The undead rise to the occasion

Zombies have become a cultural phenomenon, but their presence might point to something more

Though movie zombies have been around since the 1930s, it wasn't until George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead that they came to the cultural forefront.
Though movie zombies have been around since the 1930s, it wasn't until George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead that they came to the cultural forefront.

In case of a zombie apocalypse, Mark Asfar would use a crowbar, useful for opening doors, to apply blunt force trauma to a zombie head.

“You don’t want to make loud noises in a world where people are trying to eat you,” he said referring to the minimal noise which results from utilizing a crowbar.

Asfar, ArtSci ’14, has been an avid zombie fan since he was young, a product of watching the 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead.

“I was scared shitless of it,” Asfar said.

The original film is a sequel to Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. It’s a storyline featuring classic to modern elements in zombie films — a group of people trapped in isolation, a farmhouse in this case, and fending off the hungry undead.

A zombie is essentially the living dead — an animated corpse with the sole purpose of feeding on the living.

This movie would kick-start the modern zombie phenomenon, a cultural genre that captivates people to this day.

Whether its thousands of the ‘undead’ lurching through Toronto’s downtown core in the recent Zombie Walk or millions tuning into AMC’s zombie-centric series The Walking Dead, it’s clear that zombies have a place in contemporary culture.

For Asfar, his morbid fascination with the genre comes from its art of unexpectedness.

“[With] vampires, ghosts, mummies ... it’s all just obviously evil,” he said. “Zombies sort of creep up on you. They are human beings and suddenly … they’re this thing that’s trying to kill everyone in the room.

“[It’s] a scary concept that you can’t trust people around you.”

Despite Asfar’s extensive zombie apocalypse plan that involves hiding out in the windowless lower levels of the Physical Education Centre, he doesn’t foresee the undead overrunning the planet anytime soon.

“It’s going to take a very specific disease and a specific set of stupid [people] to let that happen,” he said.

But zombie stories might allude to something greater than a possible apocalypse.

“People are becoming more aware of how frail they are and how dependent on society they’re becoming,” he said.

Zombies have become so entrenched in our culture that they’ve become devices for something else entirely.

During the Occupy Wall Street protests of late 2011, demonstrators would dress as zombies as a way of commenting on corporate structures. The zombie became a metaphor for the mindless “corporate slave.”

“It’s interesting to see how this evolved now,” he said. “It became fear of the dead and then fear of ourselves.

“It’s always a different metaphor for our generation.”

According to University of Toronto professor Garry Leonard, this originates from the horror movies of the 50s, precursors to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

One of these films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, explores what it would be like if zombie-like, emotionless aliens overtook the planet, all while physically resembling human beings.

“It explores social paranoia,” he said. “And then you can show how people pull together or fail to pull together under stress.”

Leonard, who is a professor of film and English, said before Night of the Living Dead, zombie films relied on racist metaphors — images of Haitian voodoo priestesses casting spells and brewing potions that would wake the dead.

Romero, Leonard said, reinvented that image by omitting the explanation for the zombies’ origins by focusing on the people’s fear.

“What he gives you in a zombie is insatiable appetite,” he said. “That’s new. The Haitian zombies didn’t eat anything.

“Even if they did [eat you], it wouldn’t turn you into one of them.”

It’s this sense of feeling unsafe, Leonard said, that makes zombies applicable to what we see in today’s headlines — such as the recent XL Foods Ltd. crisis where an E. coli outbreak led to a food safety scare.

“There’s an echo of the zombie thing there. You’re introducing something into your system, into your home, to everybody you love,” he said. “It’s toxic.”

It’s just a metaphor for how modern society would crumble, he said.

“That’s how modern infrastructures would go down. They would get overrun by numbers,” he said. “What’s scary to me about [zombie] movies … is what they represent.”

A society of zombies


28 Days Later (2002)

The story begins in ghost town London, where a virus has decimated the population. A patient wakes up from a coma four weeks after the initial event to seek out answers from other survivors. While older films portray zombies as slow-moving, this 2002 film features running zombies. The movie also helped encourage the idea that zombies are the result of a virus infestation.

Also see: Shaun of the Dead (2004), White Zombie (1932).


The Walking Dead (2010-present)

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the storyline focuses on a group of survivors fighting to live after a zombie apocalypse. As the series goes on, the story reveals more about how humans interact with each other in the face of the dangerous undead. The show has developed a cult-like following, attracting millions of viewers each week.

Also see: Ugly Americans (2010-present).

Video Games

DayZ (2012)

From its humble origins as a user-designed modification of the video game ARMA 2, DayZ drops players into a post-apocalyptic world with no weapons and limited knowledge. In the struggle to survive, players must find weapons and explore the realistically-designed game. A player has just as much reason to fear other players in the same way that they fear the looming zombies.

Also see: Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil series.


World War Z (2006)

This fictitious horror novel by Max Brooks, the author of 2003’s The Zombie Survival Guide, follows several accounts from survivors of a zombie apocalypse. The book follows people from different nationalities, showing the effects of a zombie plague on a worldwide scale.

Also see: The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, Cell by Stephen King.

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