From Romero to 'Walking Dead': A Brief History of Zombies in Pop Culture

How the undead went from drive-in movies to mainstream dominance and became our No. 1 nightmare

When there's no room in hell, the dead get a hit show: The zombies of 'The Walking Dead.' Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Think of a teeming metropolis like New York City. Now double that in size. If every single person who lived there, every hot-dog vendor, third-grader and euphoric Mets fan, was in fact a flesh-eating zombie, that would roughly equal the 17.3 million people that tuned into last October's fifth-season premiere of AMC'S The Walking Dead, the most-watched episode of anything in cable history. Those are blockbuster numbers and they occurred week after week. The demand for the show has become so huge that a prequel spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, debuts this Sunday.

Culturally speaking, the zombie apocalypse has been fought and won — and we are its red meat. Consider this an obituary for humankind, or at least for those painfully uncool monsters like Dracula, sent packing for Transylvania. Not only have zombies prevailed on the battlegrounds of movies and television, they've swarmed comics and the best-seller list, invaded videogames and the App Store, shambled on the front lines of fan-based activism in the streets. Even the authorities we'd trust in an emergency, those hazmat-suited scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have gotten in on the action, raising preparedness for real catastrophes via a fun, zombie-related 2011 blog post. The resulting traffic crashed their site.

These new superfans — the zombie-come-latelies — have turned horror's most suggestive subgenre, loaded with sociopolitical subtext, into a bona-fide phenomenon, one that's 10 times more interesting (and gory) than Twilight ever was. Worse things have happened on the way to the mainstream. But the further we stray from the now-iconic figure's origins, the more they're worth exploring. The zombies are us, yet not us. You may ask: Who died and made us lumbering, rotting experts on the recently deceased? Years of study and target practice. Here are the four main eras of zombie pop-mythology.

The Golden Age of George
If you've heard of the films like White Zombie (1932) or I Walked With a Zombie (1943), you're way ahead of the game. But truthfully, those movies aren't about the brains-craving undead; they're about Haitian voodoo and bodily possession, the term merely namedropped in their titles. The word "zombie" doesn't even appear in the script or the onscreen version of Night of the Living Dead (1968), the exploitation classic that is, in fact, ground zero for the relentless, stumbling flesh-eaters we all know and love — writer-director George Romero and his friends had a concept that was so weird and unheard of, it didn't even have a name. (They called them ghouls, as did the first wave of critics.) The Pittsburgh-based auteur has since credited Richard Matheson's 1954 city-overrun-with-vampires novel I Am Legend as an influence, but his original thought was this: Death is not the end. Your loved ones will try to eat you. And you are alone in that new reality.

A deeper anxiety emanating out of Romero's film snuck up on audiences in the Nixonian fall of 1968, and still does now: Maybe we're uglier than they are. Night's unremarked-upon black hero, Ben (Duane Jones), is no Poitier pussycat. He punches a panicky woman in the face, then claims his territory in a besieged farm house, as the radio squawks out the fall of civilization. Ultimately, Ben suffers at the hands of white militia yahoos who "confuse" him for a monster. Already the zombie threat, an empty vessel, was being filled by politics: Deathdream (1974), made by the future director of Porky's Bob Clark and released in a single Tampa, Florida, theater as Dead of Night, presented a young Vietnam veteran returning home to his family not quite the same as he'd left. The Spanish-made, English-countryside-set Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) turned agriculture's fight against insects — using experimental underground radiation — into a battle against the risen dead. Meanwhile, French grindhouse fans could go see Jean Rollin's The Grapes of Death (1978), and nod somberly, knowing those pesticides were bad for us.

But none of these low-budget affairs moved the needle like Romero's original sensation did, and it took the director's long-awaited return to the subgenre for it to burst into the larger conversation again. By the time he got around to his Italian-funded sequel, 1978's Dawn of the Dead, the filmmaker was now calling his lumbering creatures "zombies," having them take over a shopping mall ("This was an important place in their lives," one survivor theorizes) and relishing in his skewering of consumerism. Zombies in malls — it's an idea as Carter-era American as apple pie and endless gas lines.

Return to the movie, though, and a strand of sick comedy emerges, alongside Romero's gun-toting nuts. Surrounded by their walled-in paradise of earthly delights, the mall-conquering humans lose their sex drive, put on garish lipstick with nowhere to go, eat too much cheese. They skate to Muzak in an empty ice rink. The satire isn't subtle, but its ambition is glorious: Over two masterpieces, Romero has gone from race riots to the shop-till-you-drop herd. So had we.

Beyond Romero: Ghouls Just Wanna Have Fun
As prophetic as Dawn was, you didn't need to be a Marxist to enjoy these films. By the mid-Eighties, zombie movies had dumbed down and slicked up, just like American presidents and Michael Douglas' hair. Most significantly, the decade proved that the undead can dance: Michael Jackson's 13-minute "Thriller" video, loaded with air-clawing, walking-corpse swagger, debuted on December 2, 1983. Never again would a well-funded pop star be denied his or her opportunity to make a cinematic statement via dorky choreography or cat-eye contact lenses.

The zombie was more prominent than ever, a strutting symbol of shambling bootyshaking. But the era produced little in the way of substance: While Romero himself strained for soulfulness in Day of the Dead (1985), his sequel was overshadowed in its very year by screenwriter-director Dan O'Bannon's jokey Return of the Living Dead, with its diet-revising cry of "More brains!" The movie also had tons of punk music (The Cramps, T.S.O.L., etc.), along with a still-shocking abundance of nudity by the blessed Linnea Quigley, signaling a shift toward either youthful irreverence or savvy producing. Of this Reagan-to-Bush I period, the genre's finest moment, 1992's Dead Alive (a.k.a. Braindead), was an ultragory "splatstick" and early commercial breakthrough for New Zealand's Peter Jackson, long before any rings of power glinted in his eye.

But if the movies fell short, the horde had, by now, roamed far off-set: Book of the Dead, a wildly popular 1989 anthology of zombie-related fiction, turned Romero's postapocalyptic strand of terror into horror canon. (The director himself wrote a forward.) Contributors included Stephen King, Joe R. Lansdale and Robert R. McCammon, whose "Eat Me" may still be the shrewdest zombie-related title ever penned. More collections came, including a sequel, Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2, and 1993's The Mammoth Book of Zombies.

And when a younger generation wasn't reading about zombies or thumbing through their dad's old issues of Fangoria, it was beginning to fight virus-ridden corpses firsthand in the king of first-person-shooters, Resident Evil. Debuting in 1996 for the Sony PlayStation, the game was immersive on an order unseen, a crucial sign of maturity and structural durability for a genre that had waned onscreen. (Also significant: Resident Evil sold millions of copies around the world.) Splatter mattered to legions of fans. Never before had a video-game premise been expanded so vigorously into novelizations, sequels and a franchise that made Hollywood seem late to the party. Capcom called it "survival horror," and the name stuck.

You Can Run, But You Can't Hide
Little that presented itself as horror entertainment during the 2000s proved as scary as actually living through that decade. Still, the zombie movie did have a major resurgence. With anthrax in the mail and fear in the air, 28 Days Later (2002) pounded into theaters, introducing a hungry horde "infected with rage." Fast-running zombies were here to stay — not for nothing did the film come from Danny Boyle, director of Days' equally propulsive dark twin Trainspotting ("Choose life" is as fine a postapocalyptic motto as any). Formally, the film is a knockout, capturing its eerily abandoned daytime London in cruddy digital video that somehow adds to the nightmare.

Reading 9/11 and its aftermath through cinema is a tricky proposition — most of 28 Days Later, for example, was written and shot before the attacks. But there's no denying that fear itself had undergone a transformation. Death and carnage were not theoretical concepts. The supernatural had nothing to do with very real images of displaced office workers wandering out of the dust, missing-persons flyers, a shadowy collective of enemies without a head, talk of civilization in the balance. It was, in short, a perfect time for zombies. YouTube terror and militarized chaos fit a moment that also saw a frenetic, surprisingly excellent remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) starring the fierce Sarah Polley. Meanwhile, Romero roared back to form with the class-conscious Land of the Dead (2005), a movie that, with its fireworks-distracted zombies and exclusive gated communities, said more about America than it let on.

Articulating the day's diffuse anxieties through language both comic and perceptive, ex-SNL writer Max Brooks scored a double sensation — first with 2003's The Zombie Survival Guide ("No place is safe, only safer") and his fictional 2006 oral history World War Z. Already the real-world war on terror was seeming like a long one. Obliquely, Brooks posited it as winnable only by realists. Escapism became attractive: Videogamers continued to zone out via Call of Duty (zombies mode), Left 4 Dead and Plants vs. Zombies. The rise of the iPod — and those iPod zombies you wish would walk faster already — comes almost exactly in tandem with a spooked post-9/11 world. Other people engaged: "Zombie walks," organized on social media gone viral [ahem], drew thousands of participants in full, gruesome regalia to specified places and became a phenomenon for good, especially in the case of food drives.

Long past its niche origins, the zombie was now a friend, a slacker, a victim of recessionary cutbacks. Dead-end-job frustrations find satiric expression in the riotous Shaun of the Dead (2004), as much about the end of the world as it is about generational inertia and the defiant joy of crawling down to the local pub. Using Romero as a text and bringing back classic-style lumbering, Shaun of the Dead also adds in the sly idea of finding newfound purpose in a fallen world. Never mind the genre feedback loop; it's the most comforting horror movie to come out of the entire decade.

Killer Programming
Which brings us home — literally to our own dens and a cultural moment when coworkers forward you the latest recap about The Walking Dead, a show that would be unthinkable 10 years ago. It's inspired by the post-9/11 zombie-film renaissance, but also, more directly, by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore's long-running black-and-white comic series, of which there are at least a dozen other notable titles, including Marvel Zombies (exactly what you think it is), Victorian Undead and The Goon.

Still, why is The Walking Dead, a show that debuted in 2010 on the same network that was airing both Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the most popular series in cable history? Its strengths are traditional: a return to muscular Romero-esque storytelling, an emphasis on the possibilities of solidarity and hope. You can live with less. You don't need so many things. Within your band of hardy survivors, you can shack up with someone new.

And centrally to The Walking Dead, decency can survive. Even if you're stuck in some bullshit community run by a power-mad "Governor" with an eyepatch, there will still be a badass Kill Bill-style Michonne with a katana sword to cut through the nonsense. There will be a Rick, and there will be a Ricktatorship. The drama of the show concerns integrity, power and a society rewritten from the ground up. Sometimes the latter doesn't sound like such a bad idea, not just to Tea Party libertarians.

Thanks in no small part to show's massive across-the-board popularity, zombies have now thoroughly infected and colonized mainstream pop culture: Pulitzer-nominated authors like Colson Whitehead write books about them (Zone One); Brad Pitt costars in blockbusters with them (World War Z, whose lasting legacy may be the sight of the computer-manufactured corpses rising like a human tidal wave); canon-lit classics get updated with brain-cravers (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies); basic-cable networks break viewing records and then greenlight prequels to fulfill consumer demand. The undead are alive and well. AMC's new spinoff show tells us to Fear the Walking Dead, but perhaps that emotion is an afterthought. They're a part of our climate now. In an era of shapeless fear, they're the only nightmare we need.