NEW YORK, NY -- Days from the season 6 premiere of the popular TV zombie drama “The Walking Dead,” and with the release of new comic books, it's clear to fans and non-fans alike that the undead frenzy is contagious and here to stay. If you're wondering why there is such a fascination, take a look at the interesting cultural and political connections between present-day zombie mania and past Hollywood movies, as well as real-life events.
Comic book fans are excited by two new releases —the “Ultimate Night of the Living Dead” series, based on George Romero's “Night of the Living Dead” cult movie that made flesh eaters pop culture icons; and Javier Hernandez's “Les Vodouisants,” a comic about supernatural Haitian zombies.
As these new books attest, the idea of modern Frankenstein monsters or the dead coming to life has become a global phenomenon. Take the iconic dancing ghouls in Michael Jackson’s 1983 “Thriller” music video, and more recently Cuba’s first zombie movie “Juan de los muertos” (“Juan of the Dead”) in 2011. Then there are the popular mash ups, like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” where Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters face off against the undead in a parody of Jane Austin’s classic 19th century romantic novel. It's also a comic and an upcoming movie.
Fans will tell you that much of this phenomenon can be traced back to George Romero’s 1968 movie “Night of the Living Dead,” which set the groundwork for present-day zombie dramas like “The Walking Dead.” Romero was born in the Bronx, NY; his father was Cuban of Spanish ancestry.
Romero’s cult film changed zombies from supernatural or religious creatures summoned by voodoo to flesh eaters created by an unexpected scientific mishap—radiation from a space probe to Venus wakes up the dead and drives them in hordes to towns and cities where they chomp on the living.
“There is an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins,” says a radio announcer in the 1968 movie. “The murders are taking place in villages and cities, in rural homes and suburbs with no apparent pattern nor reason for the slayings. It seems to be a sudden general explosion of mass homicide…”
Survivor stories from zombie attacks are remarkably similar to the testimonies of real-life massacres. “People dying all around us… It felt like a symphony of cries, screams, horror,” survivors recall in the documentary “Masacre de Tlatelolco” (“Tlatelolco Massacre”) about a student-led protest attacked by military and police in Mexico City on October 2, 1968—one day after the U.S. premiere of “Night of the Living Dead.”
According to The Guardian, between 150 and 500 people were killed or went missing, hundreds more were injured and roughly 2,000 were imprisoned.
1968 was a revolutionary year, with other student-led protests sweeping through the Sorbonne and Nanterre universities in Paris, Columbia University in New York, and cities around the world. These movements protested military and government repression, and young people everywhere rebelled against outdated laws and values that restricted their freedoms.
Similarly, low budget horror movies like “Night of the Living Dead” became powerful tools for protest; platforms where directors scared, shocked, and challenged viewers to address important issues like race, sexuality and gender.
In this sense, zombie stories, which often use crude language and violence, can also be sophisticated critiques of society.
“The ones out there, the living and the dead, they'll try to get in here,” says Rick Grimes, one of the main characters of “The Walking Dead” in the season five finale, referring to the walled community of survivors. In the TV show, like other zombie stories, walls can be both real and imagined, reminding viewers how fear divides people into opposing groups—us vs. them, good vs. evil, insiders vs. outsiders.
By comparison, characters in the “Ultimate Night of the Living Dead” comic, and the movie, are also divided and united by the fear of dying. And both psychological and physical walls prevent the living from humanizing the zombies. The dead are treated like pieces of meat, dragged and picked up with hooks, soaked with gasoline and burnt without funeral arrangements.
For some Latinos, the dead are much more than ghouls. “They are not meant to scare us,” said Javier Hernandez, Latino comic book creator of “Les Vodouisants” in a phone interview with NBC News. “El Día de los Muertos [Day of the Dead] is not the Mexican Halloween - it’s about love and respect for those who are no longer with us,” he explained.
Hernandez’s Haitian zombie comic tells the story of a man who uses voodoo to bring his fiancée back from the dead. “Les Vodouisants” is a throwback to older horror movies like “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943), which also revives characters in a voodoo ceremony.
For Hernandez, these spiritual zombies are a supernatural phenomenon that can connect fans with larger stories, asking them—how far are you willing to go to save a loved one?
Fans insist that all zombie stories build on each other’s perspectives. And the “Ultimate Night of the Living Dead” comic similarly pushes beyond Romero’s horror classic to connect the testimonies of different characters with present-day readers. Each storyline is like a small piece of a mirror, and when they are put back together, they reflect a much larger portrait of society.
The second wave of 10 “Ultimate Night of the Living Dead” issues will be released on October 11, the day of “The Walking Dead” premiere. “Les Vodouisants” is available online and can be pre-ordered now.