Thursday, August 8, 2019

The History of Zombies: A Media Primer

A thing that’s come up over and over again in early reviews for River of Souls is the sentiment that it’s not-like-other-zombie-stories. And that was certainly my intention. But you don’t get to make a good deconstruction without a healthy knowledge and appreciation of the genre you’re twisting around. 
So here is a list of what I would consider essential zombie media – whether you want to write a story that plays it straight with the tropes, or one that twists everything around, or you just want something new to watch/read. 
Your own suggestions and ideas are more than welcome in the comments! Please comment with your own favorite zombie book/movie/TV show/comic, I’d love to discover some I haven’t seen. 
The Origins
The generally agreed-upon first zombie movie is White Zombie (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, but I think it’s safe to skip it on account of both obscurity and some troubling racism. The Haitian-Voodoo zombi mythos and tradition is something best kept separate from our modern ideas of the walking dead. 
Instead, start your journey with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which starts codifying the tropes that persist well into modern media (including, like most modern stories, never using the word ‘zombie’). 
Then compare and contrast with the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend (1954), which is ostensibly about vampires but I think basically invented the modern zombie genre – from the post-apocalyptic setting to the spread of undeath by way of disease vectors. 
Follow that up with Dawn of the Dead (1978), where George Romero revisits his Living Dead universe with the help of Dario Argento (if you’re interested, there’s a 2004 remake that’s decent, but unnecessary). And then, just to wrap up the trilogy, skip on ahead to Day of the Dead (1985). 
For extra credit, play the videogame Dead Rising (2006), which draws liberally from Dawn of the Dead and also allows you to beat zombies to death with literally anything you can find in a shopping mall (I can’t speak for the sequels as I’ve never played them). Dead Rising is far from the only game franchise to use zombies (more on that in a bit), but it pays homage directly to the genre in a way that many others don’t. 
The Zombie Renaissance
For a long while, zombies sort of fell out of fashion. Oh, there were some decent takes on the concept, like Re-Animator (1985) and Dead Alive (1992) but by and large zombies in the 1980s and 90s were played for laughs. 
But then they made a great big comeback, stronger maybe than they had ever been before. What happened?
Well, for one, they stayed close to the public conscience thanks to video games. Games and zombies are a perfect fit. Their shambling movement and slow, stupid behavior makes them a great choice for imperfect AI programming. They’re people-shaped, which makes them easy to animate, but they can be gross and deformed and scary, which makes them fun for your art team. And since they’re inhuman and dead, you can kill them in any way you’d like without feeling bad about it. 
Which is probably why zombies have been part-and-parcel of the gaming world since Entombed (1982) was released on the Atari. Doom (1993) was wildly popular, and just a few years later we’d start the Resident Evil franchise, which became both hugely influential as games and films. And lest we forget, Blizzard was giving us undead in Warcraft by the early 2000s, rising to greater prominence by World of Warcraft in its heydey (especially Wrath of the Lich King).  
But I’d argue that the number one single most important ingredient in the horror revival was Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later. 
28 Days Later was huge because it breathed fresh life (pun intended) into a genre that had gone stale. The monsters in 28 Days Later aren’t the walking dead at all – they’re just people infected with a virus similar to rabies that makes them deadly (compare and contrast with The Crazies, both the 1973 original and 2010 remake, which deals with a similar concept. 
But thanks to being an excellent film with some wonderfully creepy-gross effects, 28 Days Later reignited fearful imaginations. It also introduced the world to the idea of fast zombies as an alternative to the usual shambling monsters. 
A couple years later, zombie content exploded. Aside from the Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004, and some Resident Evil and Doom film interpretations, we got Shaun of the Dead (2004), which is both hilarious and an exceptional zombie film. 
There’s also 28 Weeks Later (2007), a sequel to 28 Days (there is much debate as to which is better, I’m in the Days camp) and Planet Terror (2007), a personal favorite and one of the two films in the special Grindhouse double-feature. I’d also like to shout out Pontypool (2009) and, of course, the horror-comedy Zombieland (2009). 
Probably nothing has been as influential in drawing zombie discourse into the public as AMC’s hit TV show The Walking Dead (2010), drawing on the graphic novel series of the same name. With a level of gore and violence rarely seen on network TV, a cast of memorable characters and an anyone-can-die narrative, it ignited a zombie fervor greater than anything we’d ever seen. 
The Walking Dead overlapped with a cultural apocalypse zeitgeist. Doomsday prepping started to go mainstream, and people started to plan their own personal zombie apocalypse survival plan. Hell, the CDC adopted zombie apocalypse language as a way to talk about real-world applications of survival knowledge. Zombies and survivalism now go hand-in-hand, for better or worse. 
No discussion of a zombie apocalypse is complete without Max Brooks’ World War Z (2007), which bears little resemblance to the film that shares its name. We should also make a shout-out for his more comedic companion volume, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), which laid a foundation for what followed. 
For extra credit, play the TellTale Games: The Walking Dead (2012) and compare/contrast with the TV show and graphic novel. Then compare that with Train to Busan (2016), a Korean film that plays some tropes straight while turning others on their heads (it’s also one of my favorite films on this list). 
While the zombie apocalypse narrative took root and captured the imaginations of many, others started to look at things from a different angle. 
What if, they asked, the zombies were the heroes rather than the villains? 
John Ajvide Lindqvist, who you might know for the vampire story Let the Right One In, was ahead of his time with this on: Handling the Undead (2004) is a book that’s simultaneously heartbreaking and deeply unsettling in its portrayal of the dead returning to life and what that might mean to those they’d left behind. Compare and contrast that with the TV show Les Revenants (2004), which deals with a similar premise (there was an American remake, but I can’t speak for it as I didn’t watch it - seriously, just watch the subtitles and enjoy the French show). 
But not every zombie-protagonist story was so heart-wrenching. Look at Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies (2010), and the film adaptation. There’s also Breathers! A Zombie’s Lament by S.G. Browne that is both hilarious and scathing. 
Follow those up with Diana Rowland’s My Life as a White Trash Zombie (2012) and the comic book/TV show iZombie (2015), both of which feature pale-haired, witty female medical examiners with a taste for brains. 
And finally, a shout-out to The Santa-Clarita Diet (2016), a hilariously dark and over-the-top gross show featuring Drew Barrymore as a zombie trying to get her life back together.