Following the recent premiere of new AMC series Fear the Walking Dead with its record-breaking number of viewers, we can once again confirm that our fascination with the reanimated corpses is alive and well. With that being the case, there seems no better time than the present to take a gander back at zombie culture from its origins to our modern interpretations and interests.
The most widely accepted origin of the modern zombie myth comes from George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. However, the idea of zombies historically can be traced as far back as the writing of Gilgamesh, an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, which references the dead rising up to outnumber and devour the living. Our current concept of zombies seems to arise more from a blending of folklore traditions across several cultures, the most prominent being that of Haitian and Haitian Creole Vodou traditions, which in turn have roots in West African religious beliefs.
According to Vodou beliefs, zombies are created by a sorcerer called a Bokor, a sort of witch-like figure that is different from the more formal priest and priestesses of Vodou. The process involves some form of necromancy in which the Bokor physically revives a dead body, with said body then becoming a mindless slave bound to the Bokor. It’s believed that this myth was encouraged by slave owners in Haiti during the 17th and 18th centuries as a way to discourage suicides in their slave populations. Given the brutal nature of slavery, suicide was often seen as the only way to escape and return in spirit to Africa – a return many believed would be thwarted if the person was reanimated into slavery after death.
Other folklore traditions that reference the zombie phenomenon include the Chinese version of the undead, called jiangshi, which are typically stiff-limbed, shambling, and grunting beings that kill people to absorb their qi (or life essence) and the 8th century Scandinavian myth of the draugr, who guard their treasures after death and kill their victims by devouring them whole. Our more modern versions of these monsters tend to borrow from all of these traditions and then build on them.
Early, pre-Romero versions of zombies in film tended more toward the Haitian folklore versions of the soulless and mindless slave. Examples include the 1932 Bela Lugosi film White Zombie and the 1943 film I Walked With A Zombie, both set in the Caribbean islands and both making mention of the Vodou traditions. It wasn’t until the Romero film Night of the Living Dead that zombies began to take on the larger metaphorical meaning that they still enjoy today, that of both social commentary and of representing our greatest fears of the unknown, death being the greatest unknown there is.
Today’s zombies have evolved even further to represent a global phenomenon in the form of a zombie apocalypse such as those portrayed in the wildly popular television series The Walking Dead and its new companion series Fear the Walking Dead, which can be seen on AMC through U-Verse, Xfinity, or DirecTV. In these shows, the exact origin of the problem is not disclosed but is understood to be a virus that causes the undead condition and that has infected everyone on the planet. This plays directly into our most current fears of globalization, emerging distrust of scientific discoveries and of our governments.
If the new series is anything like its predecessor, it will continue to set new viewing records moving forward and continue to feed our fears of the unknown and of the end of civilization as we know it. Given the very different setting and prequel-type timing of Fear the Walking Dead, many are optimistic that the show will continue to draw in an audience of both new and old fans of this genre.