Our Zombies, Ourselves: An Undead Reading List

A still from the 1968 film 'Night of the Living Dead.' (Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)

When you think of zombies, it’s likely you envision something like the flesh-eating, immortal creatures created by George Romero, who defined a new genre of horror with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Thanks to Romero, who died this week at the age of 77, the zombie movie has become more than a chance to feel scared. It’s also an essential lens through which we can view pop culture, politics, and society. In honor of the great director, here is some our favorite writing about the terror of the living dead.

1.“Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting,” by Matt Thompson (NPR Code Switch, October 2013)

One of Romero’s most famous narrative coups was casting a black actor as the hero of his 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. It was a decision that turned a run-of-the-mill horror movie into a complex commentary on the civil rights movement, and imbued other zombie films with the ability to criticize society.

The thing about good zombie fiction (and I say this as someone who enjoys an awful lot of zombie fiction) is that the zombies are never the most horrific thing. Zombies don‘t typically have the capacity for complex thought — they don‘t execute stratagems, play politics, torture people. All they do is feed. The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.

2.“Into the Zombie Underworld,” by Mischa Berlinski (Epic Magazine, November 2013)

Are zombies a mass delusion, an elaborate hoax, or a real phenomenon? Berlinski seeks answers in Haiti, where the myth of the zombie began. Though he doesn’t necessarily find the undead, his tense tale of zombie hunting might just disturb your sleep:

Upon removal from the coffin, the would-be zombie is fed a hallucinogenic drug from the plant Datura stramonium, locally known by the suggestive name concombre zombi. At the same time, the victim is given a ferocious beating by his captors. The final touch is the total rejection of the zombie by his own community. The cumulative effect is the destruction of the zombie‘s will — what the Haitians call the ti bon ange, or the good little angel, the unseen thing that gives personality and resolve to each individual soul. The victim is now a zombie, and he knows he is now a zombie: He has fallen into a well-known trap from which no man or woman escapes.

3.Zone One: The Beginning,” by Colson Whitehead (Esquire, September 2011)

This excerpt from Whitehead’s bestselling novel imagines what might happen if zombies — undead victims of a virus that he calls skels, or skeletons — take over Manhattan. Although the New York Times accused him of “genre-slumming,” Whitehead’s vision is a reminder that there’s plenty of room for art in genre fiction, and plenty of horror to be found in a recycled trope.

The one in the candy-pink dress suit had tackled him — the Marge wrenched him off-balance with her aggressive pursuit, and he couldn‘t right himself once this new one rammed him. It straddled him and he felt the rifle grind into his back; he‘d slung it over his shoulder during his pit stop by the window. He looked into the skel’s spiderweb of gray hair. The jutting pins, the dumb thought: How long did it take for its wig to fall off? (Time slowed down in situations like this, to grant dread a bigger stage.) The thing on top of him clawed into his neck with its seven remaining fingers. The other fingers had been bitten off at the knuckle and likely jostled about in the belly of one of its former coworkers. He realized he‘d dropped his pistol in the fall.

4.“The Rise of ‘The Walking Dead,’” by David Peisner (Rolling Stone, October 2013)

We love fictitious zombies, especially when they teeter across our TV screens. Take The Walking Dead, the AMC series that is nearing its eighth season. Peisner describes how the show went from comic book series to gory television hit, inspired in part by Romero himself.

At around 14, Kirkman first saw George A. Romero‘s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Although zombie stories had existed for centuries, Romero‘s film established the modern archetype — the shambling, single-minded corpses that spread their virus by biting the living and could only be dispatched with a shot to the head. To watch it now, despite the low production values, is to see the template for what Kirkman, and later Darabont, would do with The Walking Dead.

“A story about vampires or werewolves is a story about people going through that transformation,” says Kirkman. “But zombie stories are about human beings doing relatable things: protecting your family, finding food, building shelter.” Zombies, too, provide a handy metaphor — for the brain-dead masses forever hungry to feed their selfish appetites; for the relentless pressures of the world weighing down on us; for nearly anything beyond our control that scares us to death.

5. “The Political Economy of Zombies,” by John Powers (The Airship, September 2013)

Speaking of metaphors, zombies are a particularly apt way of referring to politics. For Powers, they’re a way to consider radical change that, despite the blood and guts, offers a glimpse of political utopia. Powers uses examples from zombie films like 28 Days Later to tease out a theory of zombies as a potent political alternative for a world in search of a revolutionary catastrophe.

Sometime in the years leading up to September 17, 2011, zombies had gone from being associated with a terror of mob rule to the promise of release from an inescapably all-encompassing system. To be clear: Zombies were not being equated with corporate capitalism — they had become the revolution itself. Zombies had become the alternative to the system with no alternative.

6. “The True Story of the Fake Zombies, the Strangest Con in Rock History,” by Daniel Ralston (Buzzfeed, June 2016)

Okay, so they weren’t real zombies, but no discussion of zombie longform can be complete without Ralston’s bizarre chronicle of how multiple rock groups pretended to be the British sensation The Zombies during the 1960s — and made out like bandits in the process. There’s something Romeroesque about con artists feeding on the identities of real musicians. Perhaps someone will adapt the story into a tongue-in-cheek horror film that would make the auteur proud.

Delta kept its operation simple. Hocott says the concert promoters in most cities knew they were getting fake versions of real bands. They operated as independent entities, each taking a huge percentage of the money earned. The bands had little recourse in asking for more. Ramsey remembers earning about $200 a week. As for the fans who were getting swindled, Hocott says, “When they were told, ‘Here’s the Zombies,’ they bought it. Even the strange parts, like the fact that they were touring without a keyboardist.” Fans left disappointed and the bands left town as quickly as possible. The less remembered, the better. “Then these guys came along.”

Hocott opens the manila envelope and hands me a stack of photos of the other fake Zombies. They are dressed in muted, vaguely psychedelic garb, ascots and striped trousers. It’s closer to the look of the actual Zombies. The second fake Zombies were a five-piece from nearby Marquette, Michigan, right in Delta’s backyard.