Zombies: Still Loving to Kill the Living Dead After All This Time

Zombies. The very word conjures up images of a huge horde of shambling corpses overwhelming people and chowing down on their flesh. In folklore, the zombie may be best known from Haitian voodoo rituals in where an animated corpse is raised by magical means. With the new videogame Dying Light 2: Stay Human now hitting consoles and PCs from developer Techland, it might be good to take a brief look at zombies in our popular culture over the years and see why they’ve remained so popular after all this time.

The zombie entered our popular culture in film, the first movie being 1932’s White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi. But zombies truly took off in cinema in 1968, when George A. Romero introduced audiences to The Night of the Living Dead. The film was both a critical and a commercial hit, and for Romero launched a franchise of Dead movies that would continue until 2009. In 1978, Romero returned with the first sequel, Dawn of the Dead, using zombies as an allegory to rampant consumerism (Zack Snyder remade the film in 2004 with a little more emphasis on this same theme). From there, zombies in popular film would only become more frequent, becoming as much as horror staple as the vampire and the werewolf.

In 1985, a new franchise was born with the horror comedy The Return of the Living Dead, where the zombie apocalypse was played as much for laughs as frights. The film spawned four sequels, the last one being released in 2005, and was the franchise that gave zombies their infamous appetite for human brains (this is often falsely associated with Romero’s 1968 movie). Zombies further mixed bloody mayhem and mirth in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, from director Edgar Wright, and in 2009 in Reuben Fleischer’s film Zombieland.

All didn’t just become fun and games, however. In 2002, director Danny Boyle introduced audiences to fast moving zombies in 28 Days Later. Zombies got their own share of found footage (popularized by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project as a staple in low budget horror movies) in cineplexes around the world with the REC series of films beginning in 2004. Zombies rode the rails in the 2016 film Train to Busan, and where a major roadblock in a Vegas heist in Army of the Dead (2021) as director Zack Snyder revisited the genre that was a hit for him in 2004 with his remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

But perhaps the biggest franchise to hit the silver screen with zombies would come in 2002 with Resident Evil. The film, from director Paul W. S. Anderson and starring Milla Jovovich, was an adaptation of the videogames from developer Capcom. The first game, also called Resident Evil in its release in the United States (the game was called Biohazard in Japan), hit the Sony console Playstation in 1996. The series would eventually contain twenty eight games, switching to more dynamic action in 2005 with Resident Evil 4, switching to a first person perspective in 2017 with Resident Evil VII: Biohazard, and moving away from zombies in its most recent title, 2021’s Resident Evil VIII: Village. The franchise would eventually have in addition to the videogames ten films (seven live action and three animated), books, board games, and toys, combining for $5.84 billion in sales, making it Capcom’s biggest selling franchise. Capcom also dealt with zombies in its Dead Rising franchise, which is currently up to four titles, but nothing that approaches the size of Resident Evil.

(L-R) Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies); Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs); Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus); Carol (Melissa Suzanne McBride); T-Dog (Robert ‘IronE’ Singleton); Beth Greene (Emily Kinney); Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson); Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln); Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan); Glenn (Steven Yeun); The Governor (David Morrissey); Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Andrea (Laurie Holden) – The Walking Dead – Season 3 – Full cast photo – Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

The biggest challenge to Resident Evil‘s zombie throne began in comic books in 2003, when writer Robert Kirkman, along with artist Tony Moore, brought us the first issue of The Walking Dead. Published by Image Comics, The Walking Dead would span 193 issues in a run that ended in 2019, and had artist Charlie Adlard take over with issue seven. The comic series grew in popularity, and cable network AMC took notice. In 2010, the series The Walking Dead launched, making it one of the most successful drama shows in the history of television. The show is now in its 11th season, and has spawned four off shoots and multiple webisodes as well as ten novels and a line of McFarlane Toys. Fear the Walking Dead arrived on AMC in 2015 and is still doing well for the network, while The Walking Dead: World Beyond (2020-2021) only lasted a couple of seasons. A new show is slated for both 2022 (Tales of the Walking Dead) and 2023 (an untitled series featuring the popular characters of Carol and Daryl). The show has also spawned its own talk show, and several movies are still being planned to wrap up character Rick Grimes’ story.

The series naturally gravitated to videogames as well, covering fifteen titles from 2012 to the present. The most successful came from Telltale Games, the first hitting consoles in 2012 and the final chapter landing in 2018. The games told an original story with new characters, and first crossing with the TV series and the character of Michonne in 2016. A social game ran on Facebook from 2012 to 2014, with other mobile games appearing on Android and iOS devices. The strategy game The Escapists had their own The Walking Dead spin-off. Overkill’s The Walking Dead arrived on PC, PS4, and Xbox One from Starbreeze Studios, and the VR game The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners launched from Skybound Entertainment in 2020.

Zombies spread across the videogame spectrum. though no other series has approached the size and scope of either Resident Evil or The Walking Dead. In 2008, the popular shooter series Call of Duty introduced its own zombies mode with World at War. A zombies mode as been part of seven Call of Duty titles since 2010, with the latest appearing in Vanguard in 2021. Zombies have gone to space in EA’s Dead Space series (called Necromorphs in the games), overrun tropical paradises in the Dead Island series, and have had to chase down victims doing parkour with Techland’s 2015 title Dying Light and its recently released sequel, Dying Light 2: Stay Human. Zombies remain popular in videogames over a wide variety of titles, stretching from indies up to major AAA releases, as well as in movies and TV shows.

But why have zombies endured for so long in popular culture? There are many reasons, beginning with our obsession and fascination with our own demise. Man has been envisioning the apocalypse since the beginning of civilization, and a zombie apocalypse is one most think they could handle (it’s always the “other guy” who would screw up and fall to the walking dead hordes). We know that zombies aren’t real, so the risk of it actually happening is marginal, so we can focus more on the thrill of killing the shambling corpses rather than fearing them. Humans have a big attraction to both violence and fear, and dealing with zombies gives us an outlet for both. We can kill zombies without any ethical quandaries, and even explore how we’d deal ethically with our fellow survivors. And speaking of those fellow survivors, they give us a reason to reconnect with our humanity. We know that we’d need others to help us survive, and in an apocalypse in which our cell phones, computers, and social media would be null and void, we can connect with fellow survivors in a more direct manner. Face to face communication would replace screen to screen interaction, taking us back to when people dealt more with each other directly. Other survivors give us hope, and a feeling that we could rise above such a calamity. Zombies can serve as allegories for many themes that can affect our lives, themes of racism, political anxieties, ideas of conformity, and social fears. In our current climate of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, a plague of rising and walking dead can feel even more relevant. Longing to connect with others can feel even more urgent in our current state of political divisiveness. The zombie can encompass all of this, more so than any other supernatural creature.

And so, we continue to tune in to shows and movies depicting the living dead, and videogames let us interact with them as only games can to help fulfill some of our survivalist fantasies. We can rise triumphantly above the zombie hordes time and time again, without the ethical dilemma of actually taking a life. We can be thrilled and scared as we face the oncoming menace, all within the safe confines of our homes. For now, it looks like zombies are here to stay, and that may be a good thing. Now excuse me while I get my weapons ready. I hear a bunch of moaning heading my way. Time to lock and load.