Zombies: A Generational Take on the Undead

What, exactly, defines a zombie? Fast, slow, smart, dumb, infected, angry, mindless—depending on the source, any one of these might fit.

The truth is that other than the descriptor "living dead," there's no finite set of characteristics that makes or breaks what can or can't be considered a zombie. Though enthusiasts have spent thousands of hours debating this question online (seriously...), the elements that constitute the monster we know as "zombie" are far from concrete, and have steadily evolved over the decades.

Time out—why are generational experts taking the time to examine zombies across the ages?

Good question. Turns out there's more depth to zombies than you might have thought. Zombie-themed books and movies are often reflections of popular fears or significant (usually scary) events of the time. The evolution of zombie fiction is more than just an upgrade in make-up or CGI... it's a log of generational fears and how they've manifested into depictions of these creatures we call zombies.


Before we explore zombie depictions in the 60s, we have to rewind to way back to the early 1900s. Traditionalist zombie movies in that era clung to the Hatian-vodou theme, where it was the necromancers who summoned the dead that were the bad guys, not the zombies themselves. In those movies, zombies were mere puppets who did the bidding of their human masters and were even subject to rescue.

Obviously, this perspective underwent a pretty massive shift, one that was kicked off by the classic 60s zombie flick, The Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD). Here, zombies took center stage as villains we should fear and abhor. This was a completely new concept that jumpstarted the popularity of the zombie genre.

NOTLD established a zombie norm for American pop culture: evil, slow, and dumb. The 1968 movie was first admired by Boomers, the eldest of whom were in their 20s when it hit theaters. Its zombies were very obviously playing off a pervasive fear of the time—radiation. In the movie, humans who are exposed to a form of radiation become the walking dead. It's not hard to connect the dots between this movie and the goings on at the time. With the looming threat of both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War, Baby Boomers lived under the constant threat of nuclear warfare and the devastating effects of radiation exposure. Radiation as the cause of a zombie infestation was a smart approach for getting under Boomers' skin and emblematic of one of the top concerns of the collective consciousness at that time.


You might say that The Night of the Living Dead kicked off zombie fever in the states. The genre experienced a seismic surge in popularity in the decades following its release. One subgenre that emerged in the 70s, and is still around today, is that of the Nazi zombie. The movie Shockwaves, released in 1977, introduced this subgenre to the general public. Nazi zombies made for terrific villains in a horror movie. Lets face it, the only thing more evil than a zombie is a Nazi zombie.

We'll be honest, the connection to the generations gets a little murky here, but it should be noted that this genre started as the zombie theme was taking off in popularity. Writers were scrounging for interesting ways to make zombies even scarier than their Haitian-vodou roots, and radiation and Nazis are some of the first ideas they put into production. This specific genre seems to have stood the test of time and is still occasionally used as a fear factor. It's even a special mode in Call of Duty.


With the 80s we get Return of the Living Dead, a hit zombie flick that starred members-only-jacket-wearing teenagers and a killer soundtrack. This take on the zombie movie managed to weave comedy in right along with the horror. With a Gen X audience clearly in mind, it was the first to introduce faster-than-normal, brain-eating zombies. These zombies were about as mobile as healthy, energetic humans. How did they come to be? Victims met their undead fate after exposure to toxic chemicals in the form of gas and acid rain. Not so coincidentally, acid rain was a huge topic of conversation in the 80s. There was even a brief period in 1981 where the US was suspicious that the Soviet Union had used "yellow rain" for chemical warfare. The end of Return of the Living Dead features a closing sequence of a military cover-up of the zombifying acid rain aftermath. A conspiracy theory? How very Xer.

1988's Serpent and the Rainbow was another iconic Xer zombie movie. This one dips back into Haitian zombie roots, and the source of zombies this time around is the black-magic practitioners in Haiti that are using drugs to create the creatures. A large pharmaceutical company approaches the movie's main character, Alan, to retrieve and uncover more information about this drug, all so that they can use it for their own purpose. Talk about great timing for the audience. There was a massive pharmaceutical boom in the 80s in response to the AIDS epidemic, immunology advancements, and the rise of drug resistance. Yet again, the zombie depiction taps into the generational psyche of the time.


In 2003, the US was introduced to ruthlessly-fast zombies. The infected, as 28 Days Later refers to its version of these horrific creatures, were a unique breed of zombies. They broke the stereotype of being dreadfully slow, and their zombie-ism was induced by something new: disease. Ever since 28 Days Later, fast zombies have become a mainstay of the genre, and have sparked a grueling debate on slow vs. fast and whether speedy monsters fit within zombie lore or should be split into a new genre entirely.

In this bloodbath of a movie, a highly contagious virus consumes the UK in less than a month. For one survivor, the apocalyptic collapse seemed to happen overnight—he was in a coma for the whole thing. This premise strongly resonated with the public, particularly in the US. Just a couple years earlier, the twin towers collapsed in almost the blink of an eye, and with it any semblance of safety. Subsequent anthrax attacks only further intensified the country's fear and paranoia. As we're all well aware, these were trying times for America, and the events shifted the focus of the country's worries. "The fear is that death can come through a disease, and in this globalized world we live in, it can come out of nowhere. And fast. The fear shifted to terrorism and bioterror."

The zombie obsession is far from over. The Walking Dead, Warm Bodies, and Zombieland are just a few of the latest versions of this popular genre. Some argue that our obsession is a cathartic way to work through humanity's biggest fears and worst-case-scenarios. This may very well be, and from what we can tell the fixation on the living dead shows no sign of slowing down. As generational experts, we can't help but wonder, what kind of zombie will haunt Gen Edger's dreams?