Early this year, a friend showed me an article about AMC's The Walking Dead written in the New York Times, here. In the article, Erin Overbey makes observations like, "There are two main categories of zombie film", and, "Darabont’s series doesn't appear to fall naturally into either category. Instead, it carves out its own trajectory as a kind of postmodern, nouveau zombie narrative."
The internet is full of people who claim to have unlocked the secret of zombie movie popularity. Go looking yourself, though, and you will find a lot of people who back up their hypotheses with a few popular movies. The list is usually the same: 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, White Zombie, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, or some combination of these.
I was no die-hard for zombie movies, or even horror movies, but it didn't seem fair to judge the whole of these top-grossing few. What about the little-known movies, or the terrible ones? If there really is a post-modern narrative to be had for the zombie genre, why do they cite so few sources?
I needed to dig deeper. Economies are not judged by the performance of a single company, I needed an analysis of every zombie movie to make any factual statements about society's impact on zombie movies, and so I began in January of 2013. First, though, my hypotheses.
I surmised that as American culture changed, so too would the zombie movie, but I needed a way to pin this concept down onto a statistic. Zombies themselves usually remain the same from movie to movie, but I had the idea that as time went on (and social views changed), the evil sources that create the zombies would change. I developed this list following that idea:
- When zombie movies first aired on movie screens in the 1930's and 1940's, they were magical "voodoo" zombies created by voodoo rituals. This would reflect the zombie's origins.
- Radiation would be the most common cause of zombies in the 1950's and 1960's, presumably as a reaction to the first nuclear bombs and the height of the Cold War.
- In the 1980's, magic would again be the popular source of the undead antagonists, though the sources would reasons based on Christian mythology: the devil and cultists were what I had in mind. I'm not sure exactly why I made this hypothesis. I couldn't put my finger on any particular movie, book, or band, but witchcraft, cult worship, and the devil just seem to click in horror movies of the 80's.
- Starting in the 2000's, disease would cause the majority of zombies. I thought that would be the age of the popular "zombie apocalypse".
Handling the Data
I put together a (supposedly) comprehensive list of all zombie movies, which numbered at 660. I started looking over the plots, organizing them by Sources of Zombification. I split them into 6 categories and gave myself some rules for their classification.
- Alien - The alien category covers zombies caused by sources from outer space, sentient or otherwise. Crashed spaceships, crashed meteorites, comet tails, and alien parasites are the most common.
- Disease - All mass zombie outbreaks are covered by the disease category. Any zombie condition which is self-perpetuating -- that is, zombies who can create other zombies without outside support -- fit into the disease category regardless of the original source. "Disease" includes virus outbreaks and biological weapons.
- Ghost/Spirit - Those with a Ghost/Spirit classification are zombies made by a ghost’s or spirit’s possession of a dead body. The most common plot in a ghost/spirit story is the murdered victim “back for revenge”.
- Magic - Magic is a broad category covering any non-scientific source of zombification. Common examples are Satan, Satanic ritual, voodoo magic, necromancers, spell books, and curses.
- Malevolent science - Another broad category which covers any sources of zombification which trace back to a scientific phenomenon, or more likely, a mad scientist. This category includes such plots as medical experimentation, government or military tests gone awry, or dangerous pharmaceuticals.
- Radiation - This could have been lumped into the “malevolent science” category, but was separated to be able to see its influence in zombie movies. Common "radiation" sources of zombification include mutation, toxic waste, and the presence of radiation in an area.
- I should also note there were several movies I had to categorize as "None". There are a surprising many zombie movies where zombies show up without any rationalization at all.
These are the percentages of all zombie movies attributed to each Source of Zombification (SoZ). This represents data for all zombie movies ever, though, without any context for the dates they were made.
There, that's better. As far as the first hypothesis, I was right. Zombies started as a magic phenomenon. This graph also addresses the third hypothesis of the "magical" 80's with cults and demons, but it appears that since the 60's these types of zombies have been a dying breed.
My second hypothesis, though, was wrong. I found 0 zombie movies in the 50's caused by radiation, and only a single one in the 60's. Radiation, oddly enough, has never been a popular source for the walking dead.
The fourth hypothesis had some complicated data. The new millennium brought an enormous amount of zombie movies -- more than three hundred, compared with the 90's sixty. With the surge in movies, one might expect there to be a more even amount of SoZ's, but the disease category still topped all others.
As far as the critics who make statements about zombie movies as expressions of certain cultural phenomena, they should tread carefully with the assumptions they make. Many of them might be correct, but a suddenly-popular zombie flick does not necessarily reflect the opinions of a generation, or any other similar movies that might surround it in Hollywood.