The Zombie Apocalypse
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A CultureMap®
by Marjorie Killingsworth
Published on 7/10/13

Director George A. Romero introduced the world to the zombie apocalypse more than four decades ago, and today the shambling, flesh-eating dead have overtaken vampires, werewolves and homicidal psychopaths as our favorite frightful creatures. This map explores epidemics of hungry zombies as they have infected a variety of media, including film, television, video games and even government-produced public service announcements—demanding brains, braaaaiiins!

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George A. Romero  (b. 1940 | American director)
to  I Am Legend  (Richard Matheson | novel | 1954)

Race riots, assassinations, a foreign war growing bloodier by the day—such were the challenges facing the U.S. in 1968, the year 28-year-old director George A. Romero released the seminal zombie film Night of the Living Dead, unleashing a zombie apocalypse on an unsuspecting nation. The country would never be the same. The dead rise up in Romero’s reimagining of our crumbling, paranoid society to attack and cannibalize their neighbors, friends and family. All this from a filmmaker whose previous experience had been shooting segments for the preternaturally benign children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

The living dead first lumbered onto the big screen in 1932’s White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi fresh off his Dracula success. Romero’s undead, however, share little more than a name with their predecessors, who were loosely based in voodoo legend and were neither cannibalistic nor contagious. Romero instead claims Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend as a major influence. Legend centers on the last survivor of a worldwide pandemic that has turned most people into vampires, not zombies. But the notion that a disease could undermine civilization by transforming the infected into something violent and not quite human became central to apocalyptic zombie mythology.

George A. Romero  (b. 1940 | American director)
to  28 Days Later  (Danny Boyle (dir.) | film | 2002)

In George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a horde of zombies traps seven people in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. The gory black-and-white film shocked moviegoers, outraged some critics and soon became one of the highest-grossing independent horror movies of all time. Romero has directed five sequels—including the classic Dawn of the Dead, in which zombies go “shopping” for human brains at a mall—and he established the rules of zombie infestation early on: Zombies are most dangerous in large groups; they’re most effectively killed by a shot to the head; and, as the sheriff from Night of the Living Dead memorably puts it, “They’re dead. They’re all messed up”—meaning they’re slow and not especially bright.

Not every movie inspired by Romero’s oeuvre follows this pattern, including the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake (directed by Zack Snyder), which features surprisingly speedy and sure-footed zombies. The same is true of 28 Days Later. Set in the U.K., 28 Days’ apocalypse begins when a virus escapes the lab where it was created. This isn’t just any virus, though. It’s code-named Rage, and soon the country is consumed in a conflagration of riots caused by this infectious, uncontrollable emotion.

George A. Romero  (b. 1940 | American director)
to  Zombie Video Games

The decades since George A. Romero’s first two zombie films, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (1978), have produced hundreds of zombie movies—low-budget and pricey, blockbuster and flop—in a trend that has only accelerated in the new millennium. Some notable post-9/11 zombie flicks include 28 Days Later, the five-film Resident Evil series and the horror comedies Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, none of which would be possible if not for Romero’s innovations.

Today the zombie apocalypse has reached into the world of comic books, novels, television and, especially, video games. As Romero has said, few zombie movies have been as lucrative as the most popular zombie video games. Just a single installment of the Resident Evil game series, on which the films are based, sold more than 7 million copies. The list of high-grossing zombie games includes Left 4 Dead, House of the Dead, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare and Dead Rising. Virtual zombies typically are different from Romero’s. They’re nearly always fast, and these pixilated corpses are seldom one’s friends and neighbors but instead are impersonal, anonymous enemies. Both factors keep the killing fast-paced and guilt-free—making gamers love to “play dead.”

George A. Romero  (b. 1940 | American director)
to  The Walking Dead  (TV show | prem. 2010)

Why is the zombie apocalypse so fascinating? Are we simply drawn to a world in which one’s smarts and deftness with weapons determine success in life? Or do we not quite believe our neighbors are entirely trustworthy or even alive? The Walking Dead, AMC’s wildly popular TV series, explores both ideas while following a small band of survivors seeking safe haven from a zombie apocalypse. The mismatched gang of heroes soon discovers that the only thing more dangerous than a zombie is an uninfected human with a bad attitude.

Based on the comic-book series by Robert Kirkman and set in the Atlanta area, the often gory show diverges little from the zombie tropes established by George A. Romero in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead: The zombies are mentally and physically slow, and they somehow band together in dangerously large groups. Romero was offered a chance to direct some Walking Dead episodes but declined, later commenting that his movies are meant to be both frightening and a form of political satire, while The Walking Dead, for all its interpersonal drama and fearsome melees, is neither especially funny nor political.

28 Days Later  (Danny Boyle (dir.) | film | 2002)
to  Zombie Bath Salts

Though not the first movie to introduce highly motivated “fast zombies”—that honor belongs to the 1980 Italian splatter film City of the Living Dead28 Days Later did update the genre somewhat, the most important change being that its zombies are infected by a peculiarly modern disease called Rage. Tellingly, the story opens with a lab chimpanzee being forced to watch scenes of people rioting. The implication is that the virus, blood-borne though it may be, only amplifies a trait already present in humans.

In 2012 the news media made the connection between rage and zombies when an apparently drug-addled Florida man attempted to eat the face off a homeless person. Soon the web was atwitter with warnings of a zombie apocalypse. The cause was not some lab-created virus, but it wasn’t far from it: People were getting high on “bath salts,” a synthetic (generally legal) drug created and modified in labs in China and Europe, and some users were slipping into stimulant psychosis—which is to say a drug-induced rage. A few incidents, like the one in Florida, were peculiarly grisly, leading to what more than a few people wanted to believe was our first real-world zombie outbreak.

The Walking Dead  (TV show | prem. 2010)
to  Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic  (CDC | graphic novel | 2012)

In the first season of AMC’s Walking Dead, survivors from a zombie epidemic attempt to protect one another from hordes of undead flesh-eaters. Led by two erstwhile best friends, who were cops before the outbreak, the troop makes its way to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. The area is allegedly a safe zone, but fans of the genre know that in a zombie apocalypse all refuges are at best temporary and are often outright mirages.

The real-life CDC is not immune to zombie mania either. In 2012 it published the graphic novel Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic, hoping to exploit our fascination with all things undead while simultaneously teaching the public how to prepare for actual disasters. (More recently, zombies have starred in a Canadian public service announcement about CPR training and a political attack ad against Nancy Pelosi.) But how useful would scientists and bureaucrats be in a real zombie apocalypse? Perhaps not very, suggests a 2009 mathematical modeling study, which concluded that neither a cure nor containment would be effective methods for dealing with zombies. Instead, the authors write, “only quick, aggressive attacks can stave off the doomsday scenarios.”

Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic  (CDC | graphic novel | 2012)
to  Zombie Bath Salts

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention distributed Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic, they were more interested in educating the public about real-life disasters than preparing us for the unlikelihood of zombie assaults. Notably, the graphic novel mentions nothing about stockpiling weapons, crucial in a real zombie epidemic. Nor does it say much about fortifying your dwelling against multitudes of the undead, a topic the website addressed when it published “Penetrate This: Sixteen Fortresses for Staving Off the Zombie Apocalypse.” Pity those of us unfortunate enough to be both poor and paranoid: The cheapest of these castles rings in at $550,000.

But maybe preparation itself is a pipe dream. When the national news media started churning out stories in 2012 about an outbreak of “zombie bath salts” attacks, those paying close attention knew this in fact relatively innocuous blight was almost impossible to regulate or control. According to TV’s addiction expert Dr. Drew Pinsky, the designer drugs nicknamed bath salts are “like methamphetamine on crack”; they’re highly addictive and can lead to psychotic episodes. Yet when state legislatures have attempted to outlaw them, chemists have simply tweaked the drugs’ molecular composition enough to escape the prohibitions.