A History of Zombie Literature
books and short stories are the current rage. The success of the genre
has propelled such zombie-oriented such as Max Brooks'
World War Z and
The Zombie Survival Guide
to the New York Times Bestselling list. Another recent addition to the
best-selling list was
Pride and Prejudice
and Zombies. Brooks' World War Z is scheduled to be released
as a movie next year and there are rumors that Grahame-Smith's book
might be headed in that direction as well. And, yes, it does seem that
zombies may just be the new vampire. And that is certainly good news
for zombie enthuisiasts around the world.
Zombies are regularly encountered in
horror and fantasy themed fiction and
entertainment. They are typically depicted as mindless, shambling,
decaying corpses with a hunger for human flesh, and in some cases,
human brains in particular.
Evolution of the zombie archetype
The flesh-hungry undead, often in the form of ghouls
and vampires, have been a fixture of world mythology.
One Thousand and One Nights is an early piece of literature to
reference ghouls. A prime example is the story "The History of Gherib
and His Brother Agib" in which Gherib, an outcast prince, fights off a
family of ravenous ghouls, enslaves them and converts them to Islam.
by Mary Shelley, while not a zombie story proper, prefigures many 20th
century ideas about zombies in that the resurrection of the dead is
portrayed as a scientific process rather than a mystical one and that
the resurrected dead are degraded and more violent than their living
selves. The book, published in 1818, has its roots in European
folklore, whose tales of vengeful dead also informed the evolution of
the modern conception of vampires as well as zombies.
Later notable 19th century stories about the avenging
undead included "The Death of Halpin Frayser" by
Ambrose Bierce and various Gothic Romanticism tales by
Edgar Allan Poe. Though their works couldn't be properly
considered zombie stories, the supernatural tales of Bierce and Poe
would prove influential on later undead-themed writers such as H. P.
Lovecraft, by Lovecraft's own admission.
One book to expose more recent western culture to the
concept of the zombie was
The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook in 1929.
book is the sensationalized account of a narrator in Haiti who
encounters voodoo cults and their resurrected thralls. Time
magazine claimed that the book "introduced 'zombi' into U.S. speech".
In the 1920s and early 1930s, the American horror
H. P. Lovecraft wrote several stories that explored the zombie or
undead theme from different angles. "Cool Air", "In the Vault" (which
includes perhaps the first recorded character bitten by a zombie),
"The Thing on the Doorstep", "The Outsider" and "Pickman's Model" are
all undead or zombie-related, but the most definitive zombie story in
Lovecraft's oeuvre was 1921's Herbert West--Reanimator, which "helped
define zombies in popular culture". This Frankenstein-inspired series
featured Herbert West, a mad scientist who attempts to revive human
corpses with mixed results. Notably, the resurrected dead are
uncontrollable, mostly mute, primitive and extremely violent; though
they are not referred to as zombies, their portrayal was prescient,
anticipating the modern conception of zombies by several decades.
The 1936 film
Things to Come, based on the novel,
The Shape of Things to Come, by H.G. Wells, anticipates later
zombie films with an apocalyptic scenario surrounding "the wandering
sickness", a highly contagious viral plague that causes the infected
to wander slowly and insensibly, very much like zombies, infecting
others on contact. Though this film's direct influence on later films
isn't known, Things to Come is still compared favorably by some
critics to modern zombie movies.
zombies would feature prominently in the early 1950s EC Comics such as
Tales from the Crypt, which George A. Romero would later claim
as an influence. The comics, including Tales,
Vault of Horror and
Weird Science, featured avenging undead in the Gothic
tradition quite regularly, including adaptations of Lovecraft's
stories which included "In the Vault", "Cool Air" and Herbert
The 1954 publication of
I Am Legend, by author Richard Matheson, would further
influence the zombie genre. The classic is also now available as a
Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. It is the story of a future
Los Angeles, overrun with undead bloodsucking beings. Notable as
influential on the zombie genre is the portrayal of a worldwide
apocalypse due to the infestation, in addition to the initial
conception of vampirism as a disease (a scenario comparable to recent
zombie media such as Resident Evil). The novel was a success, and
would be adapted to film as
The Last Man on Earth in 1964, as
The Omega Man in 1971, and again in 2007 as I Am Legend.
classified as a vampire story and referred to as "the first modern
vampire novel", Legend had definitive impact on the zombie genre by
way of George A. Romero. Romero was heavily influenced by the novel
and its 1964 adaptation when writing the film
Night of the Living Dead, by his own admission. Critics have
also noted extensive similarities between Night and Last Man on Earth,
indicating further influence.
Of course, Night of the Living Dead, a
taboo-breaking and genre-defining classic, would prove to be more
influential on the concept of zombies than any literary or cinematic
work before it and influenced dozens of future authors of
Regarding speed, zombies in recent popular culture have
considerably increased their locomotion, as exampled in recent movies
like 28 Days Later (2002), Resident Evil (2002), and
House of the Dead (2003) although strict zombie enthusiasts might
insist that 28 Days Later and other similar films are not
“true” zombie films in that “the zombies did not die first”. In
contrast, zombies have historically been portrayed as slow.
George A. Romero and the modern zombie film
modern conception of the zombie owes itself almost entirely to George
A. Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. In his films, Romero
"bred the zombie with the vampire, and what he got was the hybrid
vigour of a ghoulish plague monster". This entailed an apocalyptic
vision of monsters that have come to be known as Romero zombies. Roger
Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times chided theater owners and parents who
allowed children access to the film. "I don't think the younger kids
really knew what hit them," complained Ebert. "They were used to going
to movies, sure, and they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but
this was something else." According to Ebert, the film affected the
The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost
complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about
halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a
little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was
sitting very still in her seat and crying.
reinvention of zombies is notable in terms of its thematics; he used
zombies not just for their own sake, but as a vehicle "to criticize
real-world social ills—such as government ineptitude, bioengineering,
slavery, greed and exploitation—while indulging our post-apocalyptic
fantasies". Night was the first of five films in the Living Dead
Innately tied with the conception of the modern zombie
is the "zombie apocalypse", the breakdown of society as a result of
zombie infestation, portrayed in countless zombie-related media
post-Night. Scholar Kim Paffrenroth notes that "more than any other
monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic ... they signal
the end of the world as we have known it."
Though it is not known when exactly the term zombie
became associated with Romero's specific depiction, it should be noted
that Night made no reference to the creatures as "zombies". In the
film they are referred as "ghouls" on the TV news reports. However,
the word zombie is used continually by Romero in his 1978 script for
Dawn of the Dead, including once in dialog. This "retroactively fits
(the creatures) with an invisible Haitian/African prehistory, formally
introducing the zombie as a new archetype".
Dawn of the Dead was released
under this title just months before the release of Lucio Fulci's
Zombi II (1979). Fulci's gory epic was filmed at the same time as
Romero's Dawn, despite the popular belief that it was made in order to
cash in on the success of Dawn. The only reference to Dawn was the
title change to Zombi II (Dawn generally went by Zombi or Zombie in
The early 1980s was notable for the introduction of
zombies into Chinese and other Asian films, often martial arts/horror
crossover films, that featured zombies as thralls animated by magic
for purposes of battle. Though the idea never had large enough appeal
to become a sub-genre, zombies are still used as martial-arts villains
in some films today.
1981's Night of the Zombies was the first film to
reference a mutagenic gas as a source of zombie contagion, later
echoed by Trioxin in Dan O'Bannon's 1985 film, Return of the Living
Dead. RotLD took a more comedic approach than Romero's films; Return
was the first film to feature zombies which hungered specifically for
brains instead of all human flesh (this included the vocalization of
"Brains!" as a part of zombie vocabulary), and is the source of the
now-familiar cliché of brain-devouring zombies seen elsewhere.
The mid-1980s produced few zombie films of note (the
Evil Dead series, while zombie-influenced and notable on their own,
are not zombie films proper). 1985's Re-Animator, loosely based on the
Lovecraft story, stood out in the genre, achieving nearly unanimous
critical acclaim and becoming a modest success, nearly outstripping
1985's Day of the Dead for box office returns. Lovecraft's prescient
depiction is notable here; the zombies in the film are consistent with
other zombie films of the period, and it may escape the viewer that
they are nearly unchanged from the 1921 story.
The 1988 Wes Craven film The Serpent and the Rainbow,
based on the non-fiction book by Wade Davis, attempted to re-connect
the zombie genre with the Haitian vodou ("voodoo") roots that inspired
it. The film poses both supernatural and scientific possibilities for
"zombification" and other aspects of vodou, though the scientific
explanations for them, which involve use of the poison tetrodotoxin,
have been dismissed by the scientific community. The film was
relatively well-reviewed and enjoyed modest financial success and is
notable as perhaps the only vodou-themed zombie film of recent times.
Also in 1988, the Romero zombies were featured in
Waxwork, where the protagonists are drawn to the world of Night
of the Living Dead.
After the mid-1980s, the subgenre was mostly relegated
to the underground. Notable entries include director Peter Jackson's
ultra-gory film Braindead (1992) (released as Dead Alive in the
U.S.), Bob Balaban's comic 1993 film My Boyfriend's Back where a
self-aware high school boy returns to profess his love for a girl and
his love for human flesh, and Michele Soavi's Dellamorte Dellamore
(1994) (released as Cemetery Man in the U.S.). Several years later,
zombies experienced a renaissance in low-budget Asian cinema, with a
sudden spate of dissimilar entries including Bio Zombie (1998), Wild
Zero (1999), Junk (1999), Versus (2000) and Stacy (2001).
In Disney's 1993 film Hocus Pocus, a "good zombie",
Billy Butcherson played by Doug Jones, was introduced, giving yet a
new kind of zombie in an intelligent, gentle, kind, and heroic being.
The turn of the millennium coincided with a decade of
box office successes in which the zombie sub-genre experienced a
resurgence: the Resident Evil movies in 2002, 2004, and 2007; the Dawn
of the Dead remake (2004), the British films 28 Days Later and 28
Weeks Later (2002, 2007) and the homage/parody Shaun of the Dead
(2004). The new interest allowed Romero to create the fourth entry in
his zombie series: Land of the Dead, released in the summer of 2005.
Romero has recently returned to the beginning of the series with the
film Diary of the Dead (2008).
The depiction of zombies as biologically infected
people has become increasingly popular, likely due to the 28 Days
Later and Resident Evil series; 2006's Slither featured zombies
infected with alien parasites, and 2007's Planet Terror featured a
zombie outbreak caused by a biological weapon. The comedy film Fido
also takes this approach, although the zombie are depicted humorously
As part of this resurgence, there have been numerous
direct-to-video (or DVD) zombie movies made by extremely low-budget
filmmakers using digital video. These can usually be found for sale
online from the distributors themselves, rented in video rental stores
or released internationally in such places as Thailand.
A USA Today review noted that "Zombie hordes are
everywhere!" Especially on screen and on stage, "There's no stopping
the zombie invasion."
The modern zombie in print and literature
Though zombies have appeared in many books prior to and
after Night of the Living Dead, it wouldn't be until 1990 that zombie
fiction emerged as a distinct literary subgenre, with the publication
of Book of the Dead in 1990 and its follow-up Still Dead: Book of the
Dead 2 in 1992, both edited by horror authors John Skipp and Craig
Spector. Featuring Romero-inspired stories from the likes of Stephen
King and other famous names, the Book of the Dead compilations are
regarded as influential in the horror genre and perhaps the first true
Recent zombie fiction of note includes Brian Keene's
2005 novel The Rising, followed by its sequel City Of The Dead, which
deal with a worldwide apocalypse of intelligent zombies, caused by
demonic possession. Though the story took many liberties with the
zombie concept, The Rising proved itself to be a success in the
subgenre, even winning the 2005 Bram Stoker award.
Famed horror novelist Stephen King has mined the zombie
theme, first with 1990's "Home Delivery", written for the
aforementioned Book of the Dead compilation and detailing a small
town's attempt to defend itself from a classic zombie outbreak. In
2006 King published Cell, which concerns a struggling young artist on
a trek from Boston to Maine in hopes of saving his family from a
possible worldwide zombie outbreak, created by "The Pulse", a global
electromagnetic phenomenon that turns the world's cellular phone users
into bloodthirsty, zombie-like maniacs. Cell was a number-one
bestseller upon its release
Aside from Cell, the most well-known current work of
zombie fiction is 2006's World War Z by Max Brooks, which was an
immediate hit upon its release and a New York Times bestseller. Brooks
had previously authored the cult hit The Zombie Survival Guide, an
exhaustively researched, zombie-themed parody of pop-fiction survival
guides published in 2003. Brooks has said that zombies are so popular
because “Other monsters may threaten individual humans, but the living
dead threaten the entire human race.... Zombies are slate wipers.”
David Wellington's trilogy of zombie novels began in
2004 with Monster Island, followed by two sequels, Monster Nation and
Monster Planet. These were serialized in a weblog format before being
published in paperback.
Robert Kirkman, an admirer of Romero, has contributed
to the recent popularity of the genre in comics, first by launching
his self-published comic book The Walking Dead, then by writing Marvel
Zombies in 2006.
Jonathan Maberry's Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the
Living Dead, released in August 2008, interviewed over 250 experts in
forensics, medicine, science, law enforcement, the military and
similar disciplines to discuss how the real world would react,
research and respond to zombies.
The fictional Disney cartoon character Bombie the
Zombie, created by Carl Barks, first appeared in the Voodoo Hoodoo
strip in 1949. Bombie had been reanimated by an African voodoo
sorcerer, and was sent on a mission to poison Scrooge McDuck. Later on
Don Rosa reused the character in his own McDuck stories.
J.K. Rowling includes zombies, known as Inferi, in the
sixth book of her Harry Potter series. The Inferi are dead humans who
are re-animated by Dark Magic.
By 2009, zombies became all the rage in literature:
In the world of traditional horror, nothing is more
popular right now than zombies.... The living dead are here to stay.
(Katy Hershbereger, St. Martin's Press)
The 2009 mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
by Seth Grahame-Smith combines the full text of Pride and Prejudice by
Jane Austen with a story about a zombie epidemic within the novel's
British Regency period setting.
Other zombie appearances have been cataloged in dozens
of novels, comics, and webcomics. Like vampires and other famous
archetypal creatures, the zombie archetype has spread so far and wide
that it is impossible to provide a definitive list of resources,
though certain websites keep note of zombie references in detail.
(The original text of this article appears at the
Wikipedia website. It has been edited for content as it appears here.)