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Why zombies always seem to be alive and well in pop culture

“Night of the Living Dead" to “The Last of Us”, zombies remain a constant in our entertainment.
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From “Night of the Living Dead" to “The Last of Us,” zombies are a mainstay in our entertainment.

We’re past Halloween and most storefronts and ads are trying to jump ahead to the holiday season, but something that keeps coming back for us year-round seems to be … zombies.

Whether you’re a fan of the original 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, or got into the zombie genre through shows like The Walking Dead or The Last of Us — there are hundreds of zombie films and television shows out there. So, what does our fascination with zombies say about us? Maybe not just personally, but as a society?

Drago Momcilovic has some thoughts on that. Momcilovic is senior lecturer in comparative literature at UW-Milwaukee and teaches a class all about monsters and zombies in pop culture.

"I think that the zombie, sort of, comes to be associated with our own fears of death, and our own sort of anxieties about our own mortality," says Momcilovic. " I think those moments really sort of speak to the truth of the modern American iteration of the zombie, which is this exaggerated and intensified amplified version of our own fears of death and of of losing ourselves and our loved ones."

Momcilovic believes that the origin story of the zombie and its presence in pop culture can be traced to the general era after George Romero released his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. But the original concept dates back to Caribbean folklore and evolved throughout the history of the transatlantic slave trade.

"Many people from the West who traveled through these regions, picked up stories and myths about these so-called zombies. [These were] people that had been abducted and drugged and then sort of reawakened in compromised states of cerebral function to perform indentured labor, or essentially in slave labor," explains Momcilovic. Most countries have their own version of the zombie concept. Here in the U.S., it's morphed into a general, supernatural terror.

Even though the concept is frequently used, there are methods to making a zombie show or movie feel fresh and unique. "Despite the associations with the speculative genre, ... there has to be some sort of semblance of psychological realism in order for a zombie television show to really thrive," says Momcilovic. "It has to allow audiences to imagine themselves as not only being able to inhabit those spaces, but to understand how, sometimes, the decision of survival can be extremely tricky and sometimes devastating in its own way."


Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Robert is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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