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.
The Evolution of Zombies in Movies and TV
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.