Zombie Genre History in Literature and Film

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Updated: Mar 27, 2023
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The zombie genre has had a long history in literature and film with works by H.P. Lovecraft and Richard Matheson and early films like White Zombie in the 1930s starring Bela Lugosi and the 1943 film by Jacques Tourneur I Walked with a Zombie. While White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie were based on Haitian folklore, they are not the films people go to when they talk about zombie films. The modern concept of the zombie comes from George A.

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Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. The zombie genre has evolved over the years with films like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, Peter Jackson’s Braindead, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies, and David Freyne’s The Cured. The genre was prolific in the 1970s and 1980s though it fizzled out by the 1990s. Zombies became a part of the mainstream again with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and the AMC television series The Walking Dead, which is currently in its ninth season.

Zombies were also very popular in video games with Resident Evil, House of the Dead, Left 4 Dead, and Dead Rising franchises. The zombie apocalypse has had many causes throughout the many films and other media though most common contagions, radiation, and hazardous materials. The zombie genre taps into the human fears of disease and the unknown after death. The sociopolitical interpretations of zombie films have changed through time. For example, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had zombies driven by instinct to go to the mall as a leftist comment on consumerism, while the Zack Snyder remake goes right-wing, portraying the zombies as “the other” while the survivors protect the mall, protect capitalism. To examine the changes in the genre and its sociopolitical contexts, one should start with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the film that started the modern zombie film. Compare George Romero’s film to a recent film that expands on the genre and the sociopolitical context in the age of Trumpism and Brexit, David Freyne’s The Cured.

George Romero’s ground-breaking film Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, a turbulent year in American history and around the world. The film was shot in rural Pennsylvania for a little over a hundred thousand dollars and went on to make about thirty million at the box office. The film centered around a group of survivors who barricaded themselves inside a farmhouse to protect themselves from the hordes of zombies outside. This was the first film where the zombies were introduced as slow-moving, flesh-eating corpses. The sociopolitical context of the film has been attributed many years later by film scholars. George Romero did not intend for there to be political interpretation when filming.

The end of the film features Duane Jones, despite not being a zombie, killed and dragged out by hooks to be burned by white sheriffs and a militia. Romero has stated in various interviews that he never considered race when casting Duane Jones; he cast Jones because he was the best actor for the role. According to Romero, he only heard about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. as he was taking the film to be processed. Seeing Ben (Duane Jones) dehumanized by the white sheriffs and the montage of stills at the end of the film was eerily similar to the images of African-Americans being lynched and attacked by dogs. Whether or not this was intentional or his subconscious, there is no doubt that the images reflect what was happening in the United States. Racism and the struggle for Civil Rights, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X, the Cold War, and echoes of the Vietnam War are in the film’s DNA. Night of the Living Dead is a product of the 1960s and has left its mark on cinema, influencing many horror films to come.

David Freyne’s Irish political horror film The Cured, released this year, takes a different spin on the zombie horror genre. The film takes place during the aftermath of a zombie contagion known as the Maze Virus. Many who were infected were cured, although many who were infected could not be cured and would be locked away for testing until they were to be eliminated; the two groups were known as the Cured and the Resistant. The Cured is forced into work programs and kept under surveillance as they “return” to society that looks down on them and turns them away. At the same time, the Resistant is locked away in facilities while undergoing lab testing for a more effective vaccine.

The government gives up on the vaccine testing and schedules the Resistant to be eliminated. A group of the Cured called the Cured Alliance took action against the government in a series of arsons and attempted to free the Resistant from their captivity. Freyne’s film is very much a political allegory. Freyne himself has said that the film is an allegory of the rise of the Right with Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen, and throughout Europe and elsewhere. The Cured and the Resistant represent marginalized and disenfranchised populations that are subject to the Right’s oppression. Freyne’s zombies are fast, gather in packs like wolves, and have a sense of instinctual intelligence which contrasts with the Romero zombies that are slow-moving and follow mindless instinct. His zombies have more in common with the infected in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later rather than in Night of the Living Dead.

The Cured suffer from PTSD as they remember all that they have done while being infected. Irish history of the IRA and the Troubles, the refugee crisis, the detention and separation of immigrant families, the prison-industrial complex and its effects on African-Americans, and even the AIDS crisis and treatment of LGBTQ people are represented in the film in a number of ways. The Cured Alliance has shades of the IRA, Black Lives Matter, Act Up, and numerous other activist and revolutionary organizations. There is a scene where a mother and child are separated from each other after being cured, which reflects the Trump administration’s policies on immigration. Throughout the film, the primary thematic takeaway is that the film is about the fear of “the other.” Both Nights of the Living Dead and The Cured are products of the times they were made, depicting the societal troubles going on around the world at the time.

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Zombie Genre History in Literature and Film. (2023, Mar 27). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/zombie-genre-history-in-literature-and-film/