How TV and movie zombies have evolved from the mindless undead to superhuman killing machines

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How TV and movie zombies have evolved from the mindless undead to superhuman killing machines
"Army of the Dead" opening.Netflix
  • Zombies originate from Haitian Folklore and have been in stories for centuries.
  • With "Night of the Living Dead," George Romero set the framework for the zombies we see in media today.

Originating from Haitian folklore, the mythology of zombies has evolved significantly over the last hundred years in TV and film.

This transformation began in 1968 with George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," the first to give zombies a craving for human flesh.

Syfy recently brought zombies back to where they began by premiering a new "Day of the Dead" series named after one of George Romero's original zombie movies. The series pays homage to Romero's zombies whilst also highlighting how much they have changed by making its zombies more grotesque.

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Zombies originate from Haitian folklore

How TV and movie zombies have evolved from the mindless undead to superhuman killing machines
The dead rise from their graves unaided for the first time in "Night of the Living Dead."Image Ten

The History Channel website reports that zombies originate from Haitian folklore and are believed to be reanimated as mindless soulless creatures and controlled by a voodoo sorcerer called a Bokor.

After being brought to the West, early zombie movies continued this myth including "White Zombie," which is regarded as the first-ever zombie movie. This changed with "Night of the Living Dead," directed by George Romero, the start of the transformation of zombies on-screen.

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With Romero's 1968 movie and its sequels, the zombies had no controller or agenda except for a need to consume human flesh. Romero was the first to make every dead person part of the undead rather than a specific few and created key zombie traits such as zombie's iconic awkward shambling walking.

There are some traits that Romero can't take credit for such as brain-eating, which was introduced in the horror-comedy "The Return of the Living Dead" in 1985.

Early 21st-century zombie movies started to develop ideas of a zombie virus and started having fast-moving zombies

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How TV and movie zombies have evolved from the mindless undead to superhuman killing machines
"Resident Evil" is one of the most successful game adaptation movie series.Constantin Film

In Romero's movies, people would turn into zombies regardless of whether they were bitten or not. However, the idea of a zombie virus, which started with 1992's "Dead Alive," is now a more common explanation for how the undead exist and expand their numbers.

This idea, along with fast-moving zombies, became popular after the success of "Resident Evil" and "The House of the Dead" revitalized interest in the undead in the late 20th century. Andrew Garland, the writer behind "28 days later" credited "Resident Evil" specifically as reviving the zombie genre after its release in 1996.

"Sometimes '28 Days Later' is credited with reviving the zombie genre in some respect, but actually, I think it was 'Resident Evil' that did it because I remember playing 'Resident Evil,' having not really encountered zombies for quite a while and thinking: 'Oh, my God, I love zombies! I'd forgotten how much I love zombies. These are awesome!'" Garland told the Huffington Post in 2015.

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The movie adaptation of "Resident Evil" in the early 2000s, followed shortly by box-office hits "28 Days Later" and Zack Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" remake, cemented the zombie virus and running zombies in popular culture. "The Walking Dead" is one of the few exceptions of recent zombie stories that keep the zombies slow.

Zombies have changed in the way they look as well as the way they act in movies and TV

How TV and movie zombies have evolved from the mindless undead to superhuman killing machines
Zombies tend to be more monster-like in recent zombie movies and shows including Syfy's "Day of the Dead" reboot.Sergei Bachlakov / DOTD S1 Productions / SYFY

Although zombies' change in looks in movies largely has to do with the technology and materials available for makeup and practical effects, there are vast differences between monster-like zombies as seen in "The Walking Dead" and human-like zombies as seen in "Train to Busan."

Todd Masters, an Emmy award-winning makeup effects artist who worked on the latest "Day of the Dead" Syfy series, told Insider that whilst make-up teams are trained to be able to do different types of zombies, they are not usually given the budget to do so.

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"['The Walking Dead' makeup team] really put a lot of time and effort into [zombies] because they have the time and the budget. We did not, and so it kinda pulled us away from that look," Masters said about creating the look for the zombies in "Day of the Dead." "We were really looking to like Italian zombie movies. It's kind of not designed. They're messy, and they're drippy and there's fizzy shit going on."

21st-century zombie stories have started a trend of mixing other genres with the zombie trope

How TV and movie zombies have evolved from the mindless undead to superhuman killing machines
Zombies are able to pass as human in recent zombie tv shows such as "Santa Clarita Diet."Lara Solanki / Netflix

The 21st century's evolution of zombies was less to do with how zombies act. Instead, zombies are being brought into other genres such as zombie comedies, which started in 1985 with "The Return of the Living Dead," and zombie love stories, which started with 1993's "My Boyfriend's Back." This has been seen in notable zombie movies in the last 20 years like "Shaun of the Dead" and "Warm Bodies."

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TV series such as "iZOMBIE" and "Santa Clarita Diet" took this one step further by humanizing their zombies, making zombies the protagonist fighting the urge to become monsters.

This all comes together with "Army of the Dead," which is in the top 10 of Netflix's most-watched original movies ever and has the most advanced zombies ever. "Army of the Dead" not only mixes the heist genre with zombies but also makes their zombies communicate with each other almost like an animal pack.

How TV and movie zombies have evolved from the mindless undead to superhuman killing machines
Over the 11 seasons of "The Walking Dead," audiences have seen the walkers go through several stages of decay.Josh Stringer/AMC

Zack Snyder, who directed the movie, told Insider that he particularly wanted to make his zombies "sympathetic."

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"I liked this idea that the zombies aren't just killing us, they're here to replace us in some way ... like eventually there could just be a planet of the dead," Snyder said.

It seems that the next stage in evolution is making the undead human again, a trend that has been seen with every other iconic monster from aliens to vampires.

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