The zombie genre has become a staple of modern pop culture, with movies, TV shows, books, video games and more centered around depictions of the undead. Zombie horror movies in particular have seen a major resurgence in popularity over the past couple of decades. But what exactly defines a zombie apocalypse movie? And how did this subgenre of horror become so prevalent?
Defining the zombie apocalypse genre
Zombie movies fall under the broader horror genre, but have some distinctive traits that set them apart. Some key elements of the zombie apocalypse subgenre include:
– Depictions of zombies – reanimated corpses or infected living humans exhibiting little to no intelligent thought or speech.
– A zombie outbreak that leads to societal collapse or apocalypse. Stories typically depict the breakdown of infrastructure, government, law and order.
– Survivors desperately trying to avoid being killed/eaten by zombies, often taking shelter or fighting back.
– Exploration of human behavior in extreme survival situations. Moral dilemmas, power struggles, betrayal.
– Sense of looming danger and suspense from the relentless, unpredictable zombie threat.
Not all zombie films may contain every single one of these elements, but most zombie apocalypse movies blend these narrative and thematic components. The overriding sense of a world devastated by unstoppable hordes of the undead defines the genre.
History and origins
Zombie movies have their roots in Haitian folklore, which included stories of corpses revived by voodoo magic to be slaves. The first major zombie film is considered to be White Zombie (1932), which adapted these Haitian zombie concepts to cinema.
In the 1960s and 70s, filmmaker George A. Romero pioneered the modern zombie horror genre with his stark, black-and-white zombie films Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). These movies introduced the concept of a spreading zombie plague, apocalyptic societal collapse, and survivors desperately trying to make it through the crisis.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, zombie films gained more gore but were mostly low-budget B-movies. In the 1990s and 2000s, zombie horror had a major resurgence, with films like 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake bringing new energy and higher production values to the genre.
The 21st century has seen zombies become woven into popular culture, with things like The Walking Dead TV series, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies books/films, and humour-oriented zombie films like Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead.
Key zombie apocalypse films
Here are some of the most influential and iconic zombie apocalypse movies that solidified the genre:
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
– George A. Romero’s low budget classic set the template for modern zombie films
– Group of survivors trapped in farmhouse during unexplained zombie outbreak
– Black-and-white cinematography added to raw, gritty feel
– Introduced zombies as slow but relentless threats that can only be stopped by destroying brain
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
– Sequel moved zombie outbreak to shopping mall setting
– Satirical consumerist themes of zombies as mindless consumers
– Special effects master Tom Savini provided groundbreaking gore
– Fast-paced action and tension as characters barricade themselves against zombie hordes
Day of the Dead (1985)
– Concluded Romero’s original zombie trilogy
– Focused on military bunker setting, with scientists trying to study/control zombies
– Notable for advanced practical effects showing zombie experimentation/mutilation
– Sense of zombie apocalypse complete – society collapsed, bleak tone
28 Days Later (2002)
– Revitalized genre with fast-moving infected rather than traditional shambling zombies
– Emphasis on post-apocalyptic chaos and eerie empty London cityscapes
– Intense horror violence and gritty digital cinematography defined look and feel
– More serious, high-concept approach reflected in new wave of zombie films
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
– British horror comedy mashed up zombies with romantic comedy genre
– Lighthearted but still paid homage to classic zombie movie rules
– Proved zombie films could succeed with humor and fun characters rather than just gore
– Inspired wave of zombie comedies and parodies
World War Z (2013)
– Big-budget Hollywood adaptation of Max Brooks’ novel
– Brad Pitt as UN agent traveling world to investigate zombie pandemic
– Emphasized global scale of zombie apocalypse
– Intense action sequences like zombies swarming over Wall of Jerusalem
Popularity and appeal
Zombie movies have resonated with audiences and reflected cultural anxieties for decades. Their continued popularity stems from several factors:
Primal fear of death
Zombies tap into one of humanity’s most deep-seated fears: the dead coming back to life. They represent our corpses and mortality rising up against us. This instinctive horror triggers our survival instincts.
Collapse of civilization
Zombie scenarios serve as analogies for societal breakdowns and what might happen if infrastructure and government crumbled. This lawless survivalist fantasy appeals to our curiosity about human nature without law and order.
Zombies are monster blanks slates that can be tailored to many different tones and stories, from horror to comedy to action-adventure. Filmmakers have creative flexibility to put their own spin on zombie lore.
Audiences are drawn to ever-more intense zombie makeup, gore effects and kill scenes. Special effects artists keep raising the bar for grotesque zombie transformations.
Zombie films let audiences experience extreme action, violence and survival thrills from safety of their seats. Fighting off zombies becomes a symbolic way to play out our fears.
Evolution of zombie attributes
While grunting, flesh-eating zombies are a constant, their specific attributes have evolved over the decades in response to filmmaker creativity and audiences’ changing tastes:
– 1930s-1950s: Zombies shambled slowly due to voodoo origins
– 1960s-70s: Romero zombies set template for slow, lumbering movement
– 2000s: Fast zombies introduced in 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead remake
– 2010s: Mix of slow and fast zombies
– Historic: Mindless drones
– 1990s: Some ability to use tools, open doors
– 2000s: Growing problem-solving skills, residual memory
– 2010s: Speech, coordination, strategy in some (WWZ, Land of the Dead)
– 1930s-70s: Greyish skin, ragged clothing
– 1980s: More wild hair, wounds, blood, rotting flesh
– 1990s-today: Increased gore, missing limbs, bones exposed
– 1930s-60s: Voodoo magic
– 1960s-today: Viral infections, military/scientific experiments gone wrong
– Historic: Individual random attacks
– 1960s: Grouping into hordes, mob attacks
– 2000s: New instincts like climbing, jumping, problem-solving
Subgenres and blends
The zombie genre has proven very adaptable, spawning these popular subgenres and blends:
Zom-com: Zombie comedy films like Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, Night of the Living Deb
Teen zombie: Zombies vs. angsty teenagers – The Returned, Warm Bodies, Zombeavers
Rom-zom: Zombie love stories – Warm Bodies, Bride of Re-Animator
Zi-fi: Zombies meets sci-fi – Resident Evil, Planet Terror, I Am Legend
Zom-rom-com: Zombie romantic comedies – Life After Beth, Night of the Living Deb, Little Monsters
Zombie musicals: Musical numbers interspersed with undead action – Anna and the Apocalypse, Zombies on Broadway
Zom-drama: Character-driven zombie films – The Dead, Cargo, Maggie
Historical zombies: Undead outbreaks in non-modern settings – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Exit Humanity, Outpost
Part of the appeal has been seeing familiar genres infused with zombie elements, or zombie tropes given a creative twist.
Symbolism and themes
On the surface, zombie films may seem like just gory spectacle. But many thoughtful zombie movies also explore resonant themes and symbolism:
Consumerism: Mob mentality of zombies shuffling through shopping malls (Dawn of the Dead) mirrors mass consumerism. Zombies represent mindless consumption.
Environment: Zombie outbreaks linked to environmental toxins or military-industrial complex show fears of science gone wrong.
Politics: Inept governments unable to contain zombie outbreaks reflect lack of trust in institutions.
Human nature: People becoming more monstrous than zombies highlights our primal instincts when societal rules disappear.
Discrimination: Zombie plague as metaphor for AIDS epidemic and themes of racism/fear of outsiders.
Feminism: Female protagonists fighting back against attackers can symbolize empowerment.
Nihilism: Bleak endings showing humans losing to zombies convey despair about fighting back against overwhelming odds.
Impact on popular culture
Zombie pop culture references and influences can be seen everywhere:
Themed restaurant/bars: Zombie-themed restaurant/bars let patrons dine among hordes of undead.
5K runs: Charity zombie runs see participants dash through obstacle courses with actors dressed as zombies chasing them.
Haunted houses: Zombie mazes are Halloween staples, with costumed zombies lurking in abandoned hospital or cityscape sets.
Comic books: “The Walking Dead” graphic novels and other zombie comics like “Zombies vs. Robots” bring undead worlds to vivid life.
Video games: Zombies have been invading video games for decades, with entire series like “Resident Evil,” “Dead Rising,” “Left 4 Dead,” and more focused on zombie warfare.
TV shows: “The Walking Dead” led a wave of zombie-themed shows like “Z Nation,” “Black Summer,” “Reality Z,” and even zombie sitcom “Santa Clarita Diet.”
Music: Many songs and music videos feature zombies, like Michael Jackson’s iconic “Thriller” video.
Attractions: Theme parks like Universal Studios have mazes dedicated to zombie horror, bringing the genre into live experiences.
Clearly the zombie genre will continue infecting pop culture for a long time to come thanks to its resilience.
Key creators and actors
Certain influential creators and actors are synonymous with shaping zombie cinema:
George A. Romero: Godfather of the modern zombie movie, defining its themes and style with his “Dead” series and other projects.
Tom Savini: Famed special effects and makeup artist who created groundbreaking gore effects in original Dawn of the Dead and many other zombie projects.
Robert Kirkman: Creator of the hugely popular “The Walking Dead” graphic novels and TV series, which have dominated zombie pop culture for over a decade.
Greg Nicotero: Make-up/effects legend turned producer on TV’s “The Walking Dead”; key architect of its gory zombie aesthetic.
Zack Snyder: Directed faster, more menacing zombies in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake.
Danny Boyle: With 28 Days Later, he pioneered running “infected” and more intense, fast-paced zombie horror.
Edgar Wright: Brought wit and humor to zombies with Shaun of the Dead and slyly spoofed genre rules.
Quentin Tarantino: His contributions include co-writing Dawn of the Dead remake and directing part of Grindhouse’s “Death Proof” featuring zombie stuntman.
Simon Pegg: Starred in Shaun of the Dead, collaborating with Edgar Wright to affectionately parody and pay homage to zombie classics.
A new generation like Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Jim Jarmusch (The Dead Don’t Die) continues re-inventing zombie horror.
Criticisms and controversies
Despite popularity, zombie movies have drawn some common criticisms:
Mindless violence – Excessive gore for shock value versus thoughtful approaches. Desensitizing audiences to violence.
One-dimensional characters – Stereotypical roles like jock, nerd, cheerleader. Characters often make dumb decisions.
Unoriginal plots – Formulaicstructure of zombie outbreak, group of survivors, flesh-eating zombies. Relying on genre clichés.
Zombie fatigue – Market oversaturation with too many low-quality zombie projects churned out.
Offensive themes – Critiques of zombie plague symbolizing societal fears of immigrants, minorities as “infected outsiders.”
Scapegoating mental illness – Mentally-ill characters portrayed as first to “turn” and threaten others’ safety. Stigmatizing mental health issues.
However, thoughtful zombie movies avoid these pitfalls by using smart metaphors, nuanced characters, and tapping into our deeper phobias.
The future of zombie movies
What might the future look like for zombie cinema? Several possibilities:
New settings – Historical zombie films, zombies in space, different countries and cultures.
Genre mashups – Blending with new genres like superhero films, crime thrillers, or Bollywood-style musicals.
Fresh perspectives – More diversity in casting and characters. Telling zombie stories from perspectives marginalized in the past.
New twists – Fast zombies split into two types – some fast, some slow. Or zombies showing emotions.
VR/Metaverse – Immersive zombie video game and VR experiences blurring real/virtual worlds.
Pandemic parallels – COVID-era zombie films addressing pandemic anxieties more directly as metaphors.
Hard science – Sci-fi concepts grounded in stricter virology/science rather than fantastical explanations for zombies.
Tonal shifts – More comedies mocking zombie tropes. Or grittier, bleaker survivalist films.
If history shows anything, the zombie genre will continue to mutate and spread through pop culture faster than a virus.
Zombie movies have cemented themselves as one of horror’s most prevalent and enduring subgenres. While on the surface just providing gut-munching entertainment, the best zombie films use their undead hordes as vessels to explore poignant themes about society, human nature, science gone wrong, and life after collapse. Their flexibility to blend with other genres like comedy, romance and sci-fi adds to the creative potential.
With fans’ appetite for zombie carnage showing no signs of abating, it seems guaranteed the walking dead will haunt our movie screens for decades to come. Whether reflecting cultural fears, sparking thought, or just indulging our most primal thrills and adrenaline, zombie apocalypse movies let us imagine – for better or worse – what could happen if the end arrived and the dead refused to stay buried.