The Evolution of Zombies in Movies and TV

by Dan | last updated - 7 months ago

From the earliest zombie films of the 1930s to the explosion of zombies in film and TV today, what viewers have considered a "zombie" has changed significantly. Here now is a look at how our definition of zombies -- how people become zombies and what zombies do after they transform -- has evolved.

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Michael Smiley in Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Zombie Evolution

From the earliest zombie films of the 1930s to the explosion of zombies in film and TV today, what viewers have considered a "zombie" has changed radically over time. Here now is a look at how our definition of zombies -- how people become zombies and what zombies do after they transform -- has evolved.

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John Fergusson, John Harron, George Burr Macannan, Claude Morgan, Frederick Peters, and John Printz in White Zombie (1932)

Voodoo Curse

Although some might argue that the somnambulist in the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) was the first zombie in film, most agree that White Zombie (1932) marks the beginning of zombie cinema. In this and other early films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943), the zombies were of the voodoo variety: living people drugged or hexed into a catatonic yet mobile state, who do the bidding of their masters.

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Invisible Invaders (1959)

Aliens Resurrect the Dead

By the 1950s, viewers' obsession with space was reflected on the silver screen. Zombie films during this period were no exception, personifying the worst fears of space exploration: unfriendly aliens. In both Invisible Invaders (1959) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), aliens from outer space bring human corpses back to life and use their enslaved army to try to take over the planet.

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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Ghouls Risen from the Grave

Seeking to create a new type of monster he called a Ghoul, George A. Romero reinvented and largely defined the modern zombie with Night of the Living Dead (1968). Romero's zombies were again risen from the dead, this time made all the more terrifying by their insatiable desire for human flesh. Much of what we know about zombies today was defined in this film.

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Sherman Howard at an event for Day of the Dead (1985)

The Zombie Hero

In Day of the Dead (1985), Romero turns his own creation on its head, revealing the cruelty of humanity and the humanity of zombies. The result leaves viewers rooting for the flesh-eating hordes.

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The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Brrraaaainnns!

Although they'd been devouring the living since the '60s, it wasn't until The Return of the Living Dead (1985) that zombies began to express their need to consume human brains.

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Marvin Campbell is the infected peering through the window at Luke Mably (front).

Fast Zombies

In 2002, another filmmaker reinvented zombies, albeit unintentionally, in 28 Days Later ... (2002). Danny Boyle translated our fears about pandemics and terrorism into the "Rage Virus," a pathogen that turned the "infected" into rabid, highly-infectious, and extremely fast killers.

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Jon Bernthal in The Walking Dead (2010)

Everyone's a Zombie

"The Walking Dead" (2010 to present) brought zombies to the small screen in a significant way, introducing the genre to wider audiences and demonstrating that the survivors are often even more dangerous than the living dead. The show also highlighted for viewers the horrifying realization for those on the series that everyone who dies comes back as a zombie, meaning we're all already infected.

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World War Z (2013)

Zombie Colonies

With World War Z (2013), zombies got even faster, their behavior becoming coordinated and more intentional, just like an ant colony, with each individual zombie acting as just a part of the larger organism. The producers were so keen on behavior of ant colonies that they even hired an entomologist to consult on the film.

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Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer in Warm Bodies (2013)

A Cure?

Warm Bodies (2013) gave viewers hope, showing that being a zombie might not be incurable after all and that maybe all you need, at the end of the day, is love.

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Rose McIver and Rahul Kohli in iZombie (2015)

They're Just Like Us!

In The Returned (2013), "In the Flesh" (2013 to present) and "iZombie" (2015 to present), we face a post-zombie world, where the undead live among us as contributing members of society. They keep their human-eating tendencies at bay with medication or by eating brains of the already deceased.