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Popularity of Zombies in Film

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Popularity of Zombies in Film

Shannon Wright

Doctor Faucette

English 111 687C

13 November 2013

Popularity of Zombies

        Modern popular culture is, so to say, full of mysteries. Observing the fascinations of people in social networks, on YouTube, or Flickr one could possibly wonder about the reasons of popularity of certain media phenomenon. People adore kittens, Japanese commercials, hashtags, and many other cultural fads. Zombies are among the social crazes that are a part of people’s everyday life. Western culture is supersaturated with shambling undead creatures. Not only horror movies, but also comedies (Shaun of the Dead) and even romantic stories (Warm Bodies) are being filmed about them. As a powerful metaphor for articulating the deepest cultural anxieties and fears of Americans, zombies have become an inspiring force in pop culture today.

        The humble start of the zombie’s long trek to fame in popular culture dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years to the African American continent where the Voodoo religion was born. With the inception of slavery the practitioners of Voodoo were taken across the Atlantic to work in Haitian plantations. It was in Haiti that the zombie began to form more fully. During the occupation of this small country America became aware of the creature through travel writing (Neall). Kyle Bishop, in his book American Zombie Gothic, explains that “even though vague and inconsistent zombie references could be found in some nineteenth century travel narratives and non-fiction anthropological texts it took the publication of William B. SeaBrooks’ sensational travelogue The Magic Island in 1929 to bring the zombie out of the misunderstood superstitions of Haiti and into the light of mainstream America” (13). The zombie slowly shambled forward and eventually landed the first of many film roles in 1932. Thirty-six years later, one filmmaker “imported this tame monster from its homeland, gave it an appetite for human flesh, and turned it loose on American soil” (Twohy). The zombie has literally never been the same.

        One of the fears that a zombie represents is that consumerism is stealing our humanity. When a news story is shown of people getting trampled by a stampede of Black Friday shoppers, the power of the human desire to consume is proven. Zombies are driven by the need to consume. It is everything that they are. In his 2012 essay on human resource development, Robin Redmon Wright of the University of Texas elaborates on this as follows:

Just as zombies are driven by the disgusting need to consume increasing amounts of human flesh – a need never satisfied – workers are driven to consume the offspring of their own creativity and are mesmerized by our consumer society into craving more and more products of labor in order to support sustain an inequitable system…” (qtd. in Ricciardi)

In an attempt to explain the upward spike in zombie films in recent years, Wright presents his rationale:

…Workers are feeling the effects of a culture consumed by a mounting need to consume for survival. The undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the excess of unregulated capitalism will surely be reflected in popular culture. And for people living in a consumer culture – where they must consume their own humanity (the products of their day to day existence) in order to survive – it’s a virtual no-brainer that we should consider the Zombie Among Us. (qtd. in Ricciardi)

George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead shines light on consumerism in American culture. The main scene of the film occurs in a shopping mall which an ever-amassing horde of zombies invades in “one orgiastic flesh feast” (Renee). Last year George Romero spoke at a TIFF Higher Learning event and said this about where he got inspiration to write Dawn of the Dead:

I socially knew the people that were developing the shopping mall where we shot ‘Dawn’ and it was the first shopping mall that we’d ever seen — I went out a few days before it opened and I saw all these trucks coming in with everything that Americans could ever want. I said, ‘Wow, this is like a temple to consumerism.’ And that was the thought, and that’s where the thought came from. I started to write a script that had that at its core.

        Zombies are also a metaphor for the fears of war and terrorism. This embodiment of fears is in the American heartland, in its suburbs, and major cities and is not deterred by borders. Survivors in zombie films never expect an outbreak, but when the zombies hit, they are surrounded. Zombies are not just about the paranoia in regards to the enemy that lives outside the American borders, but about fear that the threat will manifest at home. These threats lead to the feeling of not being safe in one’s own home (Carroll). An early example, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is perceived by the audience as “the dual threat of communist infiltration and McCarthyism” (Carroll). The zombie outbreak begins subtly with Dr. Miles Bennell failing to notice anything amiss when his patients complain about serious ailments, only to cancel their appointments and claim to be healed. The townspeople are certain their family and friends have changed before their eyes. The zombie characteristics in this film embody the American fear of what the Cold War and communism would do to the American way of life. More recently, the fears of terrorism are shown in 28 Days Later. This film introduces American audiences to the post 9/11 zombie. A film critic summarizes the importance of this film to Americans during the War on Terror by concluding “28 Days Later tackled political subjects full force less than a year after the 9/11 attacks and its surprising popularity indicated an early public interest in working through some of their problems” (qtd. in Powers). The speed evolution of zombies is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for zombies changing to reflect the causes of American fears. The change echoed the sense of impending doom that Americans felt of imminent terrorist attacks in the immediate post 9/11 years.

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