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What Makes the Dead Walk? Whatever the Living Fear Right Now

Modern movie and television-watching audiences are familiar with the zombie apocalypse concept: An out-of-control contagion quickly spreads through a population, rapidly killing and then re-animating the dead into flesh-consuming monsters which then continue the spread.

While the emergence of a strange, highly contagious virus may be the most familiar and plausible zombie origin story, it is actually a relatively new one. Zombie themes are traceable back to the novel Frankenstein (published in 1818) at the very least, if not further. Prophecies of the dead rising from their graves to new life show up in the book of Revelation, after all.

But in the last century, with the advent of film, we’ve seen the steady development and increase of the zombie story. Almost every version offers a different explanation for the creation of the cannibal corpses, and they often reflect real-life societal fears of their time.

"White Zombie" (1932)  and "I Walked with a Zombie" (1943) -- Voodoo Magic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The earliest silver-screen incarnations of zombies were the products of voodoo mind control, potions, or other magic in a time not long after the heyday of spiritualism trends like séances, Ouija boards and tarot card readings. In fact, the victims in "White Zombie" and "I Walked with a Zombie" were both damsels in distress who were never dead to begin with, simply under a witch doctor's spell. While this seems like a far cry from the violent, plague-ridden zombies we see today, it's actually a closer representation of the ritualistically-induced coma-like state from which the term "zombie" was first derived.

Several sources state that the word "zombie" or "zombi" has origins in Africa, Haiti and other equatorial locations, where Vodou is thought to have been practiced as an organized religion before the arrival of European Christians. Given the United State's occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, it follows that superstitions about voodoo would make their way into talkies depicting adventures in exotic locales. These romance-centered flicks warned that no amount of pre-travel vaccinations could protect you from a vengeful voodoo priest during your getaway to the new territory.

"Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1959) -- Aliens (from this planet and otherwise)

Once the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, the Space Race – and our less-than-trusting view of Communism -- was officially underway. If we were making strides to journey away from our planet, how long before we encountered another (likely superior) space-faring species? Perhaps many Americans questioned the motives of theorized aliens much like they questioned the Russians: Would they prove to be allies?  Competitors? Or bent on domination over our way of life?

"Plan 9 from Outer Space" crams a lot of now-familiar sci-fi tropes into its low-budget, disjointed plot: Government UFO cover-ups, aliens attempting to police and prevent humanity from wreaking destruction with atomic weapons, and an army of the undead. Few alien stories before or since have combined zombies and aliens into the same script, but Ed Wood (who else?) does it here. What exactly was Plan 9? If the walking undead couldn’t convince humanity to play safer with atomic weapons, the extraterrestrials would command the zombies to kill everyone to protect the rest of the universe.

"Night of the Living Dead" (1968) -- Irradiated space/satellite debris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the Space Race wore on, the U.S. and USSR took turns sending information-gathering probes and communications satellites into orbit. And what goes up must come down. What happens when something dangerous tags along for the ride?

In George Romero's hallowed "Night of the Living Dead (there's also a 1990 remake), much of the action takes place within and around a rural farmhouse, which the protagonists work to defend against a horde of violent walking corpses. Intermittent radio reports speculate that the cause might be contamination from a radioactive space probe shot down by the government over the countryside.

Though the term "zombie" is never actually used in the movie's dialogue, this was the first to depict the undead as flesh-eating, highly contagious, and very difficult to "kill." Hence the addition of the gore factor now present in nearly every zombie flick.

The "Evil Dead" series (1981-1992) -- Demonology

We're making a leap here, both in years and in how we define zombie creation.

Before it was a cliché for young people to be holed up in a remote cabin, these characters in "Evil Dead" saw their peers' corpses reanimated due to demon possession rather than science gone wrong. What's more, the protagonists have nothing (not a plague or a downed satellite) and no one to blame but themselves. Apparently, retribution via demon possession is what you get for reading incantations from a Sumerian Book of the Dead in your basement.

Violent crimes attributed to teenagers experimenting with Satanism and other occult practices (or at least, the reporting of them) saw a marked uptick throughout the 1970s and 80s. Some particularly grisly examples include the crimes of the Ripper Crew of Chicago, active in the early eighties, who reportedly cut up their victims while reading from the Satanic Bible.

Perhaps a dose of “satanic panic” was just what young writer/director-to-be Sam Raimi needed to tap into the fears of the public and make his low-budget soilburster a success.

“Re-Animator" (1985) -- Injectable drugs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though based on an H.P. Lovecraft serial published in the 1920s (and borrowing heavily from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), it's curious to note that the gore fest known as "Re-Animator" debuted as the public was becoming increasingly aware of the effects and dangers of that which you could shoot rather than smoke. The War on Drugs was escalating, and use of synthetic drugs like cocaine had reached “epidemic” levels.

In both the novella and the movie, an ambitious young medical student creates a mysterious serum that, when injected into the veins of the dead, brings them back to life with the side effect of violent, unpredictable behavior.

"Dead Alive" (1993) and "28 Days Later" (2002) -- Highly contagious virus originating from monkeys

 

Years before Peter Jackson began work on his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, he cut his teeth on a zombie movie, much like "Spiderman" director Sam Raimi did before him.

Released as "Braindead" in Australia and in Jackson's native New Zealand, "Dead Alive" was a gruesome comedy that told the story of a zombie virus that began with a monkey-rodent hybrid biting the hero's overbearing mother. What the protagonists didn't know was that the dangerous species had been identified over 40 years previously by a jungle explorer, who was ominously dismembered and killed by natives after being bitten.

Among the more widely-accepted HIV origin theories is the “Hunter” Theory, which speculates that super-strains of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus could've “jumped species” from chimps to humans as early as the 1940s, perhaps through an animal bite, or the human butchering and consumption of monkey meat.  Unfortunately, the resulting Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome didn't come to worldwide attention until the mid-1980s. It would be several more years before it was effectively identified, understood or treated.

Misinformation, fear and social stigma about HIV/AIDS ran rampant well into the 90s, with much confusion about the virus’ origins and the different ways in which it could spread. Though “Dead Alive” was not a box office success at the time of its release, it predicated many more movies – “12 Monkeys,” “Outbreak,” “Planet of the Apes” remakes, “28 Days Later” (see below), just to name a few – in which the end of the world centered on our primate cousins.

According to the World Health Organization, HIV/AIDS remains the world’s leading infectious killer, having claiming the lives of a recorded 39 million people so far. The new millennium also saw the onset of health scares such as Mad Cow Disease, and the threat of attack by biological weapons like Anthrax. A public still understandably wary of such outbreaks supported English director Danny Boyle’s decision to continue with a similar zombie origin story in “28 Days Later.” Unlike “Dead Alive” (which has since gained a cult following), “28 Days Later” was a financial and critical success that led to a sequel, and arguably set the bar for the “contaminated, abandoned lab” trope that permeates zombie movies and video games today.

“I Am Legend” (2007) – Virus engineered as a cure

 

Here we see a slight nod to the zombie flicks of the past, in which mankind’s tampering with science leads to its downfall, combined with the modern virus scare. In the opening scenes of this Will Smith action-drama, it is revealed that most of humanity has been wiped out by the spread of a re-engineered measles virus, originally intended to cure cancer. Those “lucky” enough to be genetically resistant to the virus become the zombie required by today’s breakneck-paced movies: Very fast, very agile and very hungry, with problem-solving intelligence, social structure and perhaps even developed motives for cannibalism.

Interestingly, Richard Matheson’s original 1954 novel portrayed the infected as sentient vampires as opposed to soulless zombies, and further explored the idea of these creatures being the next stage in human evolution, rather than a force to be defeated. “I Am Legend” the film has a more traditional plot resolution – namely, “hero finds a cure and zombies die.” However, it’s worth noting that the original novel is credited by several sources as being directly influential on the zombie genre, partially inspiring “Night of the Living Dead” in addition to at least two other film adaptations (“The Last Man on Earth,” “The Omega Man”).

“Sean of the Dead,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, “World War Z” early seasons of “The Walking Dead” – The Unknown

 

Finally, we come to our deepest and most widely-held fear: Fear of the Unknown. In several of the most-recognized zombie stories of yesterday and today, the source of the outbreak, or the reason for the Dead rising, is either not made clear or completely unknown. Whether a government authority or other entity has instigated and/or covered up the truth, the monsters are suddenly there, with little or no warning. Without knowledge of their origins, how can our heroes hope to defeat them?

With AMC’s “The Walking Dead” TV series at the peak of its popularity, documentarians Cris Macht and Ian Vacek further explore why humanity is obsessed with the “zombie apocalypse” in their new documentary “The Walkers Among Us.” The film will have its world premiere at Hollywood Blvd. Cinema for one day only on Saturday, April 25, 2015.

Tickets to this immersive event, -- including appearances by “Walking Dead” novelist Jay Bonansinga, zombie actress Michelle Flanagan Helmeczy, zombie effects make-up artists, live music and more – are only $2.00 and are on sale now at hollywoodblvdcinema.com. All ticket proceeds benefit the American Cancer Society and The Walking Hope

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