The Evolution of Zombie in Film

Updated on April 20, 2016

Night of the Living Dead

The human like zombies of Romero's horror film.
The human like zombies of Romero's horror film.

It Begins...

Zombies, creatures that have lost their humanity through death, need to eat human flesh, and scare the living daylights out of friggin' everyone. Of course, in these modern times, the Zombies that popped on screens 40 or 50 years ago are not at all the things of nightmares. But at the time, they scared the pants off viewers. There have been many causes of Zombies in film, from natural death, to some sort of infection outbreak, or nuclear radiation that causes peoples skin to fall off...(there has been some crazy stuff happening in horror films).

But the evolution of the zombie actually says a lot about film and the way its constructed. Starting with:

The Empty Headed Woman

White Zombie-1932

In Victor Haplerin's film 'White Zombie' a young man meets with a witch doctor in order to lure the woman he loves away from her fiancé. In the process she is turned into a zombie slave. widely considered the first ever zombie film, but in honesty, it falls short. She is no zombie, she is simply a metaphor for women as objects. The premise alone screams misogyny, a woman engaged to another man finds herself taken by another and turned into something she's not to please him. She keeps her looks and looses her mind. she can still do many things like play the piano, while looking poised and graceful because there's nothing in her head.

Its not great, but the beginning of the Zombie cult began and what followed was an amazing transformation in the Zombie film. One such Development was due to George A Romero and his film 'Night of the Living Dead'.

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead-1969

Romero really stepped the game up with his adaptation of the Zombie film in 'Night of the living Dead'. It revolutionized the fear factor by making it a story of hordes of zombies, rather than the one which, to be fair, are seriously easy to kill. A mass of Zombies on the other hand can be tricky to handle, if we have learnt anything from these films.

It was at the time the ultimate gruesome horror film, with its ghastly ghouls in the dozens coming to devour the living and infect them. Another step up was the Zombie child (pictured above). She may look innocent enough, in a sickly way, but she ended up slaughtering her own parents. An act so unheard of at the time of its release. Nowadays, the music is slow and boring due to the fact that we've heard the suspense provoking music in thousands of films, but the zombies looked much more frightening than the 'Original' White Zombie.

Romero's Zombie creatures are slow, mindless and quite stupid, being easily distracted and manipulated.

Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead: 1978

Romero releases the sequel 'Dawn of the Dead' and although he stayed true to his original idea's, the zombies were developed further thanks to color film. His zombies now had a blueish tint, but also showed signs of injury with blood, guts and brains spewing. They, staying true to traditional zombies, were slow and not all that bright.

Both films, and his next 'Day of The Dead' would inspire filmmakers everywhere and the development of the Zombie happened at a much faster pace than previous.

Day of the Dead: 1985

Romero's 3rd Zombie film which shows a zombie kept as a pet, who is smarter than his predecessors, in that he has the ability to be taught, and learn, but he also is much more animated than the shuffling, empty Zombies before.
Romero's 3rd Zombie film which shows a zombie kept as a pet, who is smarter than his predecessors, in that he has the ability to be taught, and learn, but he also is much more animated than the shuffling, empty Zombies before.
Yeah, that's  a brick wall, I seriously doubt Zombies could break brick walls with their bare hands...
Yeah, that's a brick wall, I seriously doubt Zombies could break brick walls with their bare hands...

The Dead Next Door

The Dead Next Door: 1988

J. R. Bookwalter's Zombie horror is again a development of this genre. His Zombies are similar to Romero's in that they are blueish and show injuries but move slightly quicker. However, the movie improves on the Zombie film for two reasons. Firstly because its really the first time we see it from the point of view of the government, not civilians. This time its the country that has to survive, rather than a small group of people in a town. Its based on the soldiers that are brought in to stop the epidemic and the people they are trying to protect.

Its also the first time that A cure is even thought of. Because we had only witnessed it from the town people's point of view, the cure for the zombie infection was never an issue. This one brings that to the table as its scientists work to find a way to stop the infection. It also features much more diversity in its monster as we see them without heads, with no skin, and even more skeletal looking.

28 Days Later

After waking in a hospital he finds the word outside just isn't what e remembers...
After waking in a hospital he finds the word outside just isn't what e remembers...

28 days Later: 2002

Danny Boyle really brought this genre back into the limelight (the 90's were not good for Zombie films) with his '28 Days Later'. A film marked for its use of suspense and provoking fear, this was not an easy watch.

Boyles Zombies were fast, twitchy and scarily aggressive, with the outbreak having already happened when the film begins, we are really thrown into an apocalyptic nightmare. Of course many aspects of the film industry itself helped create the realistic portrayal of life after a zombie invasion, as believable effects and great make-up artistry worked their way onto our screens. The zombies are no longer blue with dark circles under their eyes, but rather, they look more like seriously ill people, with blood pouring from their eyes and noses. They scream and gurgle and act simply like frantic, terrifying animals. Even the music that accompanies these creatures is more jarring and so high pitched and quick that it will send you jumping out of your seat.

"28 Days Later" Trailer

Planet Terror

Planet Terror: 2007

This is a film I felt sick watching, due to Robert Rodriguez's pure genius in making a gritty, perverse Zombie film. The Zombies in this film are truly disgusting creatures, having been infected with some sort of biochemical agent that burns your skin off and turns you into a living monster. These zombies are quick and ruthless utilizing weapons to kill their victims.

The film is comical in the sense that is so unbelievably cheesy, but that humorous nature really doesn't make it any easier to watch people being torn apart. The graphics and special effects are brilliant and add to the gritty, uneasy of the film, even when there's very little action happening.

Planet Terror

I Am Legend

I am legend: 2007

Francis Lawrence's 'I Am Legend' is another great zombie film. This centers, for the majority, around a single person and so creates suspense and fear simply through loneliness. When there's literally no one out there to help, it's a bit more deep in its portrayal. These Zombies are yet again chemical based coming from a cure for cancer, to which the protagonist is immune. It also uses the 'Cure' aspect as the main character attempts and ultimately succeeds in creating a cure.

The Zombies themselves are extremely fast and screech as they sprint towards the victims in massive hordes. Gaunt from lack of food, since nearly every human has been eaten, they are sticking to the revolutionized skeletal-Zombie look but with much more strength to their bodies than ever before.

I Am Legend Trailer

World War Z

A World War Z-Zombie

World War Z: 2013

Marc Foster improved the zombie in a way that was inevitable, but nevertheless, frightening. Told from the point of view of a group of people attempting to find a cure, its fear factor is way up there. It begins with an idyllic family morning, followed by a car journey to work/school. Both parents and their two daughters are happily talking away when chaos happens in an instant. Someone flies by on an scooter tearing the side mirror off the car, a helicopter flies overhead, an explosions happens not far ahead, a truck passed taking out everything in its way, and then people getting out of their cars and running. Its a scene that will scare the hell out of you. we see a mass of people running everywhere, over cars, through windscreens, and jumping onto buildings. Its absolute chaos.

These zombies are not only super fast sprinters, they can jump incredibly high, and move in a wave like fashion, up the side of buildings with a strength equaled only in robot standards. Everything happens so fast, millions are dying at a time, and its this fast paced action that really gets your heart thumping. Unlike older films that utilize slow, suspense filled actions accompanied by slow almost beating music, World War Z is the exact opposite. It rushes the infection so that you barely have a chance to stop and realize what's happened, everything from that first car scene is an intense and quick development.

The film itself relies too much on finding 'the cure', something of this ferocity should certainly have been portrayed through people who didn't have access to helicopters and massive Army ships in the ocean, but the point there could easily be that these people simply could not survive long enough for a short film.

The zombies themselves have stayed human looking, except for some whitened eyes and a more gaunt, skeletal look. Their sheer numbers are truly frightening, but unlike older zombie films, even one of these could take out an army.

There You Have It...

The emergence of the Zombie saw slow, dull and completely mindless creatures with no thoughts other than to kill. While they have stayed true to their nature, they have evolved to monsters with an ability to kill thousands of people in an instant. The are fast, smart and strong, leaving little possibility of survival for the human race.

The development of these terrifying and unstoppable animals has taken nearly nearly a century, but with special effects becoming more accessible and graphics more technical and realistic, the Zombie genre will surely go even further faster.

Zombies In Film

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Questions & Answers

    © 2014 belleart


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      • belleart profile imageAUTHOR


        6 months ago from Ireland

        Thanks divakar! Il check it out

      • profile image

        Divakar Kuppan 

        6 months ago

        Made it after getting the inspiration from this post...

        Here you go...The Timeline of the Stupidly Genius Zombie Cinema

      • profile image


        2 years ago

        Amy you have Resident Evil where?

      • ajwrites57 profile image

        AJ Long 

        5 years ago from Pennsylvania

        Well, I think the movie does as far as the idea that humans can be transformed in someway (in this case, by alien invasion). The Resident Evil series uses both the scientific, genetic transformation and the virus.

      • belleart profile imageAUTHOR


        5 years ago from Ireland

        Ha, I never even thought of fire, that's brilliant! Which probably makes me worse than some of the characters in these films. :(

        Ive actually never seen 'Invasion of the body snatchers' but will certainly check it out if it helps in my analysis of zombie evolution. Thanks

      • ajwrites57 profile image

        AJ Long 

        5 years ago from Pennsylvania

        Yes, I'm amused how the zombie mythology has evolved. Don't forget that the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" contributed in some way with the idea that humans can be transformed in some way (pods or seeds, viruses, radiation ,etc.). I can't watch some of these movies because they seem to never learn that fire is better than bullets and bombs are better than fire. (They try to kill them with machetes or boards lol.) Sorry, belleart, I could go on and on. :o)

      • belleart profile imageAUTHOR


        5 years ago from Ireland

        ajwrites7, thanks for stopping by... Il check out those films, they sound really interesting! :)

      • ajwrites57 profile image

        AJ Long 

        5 years ago from Pennsylvania

        Interesting survey of the Zombie genre, belleart. There was a movie "I Walked with a Zombie" (1943) that had voodoo as a cause of the zombie curse.I think this was some of the earliest treatment of zombies rooted in Haitian and African religious practices and witchcraft or magic. I think there was even a zombie or to in Ian Fleming's "Live and Let Die!" Anyway, here's to all things zombies. make sure to carry antibiotics, some garlic, a cross and a Geiger counter with you!


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