Mansfield University Professor of English Dr. John Ulrich studies pop culture and teaches a course in monster literature. I asked him about zombie popularity.
According to Ulrich, zombies first staggered into American culture in the 1920s and '30s. After the U.S. military occupation of Haiti, soldiers and journalists brought back stories of Haitian zombie folklore. "W. B. Seabrook's 1929 book on Haitian 'voodoo,' The Magic Island, includes a short chapter on zombies called 'Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields,' and many commentators see this text as a key player in transferring the zombie from Haitian folklore to American popular culture," Ulrich says. By the early 1930s, zombies had made their way to both stage and screen. In 1932, the play Zombie ran on Broadway, and the film White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi, was released.
Both are set in Haiti, Ulrich explains. Zombies were not flesh eaters, but mindless automatons controlled by a zombie master.
"The more familiar flesh-eating zombies of contemporary popular culture first appeared in George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead," Ulrich says. Romero was influenced by the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth, adapted from Richard Matheson's 1954 novella I Am Legend. Although both I Am Legend and The Last Man on Earth depict a post-apocalyptic U.S. overrun by vampires, not zombies, both feature a survivor defending himself in a boarded-up home, and the vampires act like today's zombies, congregating around the house and trying to break in.
"Romero invented the flesh-eating concept, added graphic scenes of zombies feasting on human body parts, and then -- brilliantly -- focused on the tension and conflict among the survivors," Ulrich explains. "Night of the Living Dead is the foundational text for all subsequent zombie films and literature; everything that follows consciously imitates it or deliberately deviates from it."
The genre has steadily grown in popularity because of the indeterminate, malleable nature of zombies as a cultural sign, Ulrich says. "More than any other kind of monster, the zombie is a virtual blank slate, a screen upon which we can project a variety of meanings. At its most elemental level, of course, the zombie represents our fear of death."
The zombie, Ulrich says, is a walking, desiccated corpse whose sole purpose is to consume human flesh. They force us to confront the material reality of our inevitable demise, that we will be consumed by death. (Read entire article.)