Marjut Puhakka

University of Oulu

Modern day zombies are a mixture of the old beliefs in western and African cultures combined with apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopic fiction. In my upcoming doctoral dissertation I study Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend (1954) which is considered to be the starting point of the modern zombie-fiction. The question that I’m asking is why zombies have been so popular in movies, books and games for several years now? Zombies might be considered quite dull monsters – all they do is moan and search for brains. Compared to the complexity of for example vampires zombies don’t seem to be sexy enough to hold the record of the most popular monster of 20thcentury.

To study the modern zombie I must follow the evolutionary path of zombies. The hungry living dead creatures are not a new phenomenon. Different kinds of ghouls, ghosts, apparitions and vampires have walked the earth since the dawn of mankind. The dead intend to haunt the living in many ways but in many cases they are not manifested as earthly fleshy creatures but rather as bodiless spirits.

The zombies gained their solid form in Haiti where the culture is a mix of Christian liturgy and African traditions. In Haiti the zombies were living humans that witch doctors turned into their mindless slaves. The Haitian zombie was introduced to North American audience in the movie White Zombie (1932). White Zombie is not the first zombie movie known but in the French silent movie J´accuse (1919) the dead soldiers rose in post-apocalyptic scene to warn the living.

The evolution of the modern zombie started from Matheson’s novel. He wrote about vampires but the scene of post-apocalyptic zombie world was set. There is a lonely protagonist (Neville) who has to survive in a world where everyone else has turned in to mindless monsters. Matheson’s novel might have been just another vampire story unless George Romero would not have made a movie Night of the Living Dead (1968) inspired by the Matheson’s novel. Romero’s movie has since then inspired many variations of the basic story where there is one or few survivors trying to fight other people that have turned in monsters. Zombies became blue collar monsters, something that symbolised the masses of consumers.

Since then the zombies haven’t stopped to evolve. They have become faster, stronger, scarier and they resemble less humans. On the other the zombies are gaining back their humanity. In the movie Warm Bodies (2013) or the television series iZombie (2015) the zombies are having warm emotions and trying to become human again.

In the genre of horror the deal is not just about the fear and terror but also about laughter. Death is a big and scary thing, one of the life’s big mysteries. Maybe that is why death is sometimes dressed as a clown and greeted with laughter, carnevalisated. The zombies are in many cases exaggerated to that extend that they become funny and lose their power to scare. Zombies are not a noble messenger beyond crave but rather a reminder that bodies do rot.