So what’s the fascination with zombies? Why are there so many books, films and magazines written about them? I mean a zombie is supposed to be a long dead corpse reanimated by some kind of supernatural means such as voodoo magic or witchcraft. Apparently their brains are altered by this process making them incapable of rational thought but they are always violent and in most cases seem to have a penchant for eating human flesh – Arrgh! And depending on the literature you read, zombies appear in various stages of decomposition which is related to how long they’re dead so they are also fairly unpleasant to look at. So yes, I suppose they’re freaky looking, they chase people, try to kill them and eat them. But they’re not so much of a challenge really because they can supposedly be killed by simply destroying their brains. How hard can that be? Actually, quite difficult as it turns out. And how many stories can be written about such creatures around these few flimsy details? Well, thousands apparently if the literature is anything to go by. So, OK they’re quite gruesome, irrational and violent so this naturally makes them rather fascinating to horror lovers and an ideal adversary for the heroes and heroines of many a supernatural adventure or horror film or book.
Zombies, sometimes referred to as ‘the undead’ or even ‘the living dead’, seem to have originated from Haitian folklore and are related to the voodoo religion. This religion was imported to Haiti from Africa by slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries. They believed that if they offended Baron Samedi, the supernatural being who collected them from their graves to take to heaven, then they would be condemned to be a slave forever after death in the form of a zombie. These beliefs have fascinated writers and filmmakers for decades. The first recorded use in fiction of the word zombie which appeared as ‘zombi’ was in a short story called ‘The Unknown Painter’ in 1838. The first Zombie film was released in 1932 by Victor Halperin called ‘White Zombie’ but it wasn’t until 1968 and George A Romero’s film ‘Night of the Living Dead’ that the zombie genre of films had any kind of success at the box office.
One of the first books that introduced the concept of the zombie to modern culture was W B Seabrook’s ‘The Magic Island’ in 1929. This sensational book described the narrator’s introduction to voodoo cults and the incredible reanimated zombie creature. By 1930 horror story writer H P Lovecraft had written a number of stories expanding the zombie theme with views from different perspectives. Titles included ‘In the Vault’, ‘Cool Air’ and ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’ which was said to define zombies in modern culture. In 1936, H G Wells’ book ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ was transferred to film as ‘Things to Come’ which seemed to anticipate future zombie films in its end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario which depicts victims of a contagious plague wandering aimlessly around zombie fashion, infecting all those they come into contact with.
In the 1950s Richard Matheson published his book ‘I am Legend’ which was later published in the graphic novel form and followed the zombie-like infection formula. This book generated three film adaptations; ‘The Last man on Earth’ in 1964; ‘The Omega Man’ in 1971 and ‘I am Legend’ in 2007. However, it was Romero’s 1968 film ‘Night of the Living Dead’, which was also influenced by Matheson’s book, that became the first international financial success in the zombie genre, grossing $18 million worldwide. This film became a genre-defining classic and influenced many writers of future zombie films and books. His reinvention of zombie-come -vampire infected creatures, referred to as ghouls in the film but recognised basically as zombies, spawned many similar zombie infected creatures in subsequent productions.
Although zombies appeared in many books it wasn’t until around the 1990s that zombie fiction emerged as a distinct sub-genre in literature with the publication of ‘The Book of the Dead’ anthology edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector. These are based on the same apocalyptic premise of Romero’s zombie outbreak film and became very influential in horror literature effectively establishing the zombie sub-genre. Other more recent examples of the genre came from Stephen King with ‘Home Delivery’ in 1990 and ‘Cell’ in 2006 which was a number one bestseller that year. In 2005 Brian Keene published his novel ‘The Rising’ and the sequel ‘City of the Dead’. ‘The Rising’ won the coveted Bram Stoker award in the year was released. Also in 2006 Max Brookes published his novel ‘World War Z’ which was an instant bestseller and was made into a highly successful feature film starring Brad Pitt in 2013.
As well as zombie books and novels there has also been a huge rise in popularity of Zombie comics. Robert Kirkman, another Romero enthusiast, has contributed greatly to this format by publishing his own comic book which was produced in black and white ‘The Walking Dead’ in 2003 and writing for the graphic novel series ’Marvel Zombies’ in 2006.
So it appears that the subject of zombies is indeed sufficiently fascinating and well able to supply writers with more than enough material to build a whole sub-genre of literature and films, currently and probably for many years to come. Why do horror fans love them so much? Well it seems that some people have a thing about facing their greatest fears head-on, so to speak, albeit in the safety of their own homes or a theatre. It’s pure ghoulish escapism to the max. It’s observing the worst that can happen to mankind and realising that your own real life isn’t so bad after all. And it’s also about being part of something that’s bigger than yourself; a fandom. So if you’re into zombie literature of any kind why not share your thoughts here, with us at Zombie Books.
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