Zombies in Pop Culture

For the midterm in my Speech class, we were required to give an 8-minute informative speech on a topic of our choice, and were urged to pick unusual topics. Naturally, I picked zombies, and eventually presented a history of zombies in pop culture. Here’s the outline of my speech.

Zombies in Pop Culture

General Purpose Statement: To Inform

Specific Purpose: To inform the audience about the history of zombies in pop culture

Central Idea: Zombies are some of today’s most potent movie monsters, but how did they get there?


Attention Getter: The zombie apocalypse is coming. Will you survive?

Introduce Topic: Pop culture is becoming inundated with zombies – movies, games, comics, novels, even music dedicated to the undead hordes. But what are zombies? Where did they come from? What makes them stand out from classic monsters like vampires or werewolves?

Statement of Credibility: According to the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, “The phenomenon of zombies, the living dead, is one of the most popular aspects of Haitian voodoo that has created a morbid interest and has inspired myriads of movies. … The terror that is engendered by zombies is not the fear that they can be evil, but the fear that one might become one of them” (Garneau 955).

Thesis: The modern zombie was first introduced in the late 1960s, but is even more potent today than ever.

Preview: To understand zombies, we must first discover where they came from.

Transition: Prior to the 1960s, zombies in the media were more closely related to their voodoo origins.


A. Prior to 1968

Typically, in voodoo, a zombie would be created when a bokor, who was a kind of shaman, would use a powerful poison to cause a person to appear dead. Their unsuspecting relatives would bury the body, which would then be dug up by the bokor and revived, then drugged again to place the victim in a highly suggestible stupor, and finally sold into slavery (Garneau 955). Zombie films prior to the late 1960s focused on this aspect of the zombie.

Transition: The 1968 release of Night of the Living Dead changed how pop culture perceives zombies forever.

B. 1968-1985: George A. Romero’s Zombie Makeover

Simon Pegg, co-creator and star of the 2004 zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, noted that the fascination of a young filmmaker named George A. Romero with the novel I Am Legend led Romero to fixate on an aspect of the story that was skipped over by the author: “the process by which humanity is subjugated by the aggressive new species. Romero adopted the Haitian zombie and combined it with notions of cannibalism, as well as the viral communicability characterised by the vampire and werewolf myths, and so created the modern zombie” (Pegg).

With Night of the Living Dead, Romero set the standard for all other zombie fiction to follow, and established several conventions that define the modern zombie: the stories “feature hordes of cannibalistic human corpses that relentlessly pursue an isolated group of survivors and can only be killed by a gunshot or blow to the head” (Bishop 25). But Romero didn’t stop there; though not a requirement of the genre, all of his films also contain a large degree of social commentary. Night of the Living Dead “functions largely as a metaphor for the atrocities of Vietnam and racism,” its 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead lampoons “capitalism and rampant consumerism,” and his third film, 1985’s Day of the Dead, served as a “metaphor … addressing Cold War fears and paranoia” (Bishop 18).

Unfortunately, the zombie genre would be dealt its cruelest blows by both a well-meaning imitator and the King of Pop; 1985 also saw the release of Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, which broke several of Romero’s rules by introducing talking zombies and the “now-quintessential eating of brains” (Bishop 18). Michael Jackon’s “Thriller”video, released in 1983, is also regarded as having dealt a severe blow to the credibility and terror of zombies for the public (Bishop 18, Pegg).

Transition: With the exception of the Resident Evil games in the late 1990s, zombies returned to their graves until they were needed again following the September 11 attacks.

C. Post-9/11 Renaissance

Zombies were reanimated with a frighteningly plausible science fiction twist in 2002 with the release of 28 Days Later and the film adaptation of Resident Evil. 28 Days Later introduced “faster, more feral” zombies that were the result of the accidental release of a government bio-warfare project, and were actually still-living, infect humans, rather than reanimated corpses, and “audiences responded as if the genre were new” (Bishop 19).

Since 2002, dozens of zombie films have been released, as well as a number of video games and board games, and the genre has spread even further, into the realms of television, printed fiction with both novels and comic books, and even music (Bishop 19). Zombies have made appearances the sixth Harry Potter novel, Marvel comic books, and even an episode of Star Trek.

Conclusion: With a history spanning more than four decades, the modern zombie is undead and well, and shows no sign of slowing down.

Review: Now that we’ve learned more about the history of the zombie phenomenon, from is origins in Haitian voodoo, its reinvention into its modern form by George A. Romero in the late 1960s, and its reanimation in the wake of the September 11 attacks, we can be better prepared for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

Concluding Remark: Would you survive to see the post-apocalypse television documentaries? Or would you be part of the zombie horde?

Works Cited

Bishop, Kyle. “Dead Man Still Walking.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 37.1 (2009): 16-25. Print.

Garneau, Genevieve. “Zombies.” Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002nd ed. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002. 955-56. Print.

Pegg, Simon. “The dead and the quick.” Guardian.co.uk. The Guardian, 1 Nov. 2008. Web. 14 July 2009. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/nov/04/television-simon-pegg-dead-set>.

St. John, Warren. “Market for Zombies? It’s Undead (Aaahhh!).” NYTimes.com. New York Times, 26 Mar. 2006. Web. 14 July 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/26/fashion/sundaystyles/26ZOMBIES.html>.

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