IN THIS year’s AKARAKA festival, zombies were witnessed on the Yonsei Sinchon Campus. Participants of the “Zombie Run” were running around campus, chased by student volunteers helping out as AKARAKA staff members disguised as zombies. As we can see from the event, zombies are going wild worldwide. Zombie movies such as World War Z and Warm Bodies recorded unprecedented success. Zombie literature such as Pride and Prejudice, and Zombie became best sellers, and popular zombie games such as Left 4 Dead and Plants vs. Zombies all manifest the current worldwide popularity of zombies. Not only do zombies receive love calls from the media industry, but they have also permeated other cultural arenas such as fashion. However, zombies have not always been worldwide stars. In fact, for a long time, they were widely regarded as an esoteric subculture genre for a small minority. Why then do people nowadays go crazy for zombies, which used to be nothing more than moving, decayed corpses?
To answer the question, we must first look into the history of how zombies came to be what they are now. According to the most well-known theory, zombies were initially corpses brought back to life by Voodoo magicians in Haiti. It is told that those who committed an unforgivable crime in their lifetime were cursed to be zombies as a punishment. These primitive zombies were corrupted and decayed corpses under the control of the Voodoo magicians. They could neither hear nor think and were put under spells to work as slaves in farms. In the daytime, they remained asleep inside their tombs and when night came, they were forced to work as slaves. Zombies can also be traced back to literary works and films. The book Arabian Nights , first published in English in 1706, mentions the presence of “ghouls,” monsters that devour corpses. These “ghouls” can be said to be the literary prototype of zombies. Other than that, the wandering sleeping people in the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Frankenstein made out of dead bodies, and golems, the gigantic mud puppets, also resemble soulless features of zombies. If we look closer into these various stories linked to the origins of zombies, we can see that zombies have a decisive feature that distinguish them from other traditional monsters such as vampires and werewolves; zombies do not have a singular tradition that traces back to the ancient or medieval age. Zombies are monsters created from diverse, complex origins. Thus, they are often portrayed in various forms and linked to worldwide disasters, ranging from epidemics to religious apocalypses to. For example, in the famous webtoon “Your Every Moment” by Gang Pool, the zombie virus is portrayed as an infection from American beef. In the film Dead Alive , people turn into zombies when they are bitten by strange monkeys from isolated islands.
Night of the living dead
Whether zombies originated from voodoo slaves or ghouls, zombies today are quite distant from the poor victims of Voodoo magic. In forming the current image of zombies, Hollywood films played the greatest role. Woo Mi-seong (Prof., Dept. of English Language & Lit.) points out that “although zombies might have begun from a Voodoo religion, it was Hollywood that created the image of zombies that we know so well.” The first monumental film that introduced zombies was White Zombie filmed by Bela Lugosi in 1932. In the film, zombies are featured as the creatures closest to their origins as Voodoo slaves. They are a cluster of poor victims of magic exploited by evil magicians called “Vokors” and evoke sympathy from us. These zombies never attack humans, which became one of zombies’ main characteristics in subsequent films. However, the film that signaled the beginning of the zombie era and established the basic image that current zombies show is the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead by George A. Romero. Evaluated as the film that settled zombie as a genre by later critics, everything we know about zombies today is largely influenced by this film. Zombies in the film are corpses that walk slowly in groups. They approach victims slowly, tightening the tension, and the victims grow frustrated over their powerlessness when surrounded by zombies. Eventually zombies attack them and the victims die painfully. Compared to the zombies in the former film White Zombie , the zombies in Night of the Living Dead show considerable differences. Koo Luisa Hyo-jin (3rd Sem., Dept. of English Language & Lit.), who is writing a master’s thesis on zombies, notes that “In the film, the zombies show three biggest changes from previous films. First, they are much stronger with their sturdier bodies that are almost invincible to any physical attack and lack masters to control them. They don’t have weak points like vampires who are said to fear garlic and the cross. Second, they show collective movement. Killing one zombie is quite easy, but the true horror of zombies lies in that they move in a group and slowly surround the victims. Third, they began to consume human flesh. These traits are fixed as the features of zombies from then on.” Besides providing thrill and horror, zombies were also utilized to criticize social problems and warn the public of potential upcoming dangers. The zombies depicted in the film series Night of the Living Dead directly reflect the 1960s and 70s society as capitalism and materialism ascended and the social movements against racism were active. Overgrown media manipulated people’s thoughts, and people often accepted societal trends without critical reflection. Zombies slowly walking unconsciously were metaphors of middleclass men in the 1960s and 70s, submerged by capitalism and media, and devoid of the ability to distinguish right and wrong. Also, the slaughter film’s main hero, “Ben” who was African-American, evoked the specter of racism. Although Romero denied any intention of casting an African-American actor as “Ben,” the ending of the film nevertheless aroused a huge reaction against racism.
21C: Faster, Fiercer
In the 21C, zombies have undergone radical changes. After the openings of 28 Days Later by Danny Boyle in 2002 and Dawn of the Dead that remade Night of the Living Dead by Zack Snyder in 2004, the zombie genre rose in popularity as the main horror genre of the new century. To explain the phenomenon, Woo points out postmodernism as a reason. “Postmodernism in pop culture began in the 1980s. In the postmodern era, the movies often involved lots of remaking. Using the material that guarantees the financial success of the film was the trend of the film industry in those days. Zombie was indicated as one, and film industries produced contents about zombies over and over to the point that there was a deluge of zombie films. Such abundance of zombie films can be said to be the beginning of the zombie trend.” Unlike the previous slow zombies, zombies in more recent films run around in groups with astonishing speed and violently devour human flesh. Through such changes, zombies were dehumanized into ugly monsters; fading away were the lingering sentimental aspects of zombies – which originated from the fact that they were once living human beings. Filming techniques further strengthened the images of zombie by portraying zombies in a more hideous way and dehumanizing them. For example, in the film Dawn of the Dead , it avoids closed-up shots of zombies’ faces, and i n h i b i t s the audience from sympathizing with zombies. The scale of disaster that zombies bring to humankind has also expanded along with their increased speed. In the 1960s and 70s, the background of zombie films was set in relatively small locations like a barn house, and the damage inflicted by zombie attacks typically amounted to only a few victims’ lives. However, by the beginning of the 21C, zombies became the monsters that bring worldwide catastrophes. While vampires and werewolves transformed into romantic anti-heroes that mesmerize teenage girls, zombies changed into the ultimate nightmare that bring apocalypse to the order and structure of society. Why the sudden change in zombies’ speed and the scale of disasters? One of the cultural factors leading to faster, fiercer zombies was the bursting criticism of neoliberalism, a paradigm emphasizing the free market, reduced government intervention and protection of property rights. Under neoliberalism, government regulations on the market were substantially removed, and competition among businesses and individuals accelerated, especially as wealthier societies lost millions of manufacturing jobs to other countries with much lowerpaid workers. As a result, the declining welfare of those who could not catch up with rapid social and technological changes and fell out of the labor force became a serious social problem. Under a system in which the middle class could no longer expect any meaningful security or any economic guarantee from the government, the fiercer and faster zombies came to represent both the horror that middle class men have experienced in the face of rapid and adverse forms of change and their violent anger toward society. The faster and fiercer zombies created in the films later spread to other cultural landscapes. Among them, the field that most enthusiastically welcomed the entry of faster, fiercer zombies was the gaming industry. Especially in Japan, zombies were a popular game material, since fast zombies enabled dynamic action scenes and rapid development of storylines. Moreover, their absence of humanity provided an easier ethical justification for killing. Now dehumanized, zombies were vicious monsters threatening innocent people, and slaughtering zombies were thus considered right. The zombie games became fantastic action games that fulfill desires to destroy and kill without actually crossing an ethical boundary. The success of the famous game series Resident Evil , which was later produced as a film series, shows the popularity of zombies as game materials. Likewise, in the 21C, zombies began to be widely utilized as an entertainment tool in various cultural fields.
Why zombies now?
As previously mentioned, one reason that zombies can represent literally any kind of disaster traces back to their complex origins. Moreover, contemporary global problems such as nuclear arsenals, global warming, indiscriminate terror, and unidentified viruses can be expressed through zombies. It seems almost natural, in the eyes of some people, to crave zombies that directly reveal contemporary horror. Max Brooks, the author of the bestselling novel World War Z once mentioned; “I think zombies reflect our very real anxieties of these crazy scary times. A zombie story gives people a fictional lens to see the real problems of the world.” Just as he said, zombies circulate in various genres and media forms to show us the real problems of the contemporary world. After explicitly disclosing the problems of our society, zombies attack us ruthlessly. In most zombie story lines, society undergoes an enormous change with the advent of zombies. They break apart the beliefs people held toward the world. The things we so firmly believed before as unchanging truths are ruthlessly destroyed by zombies, showing the fragility of the things we always took for granted. Watching the drastic changes that zombies brought to the world, we are inclined to reconsider our beliefs and the current state of affairs. In the words of Seth Grahame Smith, a renowned writer and movie producer, zombies “have always been used to skewer the ills of society. It’s not surprising they are making a comeback in these intense times.” In World War Z , Max Brooks closely analyzes global politics, economics, and militarization after the advent of zombies. One of the most impressive stories in the novel depicts the North Korean regime reacting to a zombie attack. In the book, the North Korean government limits the number of people turning into zombies by isolating the potential affected areas and pulling out all of the residents’ teeth. The author uses zombies to expose the reality of the North Korean dictatorship’s violence against its own people. In the film Night of the Living Dead , the U.S. Congress controls the media to conceal the advent of zombies, in order to maintain its power. What zombies attack are not just human beings and buildings but also fundamental structures of the world. Zombie attacks might terrify us, but they also can lead us toward catharsis. This is because we sympathize with zombies. George. A. Romero, the director of Night of the Living Dead once stated that “zombies are us. The most terrifying horror and thrill lie right next to us. The most terrifying zombies can be our neighbors.” Likewise, zombies resemble us. They can represent collectivity and anonymity of the crowd, moving around in groups and not taking individual responsibility for words and deeds. SNS terror and cyber malicious messages are examples. Zombies can also be those who forget to criticize. Unconscious zombies resemble those who accept information dished out by mainstream media without critically thinking about content or significance. In the film Warm Bodies, through the main hero zombie “R” who has fallen in love, we find ourselves even more “zombier” than “R” who at least knows the value of love.
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Zombies do not simply entertain us, but they further reflect the fears contemporary society lives with day by day. The 21C is filled with new types of horrors, such as terrorism, xenophobia, global economic dislocation, and cyber crime, all of which can be associated with the aura of zombies. We fear zombies. But at the same time, we love them as embodiments of our desires and fears. Nowadays, some of us crave zombies more than ever. While enjoying the entertainment they bring, we should take time to ponder whether our cravings for zombies come from the genuine fear we feel towards our world.