They shamble. They groan and rage. They fall to pieces. Zombies in their various forms have been frightening viewers since the first-ever zombie movie, White Zombie, appeared on-screen in 1932. In the time since, though, their various incarnations have revealed a truth: zombie movies have little, really, to do with the undead. “Like all monsters, zombies are metaphors,” writes scholar Jeffrey Cohen. Often, that metaphor is disease: It's not hard to think of a zombie movie involving a deadly plague. But zombies have been metaphors for more than one thing. Here are a few themes filmmakers have tackled through the lens of the living dead:
Racial tensions are the zombie’s oldest theme. In fact, the idea of a zombie has roots in the culture of enslaved people in Haiti as far back as the 1700s, writes Mike Mariani for The Atlantic.
The original brains-eating fiend was a slave not to the flesh of others but to his own. The zombie archetype, as it appeared in Haiti and mirrored the inhumanity that existed there from 1625 to around 1800, was a projection of the African slaves’ relentless misery and subjugation. Haitian slaves believed that dying would release them back to lan guinée, literally Guinea, or Africa in general, a kind of afterlife where they could be free. Though suicide was common among slaves, those who took their own lives wouldn’t be allowed to return to lan guinée. Instead, they’d be condemned to skulk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity, an undead slave at once denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them—a soulless zombie.
After the Haitian Revolution in 1804 and the end of French colonialism, the zombie became a part of Haiti’s folklore. The myth evolved slightly and was folded into the Voodoo religion, with Haitians believing zombies were corpses reanimated by shamans and voodoo priests. Sorcerers, known as bokor, used their bewitched undead as free labor or to carry out nefarious tasks. This was the post-colonialism zombie, the emblem of a nation haunted by the legacy of slavery and ever wary of its reinstitution.
It was from this source that filmmakers drew for White Zombie, the first-ever zombie film, in 1932. In the 1960s and 70s, filmmaker George Romero brought the zombie film into the mainstream with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. The first of these was technically about “ghouls.” Romero didn’t start calling them “zombies” until his second film. But his now-iconic films helped to erase enslaved people from zombie history.
However, this link still showed through in the framing of zombies as the racialized “other.” Erin Cassese writes for The Conversation:
Romero shot 'Night of the Living Dead' in 1967, when Americans’ attention was focused on powerful televised images of race riots in cities like Newark and Detroit, and on the Vietnam War, the likes of which were new to broadcast news. Romero reimagined scores of bleeding faces, twisted in rage or vacant from trauma, as the zombie hoard.
Once zombies became decoupled from their heritage in the American imagination, filmmakers started using them to manifest other anxieties like climate change. The scenario presented in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, and many zombie features since, “with the frantic expert desperately trying to convince an incredulous audience of the desperateness of the situation, has many echoes with the increasingly alarmed tone present in much of the climate change discourse,” writes Christopher Shaw for The Guardian.
At the same time, zombie movies have many other parallels with the narrative of climate change, Shaw writes. In most zombie narratives, he writes, zombieism—like climate change—can’t be put back in the bottle. The world is forever changed. Take the 28 Days franchise: although the main characters are rescued by still-living humans at the end of the first film, that’s far from the end of the plague.
Zombies have given filmmakers a way to talk about important issues, but it's also worth remembering that the zombies themselves and their personhood are rarely at the center of the narrative (The CW's iZombie being an exception), and asking what they're really meant to represent.