The Rise of Zombies in American Popular Culture

by ekramer on October 30, 2008

People have their preferences when it comes to monsters. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, vampires took the spotlight, thanks in part to author Anne Rice. Now, people around the world and in Louisville are fascinated by zombies. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer investigates why.

Zombies are coming. They’re everywhere. This week they’re at the amphitheatre at Iroquois Park, where Stage One children’s theater is performing a live version of George Romero’s 1968 movie “Night of the Living Dead.”

While some actors are rehearsing onstage, cast member Hollis Kron is transforming herself with makeup and plastic scars. But why?

“I’m a lover of the macabre,” Kron says. “I put it in my bio: ‘The chance to be a zombie without the mind-numbing addiction to brains.’ Absolutely.”

Zombies — those undead humans, soulless bodies whose hunger for flesh impels them to hunt down the living. They’ve flooded popular culture. They’re in new movies, plays, and books with titles like “The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead” and “The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless.”

Kron says it’s about people confronting their fears, but cultural scholars say there’s more to this fascination. Many take their cue from Romero’s 1978 film “Dawn of the Dead,” which depicts humans watching zombies that have invaded a shopping mall.

“What are they doing? Why do they come here?” asks a woman.
“It’s a kind of instinct, memory, what they used to do,” says a man. “This was an important place in their lives.”

Some scholars interpret the horror here as mass consumer culture. Others say our attachment to zombies comes out of fear of some Apocalyptic future.

Sarah Juliet Lauro is an instructor at University of California, Davis, and editing a collection of essays called “The Evolution of the Zombie as Post Human.” She says the zombie craze has roots in the United States’ occupation of Haiti in the early 20th Century. Thousands of Haitians launched a violent rebellion, overwhelming the occupiers. The Americans brought back with them stories about zombies that were inspired by Voodoo beliefs.

“The Americans took this form that represented fears of a black body and we made it into something about us,” Lauro says. “That’s typically American culture: If we’re afraid of something, subsume it and make it about us.”

Lauro says even before Romero’s first zombie movie, people were making zombie films. But the zombie narrative has grown because of digital media. She says the Internet and its trappings, like video games, have enabled wide distribution of all things zombie.

The phenomenon has even generated a new event: the zombie walk, where people gather dressed as zombies and take to the streets.

So, who are those behind this zombie phenomenon?

“First of all you have the horror fans and then people who get a kick out of disrupting the everyday who feel stymied by their jobs,” Lauro says. “It’s a way to be a little bit dangerous without really being dangerous at all. It’s a way to feel like you are demonstrating against your social circumstances without having to say anything.”

Last Sunday’s “World Zombie Day” had costumed crowds plodding through New York, San Diego, Pittsburgh and even Paris, France.

Other cities have their own dates for such walks and eschew commercial affiliations. The first walk was in Toronto in 2003. By 2005, there were walks in San Francisco and Louisville, where John King and some friends launched it as a way to celebrate their late August birthdays. Eighty people showed up then. This year, 500 people came out.

For King, it’s a serious matter where every one has a role to play.

“There’s victims and they run and scream and they have fake organs.” King says. “And you rip them out. You play a part. When you’re doing the zombie walk, you’re not laughing. You’re not talking to your buddies.”

King says he’s committed to continuing Louisville’s zombie walk and won’t let it die off anytime soon. As for zombies, well, the legends and the movies instruct us that they can only be stopped by destroying their brains using any means possible.

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