When I was growing up, the iconic monsters were vampires and werewolves, with ghosts and mummies far behind. (Look who had their own breakfast cereals and Sesame Street characters if you don’t believe me.) Zombies barely rated, despite appearing in horror movies as far back as Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie in 1943. I can remember conversations with classmates who had no idea what a zombie was. Adults tended to have never heard the word.
Thirty years ago, it was exceedingly rare to come across a zombie movie on TV. There was real novelty to seeing an obscure horror flick like Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972) on the local late show, in part because the imagery of zombies was still relatively unfamiliar. And also distinctly scary, in a way that vampires and werewolves perhaps no longer were — after George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1968), horror movies haven’t shied away from how zombies will chow down on anyone unable to outrun their mindless trudge.
How times change. I’ll leave it to a greater authority on horror movies — or maybe a psychologist, or a theologian — to explain the zombie craze of the 21st century. Far less rooted in literary tradition than werewolves or vamps, zombies would seem at first or second glance to offer much less storytelling potential than those other creatures.
And yet they keep coming at us. A horde of ravenous, shuffling cadavers is perhaps the most potent symbol of implacable menace and social breakdown that movies have.
Today there’s no one who doesn’t know what a zombie is. This past summer World War Z (you know what the letter stands for) was a worldwide hit, and The Walking Dead is now the most popular drama on TV in the U.S., setting ratings records even in its fourth season. Zombies now turn up in commercials for phones, deodorants and FedEx. You can’t get away from them.
Case in point, zombies have even invaded my mailbox lately. Check out the return envelope that a certain DVD-rental company has been sending out this month:
(It’s possible that the guys in the above pic are not in search of human flesh to eat, but instead clawed their way out of the grave because they heard about Orange Is the New Black and wanted to check it out, like everyone else.)
Even with the current mania for all things zombie, it’s possible the scariest zombie movie of all time was made back in 1982: