Zombies seem to be all the rage right now. Right now there is not one, but two extremely popular mainstream television programs still in their prime to feature zombies. The first is of course The Walking Dead, with the
That's just our most recent output, that's not even getting into the various movies or literature or anything along those lines. We even got a zombie love story in Warm Bodies. While the term "zombie" in its current usage is a fairly recent development, the concept of malevolent reanimated corpses is a very old one that dates back centuries. Numerous movies incorporated what we would call zombies long before they became a thing.
One of the most famous literary sources would arguably be Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (and by extension all of the movies based adapted from it). H.P. Lovecraft also wrote a parody of that story titled Herbert West: Re-Animator which was later made into a cult film series. Both stories centered around the premise of a brilliant scientist who manages to scientifically figure out a method of reanimating dead tissue.
The results of Victor Frankenstein's was a hideous creature known as "the monster" who while not entirely unsympathetic (the narrative makes it clear that he is really just confused, and all he really wants is a friend) ends up killing a number of people and terrifying several others. West's on the other hand, might be a bit more closer to the zombies we know today in that they do have a fondness for human flesh. Fittingly while Frankenstein was ultimately granted a dignified death West's fate was to be disemboweled alive, and to add a layer of unease the zombies just kind of... disappear, with nobody being certain of what happened to them.
The concept of zombies as we know them today is usually said to have originated with George A. Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead. He never actually set out to create a movie with zombies, Romero just thought that reanimated corpses who try to eat the living was an interesting premise for a horror film. It was only when the press began applying the term "zombie" Romero decided to run with it and subsequently created a whole bunch of zombie-themed films like Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, etc. Something about this whole idea seemed to really catch on.
So what is this fascination with the undead? Why do we get so much joy out of watching decent people get torn to shreds by living human cadavers. Well, with any zombie-related story, mortality is going to be a major theme. In a show like The Walking Dead, the presence of the zombies are a constant reminder that nobody is ever truly safe. Even for those who aren't actually killed by zombies, they constantly remind us of the simple fact that everybody dies eventually.
No matter how much you run, or what you do to survive, you will eventually meet your end one way or another. In addition, one thing that elevates zombies above other creatures is the fact that they were once people and that can be seen clearly. Mowing down numerous zombies at once might not seem so bad... until you're faced with that one zombie who was once a very good friend of yours. This was a situation faced multiple times by the cast of The Walking Dead and it is not a pretty one to be put in.
Alternatively it is very painful when someone close to you gets bit and you know there is no way to save them. The only options are to either shoot them dead right there or let them transform, neither of which seem like a pleasant choice. This is something is a recurring theme on The Walking Dead, and though its major characters are not killed off anywhere near as often, it could also be said of Game of Thrones' white walkers. Even Shaun of the Dead played this aspect of the zombies completely straight despite being a spoof.
What I do find amusing about zombie films is the fact that they often go out of their way to avoid using the term "zombie". It's led to this ironic situation where zombies are such a horror icon that so many works try to avoid seeming generic by using the term "zombie" that trying to find an alternative nickname has become something of a cliché in itself. The Walking Dead has several different names for the zombies, though the most common is of course "walkers" (which is ironic because in the comics, they just use say "zombie"). I've always found this a bit odd. After all, if an actual zombie apocalypse happened, wouldn't you just say "zombie" because you would immediately associate them with modern pop culture.
Shaun of the Dead even memorably poked fun at the whole idea (among other zombie movie conventions) of how you can't just call the obvious zombies... well... zombies. Nick Frost's character Ed keeps using that term early on only to be met with Shaun yelling "WE'RE NOT USING THAT WORD!" No particular reason is given and they never even find an alternative nickname. The only reason they can't say the word "zombie" is because they are in a zombie film.
There is a formula of sorts that seems to have long been common in zombie movies. Shaun of the Dead made fun of it, but it goes back as far as Romero's own Night of the Living Dead. The way it essentially works is this: the zombie apocalypse starts, usually taking the main characters by surprise. They find an empty structure of some sort where they try to bunker down. However, things go wrong, and gradually most if not all are killed off by the time its all done.
A variety of different environments have been used over the years, ranging from the abandoned farmhouse of Night of the Living Dead to the shopping malls used in both versions of Dawn of the Dead to the Winchester pub of Shaun of the Dead to even the prison in The Walking Dead. As with many stories, this is likely because claustrophobia when used right is a very good source of horror. To be trapped in any environment, especially a familiar one that normally seems safe like a house or a mall, are still dangerous. It all ties into that theme that ultimately nowhere is truly safe. Even a prison isn't a perfect hiding spot (even if you can keep the fences from being pushed by hoards of zombies, it won't save you when your enemy shows up with a tank).
Zombies have come in many different sorts over the years, often in relation to the time period in which the work was originally made. The classical zombies are the ones which move very slowly (i.e. those of Romero). A lot of people have poke fun at this convention, since they move so slowly you just have to run really fast to get away. At least, that is a way to avoid one. Two, maybe, but as the numbers go up they're going to be much harder to run away from. Fittingly, Night of the Living Dead was made in 1968, at the height of the Cold War, and in a way the zombies are allegories for the fear of communism. One zombie is not a serious threat, with every person "infected" it gets much worse. Remember, all it takes is one bite and you become one of them.
The more modern zombies are a bit different. Unlike classical zombies, these ones will move a lot faster, so just one is enough to worry about. The trouble is you'll be more likely to have to face at least fifty at a time. This is more in keeping with modern social anxieties, such as the fear of terrorism, something that is generally intended to take everyone by surprise long after it is too late to stop.
Regardless of whether we use the name, zombies have been, still are, and will likely remain a popular choice for horror stories. There is something about the whole concept of a zombie apocalypse that continues to fascinate the human mind. Zombies are a source of fear for a variety of reasons, and when used right can be a very effective source of horror.