The Evolution of Zombie Cinema from 1932 to Present Day



A living, breathing, walking cadaver—now colloquially referred to as a zombie—has not the sensation of pain, and is an incredibly formidable foe. A zombie is a perfect engine of despicability and dread; the warm, succulent flesh of man is very much like the fuel for this engine. With only the most primal and instinctual urges to feed, the undead relentlessly seek satiation through the consumption of the living.

Generally, there exists only one effective method for conquering a zombie: to destroy the brain. Without the main command center, there is no longer anything to drive them to consume, and they succumb to a state of final repose. In some movies they seek to ingest the brain of others; in some movies they merely want a taste of anything that is wholly human. However, the inherent element of the modern living cadaver is that it seeks out flesh, while in a state of putrid decomposition.

But where did the term zombie originate? Many believe the term comes from the West African nzambi, which roughly translates to “spirit of the dead.” At some point in time it was adopted by the Haitian language as zombi, to describe a human being that had been revitalized by necromancy. Through this revitalization, the being was able to exist, but were deprived of their will, and enslaved by a voodoo sorcerer known as a bokor.

H.P. Lovecraft’s short story Re-Animator, and Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein have been commonly referenced as important influences on the genre. The themes contained in these works of literature dealt with ethical dilemmas of science, and the consequences of using it to play God. The characters contained therein were mad scientists who brought the deceased back to life with horrific consequences. These stories existed before the first zombie films, and, by analyzing them, a clear connection can be made between them and their undead cinematic counterparts.

White Zombie was the first feature-length motion picture to incorporate a forerunner to the modern zombie. Although they exhibited some familiar characteristics, they were quite different because they did not consume flesh and were under the control of a sorcerer. Other movies of this era, such as King of the Zombies, Revenge of the Zombies, and Voodoo Island were heavily based on elements of Voodoo and necromancy that brought the dead back to life. This plot element became the norm, and would pervade the genre for 3 decades until the birth of the Romero zombie—an archetype from which all modern depictions would ultimately evolve.


1968 was the year that marked a fundamental turning point. It was in this year that George A. Romero’s low budget film entitled Night of the Living Dead entered theaters. Romero, a visionary script writer and film director, was crucial because he introduced an entirely new and unforeseen variety of bloodthirsty cadavers. The "Romero archetype"—although referred to as a “ghoul” in the film—was not under the control of a human sorcerer, but was instead afflicted by a condition caused by radioactive contamination from a space probe. After rising from the dead, the reanimated corpses began to feast upon the bodies of the living. Though it was ambiguous to the audience, it could be assumed that they were able to transfer their deadly infection by biting.

The protagonists soon realized that there was only one effective method to stop the infected. Through news reports and radio broadcasts, they learned that a shot or blow to the head could halt the undead onslaught. “The plan is: kill the brain and you kill the ghoul,” explains one of the somber newscasters. Night of the Living Dead was revolutionary because it was the first movie to depict the zombie as a cannibalistic predator. The groundbreaking ideas that were introduced by this film would drastically advance the development of zombie cinema.

Following the impact of Night, the efforts of filmmakers in the genre became increasingly dynamic. The viral infection premise now became a prominent aspect in the majority of their plots, and the concept of the “zombie apocalypse” was first introduced in this era. In this scenario, the bulk of the human population would be wiped out by a viral pandemic. Hordes of innumerable infected undead would conglomerate, and hunt down the remaining survivors.

As the catalog of zombie films became more prolific throughout the 1980’s, George A. Romero experimented with the idea of the zombie learning to adapt—to become aware of its surroundings. In the 1985 film Day of the Dead, we saw the iconic zombie “Bub” taught discipline and obedience at the hands of the twisted Doctor Logan. Bub was the first zombie to become self-aware, and to learn how to use tools and weapons. His display of resentment and sadness—as well as his desire for revenge—were equally as critical, for he exuded a human-like quality that had been entirely unseen until this point. These exciting new facets were something that Romero would continue to expand on in his later films, and enabled the zombie to become more formidable, intelligent, and resourceful.



Another important development of this era would come in the form of a horror-comedy known as Return of the Living Dead. Also released in 1985, this film created a breed of pseudo-intelligent zombies that were capable of speech, fed exclusively on the human brain, and had the ability to run. This deviation from the slow moving, unintelligent zombie—which brought forth an alternative to the “Romero archetype”—became one that would have an influence on many future films of the 21st century. Running zombies would become an effective method to increase shock value and suspense.

In ’85 we also saw Stuart Gordon pay homage to the roots of the genre with his film Re-Animator. This adaptation of the short story written by H.P. Lovecraft introduced us to the brilliant Herbert West. This young scientist created a serum capable of reviving the recently deceased, although this revival would cause impossible rage and insanity in the victim. West had an obsessive compulsion for carrying out his dreadful experiments, and his judgment was clouded by the selfish desire to unlock the secret of eternal life.

One could argue that the eighties produced some of the most notable and entertaining zombie films of all time. One could also argue that the nineties were nearly devoid of anything of substance. The decade was a rather disappointing one in terms of development, with only a couple films that would be worth mentioning, such as Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, and also Return of the Living Dead III. Tom Savini, one of the greatest special effects technicians in the horror genre, took on the daunting task of recreating Night of the Living Dead in color. Although Romero was involved on many levels, the remake was met with very mixed reviews due to the lack of originality in the script.

It was not until the 21st century that zombie movies would further develop in any significant manner. The beginning of the new century brought us the 28 Days Later and Resident Evil franchises, as well as the Dawn of the Dead remake. These films were all different from their predecessors—the zombies were faster, more vicious, and more numerous than ever before. This new standard for the undead was very likely influenced by the “runners” of the Return of the Living Dead franchise.


Filmmakers of the genre would continue to focus more on realism and shock value, and less on brooding atmosphere and slower-paced story lines. This diversion from past convention would alter the very foundation of the zombie flick as time further progressed. Contemporary zombie cinema seems to be more noticeably entwined with the action genre; the apocalyptic themes easily lend themselves to this. While still retaining the elements of gore and shocking violence, many modern zombie films seem to entail more characteristics of action and war mvoies. The improvement of CGI may have had an important role in the increase of realistic violence.

Let us fast forward to the present decade. The “zombie apocalypse” scenario has become embedded in the fabrics of American culture like never before. Whether in movies, on television, or in books and comics, the zombie has become a cultural phenomenon that has extended its reach to a much broader audience. The prime example of this would be AMC’s The Walking Dead, which has been vastly successful and broken numerous Nielsen records. The show is based on a long-running comic book series of the same name, which was created by writer Robert Kirkman. The Walking Dead has become extremely influential, and is now perhaps the most important driving force of the contemporary horror industry.

Although they have in many ways greatly evolved from their cinematic ancestors, the zombie has somehow found a way to always remain culturally relevant. Their influence is far reaching, and has affected the horror industry in such a profound way that it truly deserves recognition. Through becoming an iconic breed of movie monster—while simultaneously allowing itself to appeal to current pop culture—the zombie has become immortalized, and is one of the most important contributions to the horror genre that was ever made. And now a quote from the man himself: “I always thought of the zombies as being about revolution; one generation… consuming the next.” –George A. Romero


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