The most surprising thing about the modern zombie—indeed, the only surprising thing about the modern zombie—is that he took so long to arrive. His slowness is a proverb, of course: his museumgoer’s shuffle, his hospital plod. Plus he’s a wobbler: the shortest path between two points is seldom the one he takes. Nonetheless, given all that had been going on, we might reasonably have expected the first modern zombies to start showing up around 1919. Twentieth-century man was already moaning and scratching his head; shambling along with bits falling off him; desensitized, industrialized, hollowed out, metaphysically evacuated—A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many … Had some trash visionary produced a novel or play about the brain-eating hordes, or a vers libre epic of viral undeadness, it would have gone down rather well, at this point. And yet not until 1968, at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, did the zombie as we know him really make the scene.
Look: there he is, out of focus and deep in the shot, in the fifth minute of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. He’s wandering through a cemetery, wearing a shabby blazer, with the air of a distracted groundskeeper. In the foreground are two soberly dressed young people, Barbara and Johnny. They are visiting their father’s grave. Barbara kneels and bows her head, but Johnny’s a scoffer. “Hey, c’mon, Barb—church was this morning, huh? Hey, I mean praying’s for church, huh?” Sniffs Barbara: “I haven’t seen you in church lately.” A breeze rises. Dark, frondy tree limbs wave above them like seaweed in the black-and-white afternoon, and the zombie draws near. He has begun to reel and lurch. He grabs Barbara. There’s death in his skin tone, but his face is alive with a kind of stricken fixity. He bashes Johnny against a tombstone. Barbara flees in a car, but wrecks it. And now we really see him, framed disastrously in the skewed rear windshield, advancing toward us at an off-kilter zombie trot. No mistaking the message: the world is out of whack, the car is off the road, here comes the zombie.
And he’s never stopped coming. After fertile decades bumbling in the gore/horror subbasement, he veered toward the mainstream in the early 2000s and currently enjoys a cultural profile unmatched even by his fancy-pants cousin, the vampire. Sure, we’ve all enjoyed Twilight, True Blood, vampire love, the pallor and the pangs, etc.—but it’s the zombie, Old Reliable, who’s really bringing home the bacon. He’s the one who rides the best-seller lists and consumes the pop unconscious, whose titles spatter the humor section of your local bookstore: Zombie Haiku, The Zen of Zombie, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols. People, sometimes hundreds of people, go on processional “zombie walks.” Video gamers are mowing down fresh multitudes of zombies with a fervor undimmed by habit. And AMC’s zombie series, The Walking Dead—the DVD of which is released this month—was the surprise cable smash of last year. Are we approaching, have we already reached, a zombie saturation point, or “burnout,” as Max Brooks, author of the (very good) 2006 zombie novel World War Z, has put it? I say no. The zombie keeps on: it’s what he does.
His origins, we learn—we who dabble in the recklessly expanding field of zombie studies—are in Caribbean folk nightmare. For the people of Haiti, the zombi was one who had died and been buried, only to be malignantly revived and enslaved by a sorcerer, or bokor. Look: there’s the zombie in 1929, the year William Seabrook published his sensational account of Haitian voodoo lore, The Magic Island. He’s working in the cane fields, his eyes like “the eyes of a dead man” but his hands “callused, solid, human.” And there he is in 1932, in the Halperin Brothers’ White Zombie—his cinematic debut—trudging with alienated obedience behind his dark master (played by Béla Lugosi). At night he works with other zombies in the sugar mill. The blades of the great thresher groan magnificently, zombificently, as they turn. A zombie falls in. Oh well.