Welcome to Elements of Story, a biweekly column about narrative tropes, what they mean, and why they just won’t go away. In this entry, we attack the concept of zombies going out of style.
There’s something about a good zombie flick. From Train to Busan to Shaun of the Dead, Warm Bodies, and Anna and the Apocalypse, the best zombie movies of the past few decades rank among the highlights of almost every genre, from comedy to musical to, of course, horror.
Compared to other creatures, the zombie as we know it was a rather late addition to cinema. While there are films dating back to Hollywood’s golden age of horror with “zombie” in the title, such as White Zombie (1936) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), they feature a very different kettle of fish. Their zombies are beings of Haitian origin, a nightmare envisioned by enslaved people toiling in sugar cane plantations who saw death as a release from a truly hellish existence, freeing their souls to return to their homelands. The concept of taking one’s own life was taboo, however, for fear of becoming a zombie and remaining imprisoned in their bodies (and working the cane fields) forever.
After the Haitian revolution, the role of zombies in Vodou lore evolved. Ill-intentioned shamans known as bokor were believed to have the power to reanimate and enslave corpses into doing their bidding. Oversimplified, often questionably hyperbolized accounts of Vodou practices and beliefs made their way to the US in the late 19th and early 20th century through travel writers. Much of how “voodoo” is imagined in mainstream American popular culture — early zombie films included — traces back to the 1929 book The Magic Island by American occultist William Seabrook.
The first Hollywood movie to really pull from Haitian lore (via the questionable conduit of Seabrook) is called White Zombie, which in itself really tells you what you need to know about what happened next: they gave the concept a thorough whitewashing and took it straight to the bank.
The Western interpretation of Haitian zombies borrows an Afro-Caribbean guise, but it feels more accurate to call it a co-opted variant on the general theme of mesmerism and hypnosis that had already been titillating the Western imagination for several decades.
The occult-adjacent hypnosis craze fueled the success of mega-bestsellers like George du Maurier’s 1895 novel Trilby, in which the melodic-voiced but tone-deaf eponymous heroine is hypnotized by the devious musician Svengali (an archetypal antisemitic figure), who plays her like an instrument. She’s not technically dead until after Svengali himself expires, releasing her from his spell, but that’s really semantics. She dies shortly afterward, from some unspecified nervous affliction caused by her ordeal in classic Victorian literature fashion.
Then there’s the hugely influential German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), in which the titular figure bewitches a somnambulist, Cesare, and uses him to murder people in his sleepwalking state. American movies really stripped basically all the cultural origins of the zombie concept, kept the name, and used it as more or less a synonym for hypnotizing reanimated corpses.
This is the point where I need to finally bring up the film widely — if somewhat inaccurately — credited with creating zombies: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). If you’re a huge Romero fan psyching yourself up to defend his honor from accusations of cultural appropriation, hold your horses. That’s actually not where I’m going with this. Things get kind of complicated here because Night of the Living Dead doesn’t call the flesh-eating undead zombies. The creatures are called “ghouls.”
Whether Romero wasn’t really aware of the term “zombie” while writing the screenplay, or he was and just didn’t think the shoe fit — because in all honesty it kind of doesn’t — is not clear; if he ever addressed the matter directly in interviews, it didn’t show up in my research.
How, exactly, the term “zombie” became so strongly attached to the mindless, flesh-eating undead introduced by Night of the Living Dead would require a research deep-dive exceeding the bounds of feasibility for this article. Regardless, Romero’s monsters became so affiliated with the term that when his second installment, Dawn of the Dead, hit theaters in 1978, the movie was known in most international markets as Zombie or Zombi.
Etymologically, “zombie” unquestionably traces back to Haitian, and ultimately West African, origin. Far more credit really should be given where credit is due when discussing zombie lore on that front. Several critics and academics have lamented the whitewashing of the zombie and the failure of modern zombie narratives to tap into the term’s roots, and there is definitely a vast well of underutilized potential and meaningful commentary available to be tapped there.
That being said, in considering zombie as an archetype, it’s ultimately more accurate to envision two separate tropes that happen to be homonymous: the true, OG zombie concept in one box and the lineage that sprung from Romero’s “ghouls” in another. The particular appeal of zombies on the dissection table of this installment of Elements of Story really only pertains to the latter type. (For the rest of this article, “zombie” refers to the cannibalistic ghouls popularized by Romero for the sake of concision.)
More so than any other flavor of movie monster, zombies tend to be the context rather than the heart of the story — a narrative’s foundation, but not its centerpiece. In a sense, this is the crux of the shocking twist ending of Night of the Living Dead, which reveals the ultimate threat and villain to be the sheriff’s human posse, who shoot and kill protagonist Ben (Duane Jones). The zombies were the most obvious threat, but not, ultimately, the one that dealt the killing blow. This trend first appears in Night of the Living Dead but becomes far more evident in later zombie films.
In vampire movies, vampires are almost always the principal antagonists or the principal protagonists (if not both). The same goes for stories about ghosts, werewolves, and basically every other category of monstrous being. When it comes to zombies, however, this is the rare exception, not the rule. Apart from stories that put particular emphasis on zombification as a disease, and build their plot around finding either a treatment or a vaccination (e.g. World War Z), or the few in which a zombie is actually a principle character (e.g. Warm Bodies), zombies are best understood as a very particular kind of plot device.
Establishing compelling stakes and then raising them effectively is one of the most important facets of crafting a truly great story — and one of the hardest things to do. It’s so hard to pull off that a depressingly large percentage of movies half-ass it, falling back to the same few overplayed cards and banking on bells and whistles like VFX and stunts to entertain and sufficiently distract from more fundamental deficits. Sure, sometimes a gently paced character study hits the spot, but there’s the soul-enriching cinema and then there’s heart-racing-even-though-I’m-vegging-on-the-couch, grade-A entertainment. Once in a blue moon, the stars align and there’s a film that’s both at once, but they’re unicorns.
With character studies, normal relationship woes and sundry often suffice on the stakes front. But on the genre front, when you want to get hearts beating faster, it’s a tricky prospect. If the stakes are too small, nobody cares. If the stakes are too large, most viewers over the age of twelve aren’t really going to take the threat seriously, because they know better.
I would love to see a major franchise film in which the villain threatens to blow up Manhattan/the world/the galaxy and succeeds in doing so in the third act, no time travel fixes or takebacks allowed. But as a rational being, I know this will never happen, because if a studio is going to shell out $100 million-plus for a film, they’re going to play it safe and non-threatening as a kiddie pool. Tom Cruise will diffuse the bomb in time. The universe will not be annihilated because then you can’t have a sequel, and the franchise potential becomes severely limited.
This is where zombies come in. Zombies are to narrative stakes what red chili flakes are to food: you sprinkle them in to add heat, and they go with basically everything. Stakes are raised, and, when filmmakers play their cards right, they stay very high. Admittedly, extending the metaphor, it’s possible to go overboard, and you will get desensitized after a while if they’re added to everything you eat. This is precisely what happened with the early 2010s zombie boom sparked by the success of The Walking Dead. It was a time during which you could go out to see a zombie movie and then come home and flip through multiple zombie-themed series options. While basically every year still brings new noteworthy zombie content, things have cooled off a little, which is best for all involved.
The 2016 spoof Pride and Prejudice and Zombies actually lays bare something that is, upon closer inspection, true of the vast majority of zombie films: they’re most accurately described as stories with zombies added on top. A quality quiet character study is a bit of an acquired taste, while horror is often regarded as the “safest” genre in terms of getting a return on investment. A truly impressive range of characters, relationships, and other story elements can be easily adapted to incorporate zombies — and often becomes all the more marketable for it. In Train to Busan, for example, questions like “will Seok-woo fix his relationship with his daughter Su-an?” become “will Seok-woo survive this scene so he can fix his relationship with his daughter Su-an?!”
You can have a zombie road-trip movie (Zombieland) or a zombie Christmas musical coming-of-age tale (Anna and the Apocalypse). You add zombies to the time-honored tradition of the sageuk—that is, the Korean historical drama—and you get the Netflix series Kingdom. Alex Garland had the inspired idea of taking John Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids and swapping out walking plants for zombies, the result being 28 Days Later.
The fact that zombies are really best understood as a plot device in most zombie movies is evidenced in the sheer number of them in which other, non-zombie characters are ultimately the primary antagonists: 28 Days Later has Major Harry West; Train to Busan has the cowardly, selfish executive Yon-suk; Anna and the Apocalypse has the scheming vice-principal Arthur Savage; the list goes on.
Considering zombies usually have no real individual intelligence to speak of and no master guiding them besides a bottomless hunger for human flesh, they’re underwhelming antagonists. But they are an excellent shortcut to spicing things up.