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LET'S RANK: 5 Key Zombie Moments in Pop Culture

By: Alan Abuchaibe


Let’s start with some history, shall we? It all started many years ago with Vodun, a West African religion that uses mythology, social values, and nature to guide people’s lives. You might know it as Voodoo.

When Vodun was discovered by the Europeans during the beginning of the slave trade in the 18th century. Resilient kidnapped slaves brought to the Americas were able to hold onto their religion for centuries. Vodun flourished in the Caribbean and South America, especially in Haiti where around a century ago zombie pop-culture history started. Follow the zombie pop culture timeline from past to present below.




1. Zombies become famous. The Magic Island and White Zombie
1. Zombies become famous. The Magic Island and White Zombie

In their original form, zombies were African slaves brought back to life using Voodoo magic. Once re-animated they didn’t have any will and were easily manipulated by whoever brought them back from the dead. This myth was very popular in Haiti when American adventurer and journalist William Seabrook arrived at the island in the early 20th century. Shortly after, he published The Magic Island (1929), a collection of stories about his experiences on the Caribbean island. The book became highly popular, particularly because of its first-half dedicated completely to Voodoo and, of course, zombies.

Just a couple of years after, Universal Studios had unleashed his Monsters out in the world, and the ugly fellows became a B movie sensation. After Dracula and Frankenstein had done their part, more monsters were needed, and everyone wanted in. That’s how the king of monster movies, actor Bela Lugosi, got the part of an evil rich Haitian who plots to kill his engaged-to-someone-else romantic interest just to bring her back from the dead to own her forever. The film released in 1932 was called White Zombie. The independent film, loosely based on The Magic Island accounts, was a hit, and zombies fully entered pop culture. The most important contribution from White Zombie to the evolution of zombies was that, for the first time, zombies were also white people, hence the name of the movie. Until then, only African slaves were zombies.

2. Zombies become existential. 'Night of the Living Dead' and the Zombie Apocalypse.
2. Zombies become existential. 'Night of the Living Dead' and the Zombie Apocalypse.

Since the 1930s, zombies paraded the film industry as much as any other monster. As it’s been for ages, Hollywood kept altering the formula to keep people interested.  The Walking Dead (1936), with Boris Karloff, brought science to the mix moving the genre from magical to science fiction. Now zombies were experiments, not Voodoo. Another development in the way zombies were portrayed was the novel I Am Legend (1954) by author Richard Matheson. In the book, a pandemic transforms most of humanity into vampire-like beings while the hero tries to survive during this virus-created apocalypse. 

George Romero’s classic Night of the Leaving Dead (1968) took a cue from I Am Legend and added another lasting element, zombies will feed on human flesh. This way, another B-movie would revolutionize pop culture and zombie history. Another interesting aspect about Night of the Leaving Dead is that its protagonist is an African American man fighting white zombies. George Romero didn’t stop there and expanded this universe with many follow up zombie films where he used the zombie apocalypse to talk about racial issues, consumerism, and society in general. Since then the question these movies often raised was, who are the monsters, the Zombies, or us?

3. Zombies become superstars. Michael Jackson’s 'Thriller.'
3. Zombies become superstars. Michael Jackson’s 'Thriller.'

In 1982 pop superstar Michael Jackson would change the world with the release of his all-time best-selling album, Thriller. The first album to use the nascent art of music video or video clips to promote itself, Jackson promoted two of its singles before the title-track was released in 1983 with a revolutionary music video. Directed by John Landis, who was fresh off winning the first-ever Best Make-Up Oscar for his take on another genre film An American Werewolf in Paris, the short “Thriller” film was Jackson’s homage to the monster films of yore. Together, Landis and Jackson made a werewolf film within a romantic film that turns into a zombie film with iconic choreography and costuming that has been imitated to this very day. The main contribution of “Thriller” to the history of zombies, however, was that regular people could be zombies. We can all become what we fear.


4. Zombies become fast. 'The House of the Dead' and 'Biohazard'
4. Zombies become fast. 'The House of the Dead' and 'Biohazard'

By the end of the 20th century, it was Asia’s turn to take a hit at zombies. By the mid-90s the video game market was booming. Video game companies from Japan and the United States were constantly innovating to make the most of the new craze. In 1996 two games, Capcom’s PlayStation Biohazard (re-named Resident Evil outside Japan) and Sega’s arcade The House of Dead, were released. The House of Dead introduced fast zombies while Resident Evil introduced a futuristic element to the genre. Resident Evil exploded into a full multimedia emporium including a 2002 film adaptation starring supermodel turned actress Milla Jovovich. This film in turn helped rejuvenate interest in zombies with exhilarating action movies that benefited from the evolution of computer-generated special effects. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, zombies were back with a vengeance. They were the enemy and violence was the only solution.

5. Zombies peak. 'The Walking Dead' and Disney
5. Zombies peak. 'The Walking Dead' and Disney

The zombie wave from the early 2000s also affected the world of Comic Books. In 2003 Image Comics published the first issue of a zombie apocalypse survival drama titled, The Walking Dead. An immediate cult classic, the series follows the struggles of deputy Rick Grimes and his family to survive after the zombie apocalypse. The most interesting aspect of the story is that it isn’t centered on the apocalypse or the zombies. Instead, its focus is on how regular people would act and survive if society was brought down by a devastating event, that just so happens to be a zombie apocalypse. It was likely this aspect and the early-boom of comic book media adaptations that landed the comic a TV show by the then sophisticated cable network AMC. A global phenomenon, The Walking Dead would go on to become the most-watched cable TV show ever.

The Walking Dead brought together most of the elements that the zombie narrative developed during a full century of evolution. It is an action thriller, a philosophical rumination on humanity and society, and an analysis of how every action has a consequence--including forgiveness. This last element would spark what would become the most recent change in the narrative of Zombies in pop culture. Slipped in at the end of British action-comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004), was the idea that we could forgive zombies and help them return to their former selves while also rebuilding ourselves in the process.

The “Zombies are people too” theme has gone on to define the current state of zombies. This includes zombie stories such as the film Warm Bodies (2013), that other-comic-book-series-turned-TV-show iZombie, and finally adopted by non-other than with Disney Channel’s Original Movie Z.O.M.B.I.E.S. Looking back, Voodoo-revived-African-slaves have evolved in a century or so into an example of accepting other people regardless of how different we are. While we wait for the new mutation in Zombie history, sit down and sing along to Z.O.M.B.I.E.S 2.