“Braaains!” A (Pop) Cultural History of Zombies

Posted by Maria Vicente

At once a staple in cult horror films and an icon to mainstream culture, zombies have gone through many reincarnations in recent history. The origin of zombies in popular culture goes back as far as the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1881. Frankenstein's monster isn't exactly what we'd consider a zombie these days, but Shelley was influenced by the history and folklore of the undead. Now, zombies are practically a genre of their own and annual Zombie Walks are held in every major North American city.

Everyone has a movie or a book or a video game that first introduced the wonderful world of zombies. I'm quite nostalgic about Zombies Ate My Neighbors… but more about that game later. There are hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of examples of zombies in pop culture, but I've put together a collection of the ones from recent history with the most artistic and social impact.

First, a couple of great films.

1968: Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead is an independent horror film directed by George A. Romaro. This film was given a limited budget and went on to make millions of dollars. It's a favorite of many horror fans and a true classic in the zombie canon.

1981: The Evil Dead

Chances are good you've heard of this movie, even if you're not a zombie (or horror) fan. Five college students take a vacation to an isolated cabin in the woods—so, obviously, something is going to go wrong. The zombies are visually different from anything done before, and the movie captivated audiences enough to turn into a trilogy. The Evil Dead was directed by Sam Raini, who went on to co-produce the 2013 remake of the film.

A few unusual examples.

1983: "Thriller" by Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson gave us the most iconic music video in pop music history—and it is 13 minutes of dancing zombies. The reception to this music video was outstanding and many people still cite it as the changing point in music video production. In the video, Michael transforms back and forth between zombie and human, an unusual twist to the usual undead characteristics.

1993: Zombies Ate My Neighbors

This video game was made for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis systems back in the 90's. I don't know about you, but I used to pull all-nighters trying to beat this game. (Remember the days when you couldn't save your game progress?) The goal of Zombies Ate My Neighbors was to save random people before zombies (and a few other monsters—including a giant baby) could attack them. The weapons were unusual too; who knew soda cans and popsicles could defeat zombies?

1994: "Zombie" by The Cranberries

Of course zombies are the perfect metaphor for a protest song. The Cranberries moved zombies from the screen and put them into everyone’s ears. You can hear Dolores singing the chorus right now, can’t you?

Zombies as we know them now.

2002: 28 Days Later

With 28 Days Later, we move into the connection between zombies and the impending apocalypse. In case you don’t know the plot, the outbreak of a contagious virus causes some serious problems. This movie brought zombies back into the mainstream and started an apocalyptic trend.

2003: The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks

This manual gives readers advice on how to survive a potential zombie attack. This guide made the New York Times Bestseller’s List and had everyone talking about the possibility of a zombie outbreak. You can see how this book, paired with the success of 28 Days Later, turned zombies into an unsettling reality versus the fun and very fictional earlier portrayals.

2006: World War Z by Max Brooks

This is Max Brooks’ fictional story about a zombie apocalypse (he also wrote The Zombie Survival Guide, in case you weren’t paying attention). This book is a lot more serious than the Survival Guide, adding more weight to the argument that zombies are a very real possibility (even though this book is, after all, fictional). This book was made into a movie—starring Brad Pitt, a somewhat popular actor you may have heard of.

Things get a little bit weird.

2009: Plants vs. Zombies

The seriousness couldn’t last too long before zombies were decidedly fun again. Using plants and fungi to stop a pack of zombies in this popular game is a bit more lighthearted than the inevitability of the zombie apocalypse.

2009: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The first book in the Quirk Classics series, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies reimagines Jane Austen’s novel as a zombie parody. This book turns a classic novel into a modern-day trend and proves that mash-ups are both entertaining and necessary. Austen would be proud (I’d like to think she was a big zombie fan).

Recent Obsessions

2010: Call Of Duty: Black Ops

The Zombie gameplay on Call of Duty: Black Ops brought first-person shooter games to a new level. No longer limited to realistic storylines, the objective of Zombies was to destroy all the zombies before they—literally—infest the screen. This popular gameplay was also a big part of Call Of Duty: Blacks Ops 2 (2012).

2010: The Walking Dead

One of the most-talked-about TV series of the past few years, The Walking Dead turned the apocalyptic zombie into a once-a-week drama. As much about character development as it is about plot, The Walking Dead reminds viewers that zombie stories don’t have to be restricted to the classic ideas of the genre. It’s also worth noting that this series is adapted from The Walking Dead comic book series, which started way back in 2003 (we sort of really like books around here).

2011: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

Warm Bodies is a popular Young Adult novel about a zombie romance. The love story between a zombie and a human captured teen readers’ attentions—and was eventually made into a movie in 2013.

And now…

It’s difficult to know what the next big thing in zombies will be. It has been a few years since something spectacular has changed the genre, but it’s only a matter of time before we will all be clamoring to get (or run away from) the next popular imagining of the undead.