This summer I was tapped by the Armadillocon programming committee to participate on a panel about zombie movies. For some reason I did a modicum of research before the panel and I discovered the Wikipedia list of all zombie movies ever. Since this was displayed onpage in a table format, I thought, hey, let’s export this to a spreadsheet, which I did. The resulting graph was nothing less than eye-opening.
Bar graph of zombie movies by year
The clear bell-curves pop out first. There are no plateaus, there is an interest and a ramping up of zombie movies, followed by a tapering off at nearly the same rate. Looking at the graph, 2018 will have negative four zombie movies.
The Zombie waves
It all begins with Bela Lugosi in White Zombie in 1932. The first zombie movies worked exclusively from the voodoo model of an undead slave. There’s a zombie movie every few years or so, taking up a noticeable fraction of the horror market, but there’s long periods without any zombie movie at all. From the end of World War II until late 1950s there were essentially no zombie movies. An entire lost, zombieless decade.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the resurgence of zombie movies parallels the popularity of drive-in movies. In the late 50s, early 60s, there’s a glut of zombie flicks, with an unusual burst of zombie movies in 1964. They start out playing off the voodoo model: zombies as terrifying representatives of an exotic culture. But soon the zombie trope takes on new variations. A zombie becomes any reanimated corpse, whether it be by magic, science, or alien intervention. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is a pioneer in this respect, taking the zombie out of the Caribbean and taking it home to the American back yard.
There’s a tapering off in the sixties, as the drive-ins wane, perhaps. But there’s a slow simmering of zombie ideas, opening up possibilities for the trope, and preparing audiences for what’s to come next.
The Romero Years
In 1968, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed everything. It threw gasoline on the movement of midnight cult movies in the 70s, and may have been the first genuinely scary zombie movie. It’s important to note that none of the movies which followed in the 70s wave followed the Romero model of epidemic-spread post-apocalyptic head-shot zombies. There were a lot of foreign-made zombie films, a global democratization of the trope which would help to fuel the boom in the 2000s.
In 1980 there’s a sudden boom of zombies. There’s a mix of Italian and US productions which tapers off in time for the Romero-nostalgic Return of the Living Dead in 1985, and a new boom which will take us to a new zombie height in 1988. It’s hard to pin down where this boom came from and what they had in common, except they were mostly gory and grim. The voodoo slave model is almost entirely absent, these zombies are the ickiest re-animated corpses available.
The 90s are slow for zombies. Between ’94 ad ’98 we typically only had two zombie movies a year. When the only American zombie movie in a year is Scooby Doo on Zombie Island, you know the genre is in trouble.
Between 2000 and 2017 there were nearly twice as many zombie movies than in the previous century. Independent film has a lot to do with the success, as well as a truly global participation. Asian film accounts for a lot of the space under this bell curve. The Romero model dominates throughout, fueled no doubt by it’s public domain status. A lot of the cultural conversation played off this model, allowing for asinine arguments about fast versus slow zombies, as if zombies actually existed. Irony and parodies and self-referencing proliferate through the genre in this period.
The Presidential Theory
If we’re being perfectly honest, we would have to say that the bursts of zombie-movie activity had a lot to do with the genre building off its own ideas, changes in distribution and public values, and the relative ease of funding and production during the heyday of any genre.
But I can’t help looking at this chart and not compare it with Republican presidential administrations. In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president, and the big wave of 70’s zombie movies started. In 1980, Ronald Reagan began the next biggest wave of zombie movies, which ended in a decades-lowest nadir during the Clinton administration. And the biggest bell curve of course began with the Bush years and began to taper as soon as Obama hit office.
When you look at the production time lead-up needed to make a zombie movie (and our current president and his comparably low zombie movie production), it’s hard to maintain a cause-effect relationship, but it’s a correlation that’s hard to ignore.
The Future of Zombie Movies
During the panel, I aired my working theory that zombie movies, like men in prison movies, are at their heart libertarian fantasies. Authority and law has collapsed, making it virtuous to kill your neighbors. Nobody disputed this, which I found a little disheartening (no libertarians at Armadillocon?). Perhaps this accounted for their success, or perhaps the flexibility of the zombie-subtext which allowed audiences to map virtually any morality message about otherness over those sunken zombie eyeballs.
So yes, zombie movies hit their peak in 2008, with 31 in a single year. But the real reason for the decline may be that we’ve worked through all the possible iterations. It could be that we’re just tired of it. At this moment I have Train to Busan on my Netflix queue. I’ve watched two-thirds of the movie, and I don’t know if I’ll go back. It’s a good movie, I just don’t feel a need to watch more zombies.
As a culture, we may have done what we needed to do with the trope. We’re past peak zombie. At last, at long last, zombies are truly dead.
During the early 2000s, I recall everyone asking, what’s going to be the new zombie? We all predicted zombies would come to a head and then peter out as a new golden boy genre trope replaced it. It looks like it’s finally happening, almost ten years later than expected, but there’s no clear replacement. Some effort was put into making pirates the new zombie, but not much came of that. As I said in the panel, if you want to make a zombie movie you just need a few friends and black eye shadow, if you want to make a pirate movie you need a whole damn ship.
If I get the time, I’d like to export some data from IMDB (they have a mechanism for that), and compare their zombie movie data with the Wikipedia list, see if the trends hold up under additional scrutiny. I’d also like to look at other genres and tropes, see if anything else had a beautifully elliptical surge like that, or if it was just zombies. Presumably we’d see something similar with Westerns, but we’ll see.