Sparkly vampires are all the rage right now, but zombies are stumbling their way toward knocking their fellow legions of the undead from their pedestal.
From the zombie walks being held in cities across the world to the television shows, video games and numerous books hitting the stores, people’s fascination with zombies is spreading like a plague.
“Zombies have the upper hand,” says University of B.C. film studies professor Ernest Mathijs, whose specialities include horror and fantasy film.
“Zombies are a kind of ingredient you can add to any cultural product and make it look slightly different,” he said. “It will turn it into a funny parody of contemporary cultures, and somehow that appeals to cultures across the globe.”
The idea of zombies originally came from the voodoo culture in Haiti. The word “zombi” was used to describe a brainless slave labourer raised from the dead by a bokor, or sorcerer.
The now-familiar modern zombie was popularized and turned into a phenomenon in 1968 by way of the unexpected popularity of director George Romero’s low-budget horror classic Night of the Living Dead.
Gisele Baxter of UBC’s English department, who specializes in popular and gothic culture, and dystopic and post-apocalyptic fiction, says Romero’s film took the horror genre one step further.
“Romero was influential in spawning everyday horror that doesn’t deal with mad scientists or externalized threats, but deals with threats we associate with nightmares, personal threats and very primal fears,” she says.
The audience identifies with zombie stories because people today are fascinated and fearful of the possibility of an apocalypse, widespread annihilation or a viral pandemic, Baxter says.
The metaphorical possibilities and themes inherent in zombie stories also appeal to modern filmmakers because they can experiment with notions of what people would do to survive in a kill-or-be-killed world, Baxter says, citing as an example the the taboo associated with cannibalism.
Even the living are getting zombie-fied these days, Mathijs says.
“(When you watch Big Brother), they’re just sitting, mindless … stumbling around. Basically it’s just a zombie movie but without a plot,” he said. “I mean that in a very loving way because I love zombie films and Big Brother.”
Both Mathijs and Baxter have both been fascinated by the emergence of new, creative ways of incorporating the zombie factor into popular culture. One recent innovation is the spoof novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is being adapted into a film.
“When you think of Pride and Prejudice, the last thing you think about is zombies,” Baxter says. “The juxtaposition of these immensely different things really fascinated people. Then it spawned a lot of copycat titles, which is very impressive because people found the energy and imagination to do anything with these titles.”
Baxter says that the zombie trope will remain a hot cultural commodity for as long as filmmakers and writers can continue to find ways to make the brain-eating undead relatable to audiences.
“If zombie narratives go further in investing zombies with some capacity for personality and depth of characterization, it will probably come closer to being a variance on vampire stories,” Baxter said.