us, whether the explanation for the dead rising is scientific or spiritual. The Walking Dead is no different to The Stand or The Road in that respect – the message is that it’s time to clear the pieces from the board, line them up again, pick sides and begin the fight for survival. There’s no sign of a scientific (or spiritual) breakthrough in reanimation of the dead (at time of writing), but it never hurts to stock up on tinned food.