Undead America: The Emergence of the Modern Zombie in American Culture

by Daniel Compora

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article. Additionally, some errata in the print version have been corrected in this HTML version. 

[page 31] Since 1968, American moviegoers have faced the threat of the modern zombie, when zombie auteur George Romero’s low budget, genre-defining film Night of the Living Dead was released. The genre has grown and evolved since then, branching out into comic books, video games, and television, where the wildly popular television series The Walking Dead has become a pop culture phenomenon. The recent wave of zombie popularity could easily be attributed to the fact that, since 2001, America has been at war. A remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) and a trio of new entries by Romero, Survival of the Dead (2009) being the most recent, are just a few of the many zombie films that have emerged since America’s entry into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, ascribing the popularity of the genre to such a narrow vision provides too simple of an explanation. In addition to a strong anti-war sentiment which is reflected in many recent zombie narratives, cultural anxiety over global terrorism, a diminishment in cultural identity, and a rejection of strongly held religious convictions are also present.

Zombie movies existed prior to Romero’s classic, but with a decidedly different component: films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) focus on creatures created by Voodoo. These early films have helped create the archetypes of the modern zombie genre, such as the emergence from a death-like state and the loss of free will. However, one key element is missing from these classic efforts: the consumption of human flesh. Michael Newbury credits Night of the Living Dead with shifting the cultural paradigm of the zombie film, stating that it transforms the genre “into something altogether different in thematic concern and feel” (98). Indeed, Romero’s film turned the zombie film genre into overt social protest. According to Kevin Heffernan, the tremendous cultural influence of this film cannot be measured, as it introduced an element that is essential to the modern zombie narrative: cannibalism (75). Night of the Living Dead then serves as the archetype upon which the modern zombie narrative is constructed. The loss of free will exhibited in the earlier films has been expanded to represent a loss of humanity. Since this film’s release, the modern zombie has been universally defined by its cannibalistic nature. The individual loss of humanity and turn to cannibalism ultimately leads to a large-scale societal breakdown.

In Night of the Living Dead, one of the first societal casualties is the family home. Much of the action is set in a farmhouse in rural [page 32] Pennsylvania; several characters find themselves trapped as the undead horde surrounds them. The setting may have been chosen largely due to budgetary concerns and convenience, but the use of the farmhouse does add to the narrative value of the film. Robert Newman explains the significance of the farmhouse locale and its impact on the film’s narrative:

A farmhouse, emblematic foundation of American culture and values, provides the setting for most of the film. However, its furniture and large portions of its structure are systematically dismantled to convert it into a fortress against the onslaught of the dead. The traditional values it symbolizes–family, cooperation, the efficacy of hard work–are likewise decimated as the film progresses.” (57)

The survivors spend nearly as much time fighting each other as they do the zombies. Both groups attack the farmhouse, albeit for different purposes: the zombies to gain entrance and the humans to protect themselves. The farmhouse, once a sanctuary for the family unit, becomes a battleground in which humans struggle to maintain their humanity. The failure of the individual to leads to a breakdown of the family unit. In fact, the film opens with an argument between Barbara and Johnny, a brother and sister who disagree on the importance of visiting their father’s grave. Shortly after this disagreement, Johnny is killed by a zombie. Later in the film, the Cooper family, who are hiding in the basement, struggle to come to grips with the fact that their daughter, who is dying from a zombie bite, will eventually turn into a monster.

As the zombie threat intensifies, the actions of the humans begin to mirror those of the zombies, sans the element of cannibalism, of course. One consistent theme that emerges in most modern zombie narratives is that a loss of humanity does not have to be entirely defined by cannibalistic actions. The characters consistently find themselves asked to make increasingly difficult moralistic choices. As Gerry Canavan indicates:

So while in zombie narrative the “enemy” who is killed is always first the zombiewho is unthinking and unfeeling, and can be killed without regretas the story proceeds the violence inevitably spreads to other, still-alive humans as well. (444-445)

Basic humanity is cast aside as the characters find that morality and human decency simply are not conducive to their survival. Suggesting that the actions of the humans are worse than those of the zombies would be an overstatement, but, in some ways, their actions are more troubling. Zombies have no control over their actions; the separation from humanity is circumstantial, and their actions are the outgrowth of a manifestation that they did not consciously choose. Humans, on the other hand, must [page 33] rationally decide how they are going to act and often are provided with a difficult choice.

Much like soldiers on a battlefield, human characters are often forced to choose between moral actions and survival. As a result, the conflicts presented in Night of the Living Dead can be seen as a reflection of the anti-war sentiment present during the 1960’s, particularly the grisly way in which the fighting of the zombies mirrored the Vietnam War coverage on television during that era. David Pirie supports this notion by stating that “their complacent jargon as they move through the landscape, shooting and burning, immediately evokes similar operations in South-East Asia” (qtd. in K. Newman 14). Television reporters discuss the emergence of the living dead in a business-like fashion, against the backdrop of bands of humans shooting the zombies in the head. One character in the film, Sheriff McClelland, calmly on television, explains the best way to exterminate a zombie: “If you have a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ’em or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy” (qtd in K. Newman 14). Such a casual, nonchalant approach to the destruction of the zombies illustrates how quickly and easily humans can resort to dehumanizing actions. The “shoot ’em in the head” mantra has become a powerful reminder of just how inhumane human beings can be. In fact, humans end up being almost as problematic as the zombies themselves.

The television series The Walking Dead explores the same concept, albeit in a different way, operating within the cultural paradigm of global terrorism. In the post 9/11 era, The Walking Dead seemingly accepts the notion that anyone may be called on at any time to combat an enemy threat. The pseudo-terrorist threat, of course, is represented by the zombies themselves, referred to as “walkers” in the context of this series. These walkers have infiltrated our society and, at least initially, bear a striking resemblance to humans, albeit with an insatiable and largely illogical appetite for human flesh. The zombie genre in general, and Night of the Living Dead and The Walking Dead specifically, leave their protagonists with no choice but to meet this threat directly with deadly force.

The requirement of violence ultimately leads to the dehumanization of the main characters. Instead of focusing on the emergence of a militaristic band of soldiers, The Walking Dead follows a dynamic band of survivors, held together tenuously and led by former Sheriff Rick Grimes. Internal conflicts within the group present nearly as much of a challenge as the zombies themselves. Canavan indicates that, “Countrymen do not band together in the zombie crisis, and the nation does not have its finest hour; instead, allegiances fragment into familial bands and patriarchal tribes, then fragment further from there (443). Certainly, this dissension in the ranks is evident in Rick’s group, as illustrated by the abandonment of [page 34] group member Merle Dixon on the roof of a building during the first season episode “Guts.” Merle, ever the troublemaker, was handcuffed to a pipe by Rick, and it is revealed in a later episode that he was forced to saw off his own hand in order to escape.

In the season two episode Better Angels, Rick is threatened by, and forced to kill, his one-time best friend Shane Walsh, whose need to be in charge, not to mention his lust for Rick’s wife, Lori, make him just as dangerous as the walkers. Rick’s son, Carl, is forced to shoot the newly resurrected Shane, who served as a surrogate father for the twelve-year-old boy when it was believed that Rick was dead. This event serves as practice for young Carl, who draws the unfortunate task of having to shoot his mother, Lori, after she dies from childbirth in the season three episode “Killer Within.” As the series winds down its third season, it has become clear that the title of the series, The Walking Dead, applies not only to the legion of “walkers” that represent the most obvious, external threat to humanity, but also to the band of survivors, whose moral and ethical decay leave them morally and emotionally dead.

The survivors of such narratives eventually succumb to less civilized behavior simply to survive. In the season three episode of The Walking Dead “The Suicide King,” Tyrese confirms this sad reality when he states, “It’s only getting worse out there. Dead are everywhere. It’s only making the living less like the living.” By succumbing to increasingly questionable moral behavior, the living humans forfeit their individualism, which is the one trait that distinguishes them from the undead. Of the modern zombie, Michael Newbury states:

The zombie, in contemporary horror, is a figure determined by irreversible forces that transcend the individual, any static notion of the “natural,” or any embrace of humanism . . . . The zombie is a reshaping of the individual subject by forces larger than the self into something purely, brutally, and rabidly consuming (97).

Zombies are simply the first ones to lose their identity. In the end, everyone does, with the line between human and zombie significantly blurred, if not eliminated completely. At the end of Night of the Living Dead, Ben, the lone survivor of the previous nights’ horrors, is shot in the head because he is mistaken for a zombie. Zombie popularity, then, is based largely on the dehumanization of the individual, living or undead, whose sense of personal identity is destroyed either by the bizarre resurrection or the abandonment of moral principles.

Assuming that the zombie film is largely a byproduct of anti-war sentiment or the threat of global terrorism would be convenient, but doing so would ignore another major element of social criticism inherent [page 35] in the zombie narrative: the downfall of a consumerist society. The sequel to Romero’s original film, Dawn of the Dead (1978), was released a decade later, after the end of the Vietnam War. The suburban shopping mall replaces the isolated farmhouse, as an unlikely band of survivors use the structure not just for survival, but for entertainment and decadence as well. While many have discussed the social satire of this film, it still maintains some criticism leftover from the Vietnam era. Let down by a failure in Vietnam, many soldiers were brought home to an ambivalent government and largely uncaring population, while the rest of the population obsessed about material goods. In this context, the zombies could serve as a metaphor for the veterans who returned home from the war. The zombies wander aimlessly about the shopping mall, and, for a majority of the film, do not present much of a problem for the survivors, who, for most of the film, isolate themselves so they do not have to deal with them.

Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake shares the title and the suburban shopping mall setting, but not the post-Vietnam context. Instead, his film operates in a post-9/11 world dominated by a fear of terrorism. Perhaps the most obvious element of the post-9/11 zombie film is one that is present in three of the most prominent narratives of the decade: 28 Days Later (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and The Walking Dead (2010): the protagonist awakens in a world which has already been taken over by zombies. In 28 Days Later (which is set in England) and The Walking Dead, the main protagonists awaken from comas alone in a hospital bed and are forced to adjust to a world that has radically changed. In a similar fashion, Ana, the main character in Dawn of the Dead (2004), is awakened in the very early hours of the morning by a neighbor girl who devours Ana's boyfriend. She emerges into a neighborhood that has literally transformed overnight.

Much like the events of 9/11 created a hyper-paranoid culture which made nearly everyone who was different than oneself a suspected terrorist, the zombie takeovers in these films, suddenly and shockingly, turn neighbors and friends into vicious enemies. Casual acquaintances become dangerous killers. Neighborhood children become cannibals. These awakening experiences serve as resurrective moments for the characters, who are suddenly reborn into a world that is far from being an eternal paradise. In fact, the modern zombie film by nature is inherently pessimistic and, by its own narrative structure, largely rejects any notion of salvation. While zombie narratives in general tend to portray secular apocalyptic scenarios and largely reject strongly held religious convictions, parallels to Christian-based themes are difficult to ignore. Elizabeth McAlister takes this notion even further, indicating that the religious themes, in fact, help create the secular ones: [page 36]

But a religious logic inflects and infects American zombie monsters, andin the way of so many narratives of secular popular culturea biblical blueprint underlies and informs them. . . . However they always refer implicitly to the biblical apocalyptic tradition, and it is through this referencing that meaning is created. In this sense, zombie films are residually religious; articulated with religious themes to create secular ones (474).

Most zombie narratives do not incorporate the primary Christian theme of salvation, but the pseudo-resurrection imagery brings to mind the very religious tradition it inherently seeks to reject. Presenting a resurrection in this fashion simultaneously reminds viewers of the religious tradition behind the concept but immediately rejects it. In doing so, it becomes clear that traditional morality in the newly defined reality simply is not viable. Only characters who accept this new reality are likely to survive, and that means adopting behaviors that include the killing of any creature, human or zombie, that threatens survival. Modern zombie films do not simply ignore traditional Christian elementsthey present parallel scenarios and actively reject them.

Paul Pastor, writing for Christianity Today, also points out that “Christians, of course, can find many familiar images here. With a little allegorical stretching, we can talk about the church as a community of the risen dead, of zombie cannibalism as a perverted Eucharist. . . .” The zombies’ consumption of flesh grotesquely distorts the Eucharistic tradition. Many erroneously believe that in a religious service, the ritual is merely symbolic. In fact, early Catholics were persecuted and labeled cannibals because their belief in transubstantiation: the belief that the bread and wine literally becomes the flesh and blood of Christ. In a fashion similar to how modern vampire films represent a perversion of the sacred consumption of blood, modern zombie films represent the insidious side of the consumption of flesh. In most zombie films, the consumption of flesh serves as a metaphor for man’s rejection of modern civility and an emergence of his destructive nature. The turn to cannibalism eliminates the potential for salvation, and inherent pessimism is central to modern zombie films.

The simple presence of a zombie perverts and distorts the concept of life after death. Instead of salvation, life after death results in the worst type of damnation. In Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, the character Peter utters the unforgettable line, “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” The implications that Hell could run out of room, forcing the damned to walk the Earth, is incredibly pessimistic and depressing. In the context of the modern zombie narrative, life after death [page 37] is entirely depicted as becoming a zombie. In The Walking Dead, at the end of season two, Rick reveals that everyone who is still alive is infected with the same virus that led to the zombie outbreak, and that everyone is destined to become one of the undead. By their very nature, zombies represent a failed attempt at resurrection, and salvation simply is not part of the zombie narrative. Even in lighter zombie fare, survival is temporary. Even the campy, humorous zombie film Return of the Living Dead (1985) ends with a sudden nuclear strike on Louisville, Kentucky, which was overrun by zombies in a single night.

The increased cultural interest in zombies can be correlated with an overall cultural decline in traditional religious beliefs and the rejection of such Christian-based ideas, such as resurrection and Holy Communion. The data, however, simply does not support this notion strongly enough to support a causational claim. A recent report by Tom W. Smith concludes that religious beliefs have been on the decline in most countries since 1950, but the overall changes have been minimal (5). Still, a slow decline still represents a decline, and it is likely that even a modest decline in traditional Christian beliefs may make consumers of zombie narratives more inclined to accept themes and images that reject the previous generation’s strongly held convictions. Night of the Living Dead was released just two years after Time Magazine’s infamous cover of the April 8, 1966 issue boldly asked the tantalizing question, “Is God Dead?” The timing may be a coincidence, but secularization and corruption of Christian ideals are often depicted in zombie narratives.

The modern zombie, then, functions culturally as more than just a tool for simple social protest. Zombie narratives reflect the cultural fears of their time and illustrate how such fears define the individual. The modern zombie narrative has evolved since Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, yet it has maintained several elements that persist and even thrive an era of global terrorist threats. An overall decline in religious values and beliefs may have some degree of influence on the popularity of the modern zombie. Still, saying that the world is in the midst of an age of religious apostasy not be entirely accurate. The dehumanization and isolation of the individual, the rejection of long-held religious beliefs, and the destructive nature of a consumerist society are trends that persist into the twenty-first century.

Works Cited

Canavan, Gerry. “We Are the Walking Dead: Race, Time and Survival in Zombie Narrative.” Extrapolation 51. 3 (2010): 431-453. Print.

Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George Romero. Perf. David Emge, Ken Foree. Laurel Group. 1978. DVD. [page 38]

Heffernan, Kevin. “Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film: Distributing ‘Night of the Living Dead (1968)’. Cinema Journal 41. 3 (Spring, 2002): 59-77.

McAlister, Elizabeth. “Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies.” Anthropological Quarterly 85.2 (Spring 2012): 457-486. Print.

Newbury, Michael. “Fast Zombie/Slow Zombie: Food Writing, Horror Movies, and Agribusiness Apocalypse.” American Literary History 24.1 (Spring, 2012): 87-114. Print.

Newman, Kim. Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. London: Bloomsbury. 2011. Print.

Newman, Robert. The Haunting of 1968. South Central Review 16.4-17.1 (Winter, 1999 - Spring, 2000): 53-61. Print.

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George Romero. Perf. Judith O’Dea, Duane Jones. Image Ten. 1968. DVD.

Pastor, Paul. “The Zombie Apocalypse.” Christianity Today. 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 11 April 2013.

Smith, Tom W. Beliefs about God across Time and Countries. Report for ISSP and GESIS. The University of Chicago, 2012. Web. 28 February 2013.

“The Suicide King.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 10 Feb., 2013. Television.

MLA citation (print):

Compora, Daniel. "Undead America: The Emergence of the Modern Zombie in American Culture." Supernatural Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2013, pp. 31-38.