The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall Again of Zombie Nation

There are times when we love to watch our former bowling buddies snack on small children-- or revel as our next door neighbor munches on the mailman.

And, there are times when we would rather not.

Our passion for living-dead cinema waxes and wanes. These modern monster movies tell us more about the state of American politics than just about any other facet of popular culture--the best barometer we have of when society is flashing red.

Zombie movies have been a Hollywood staple for very long time. They were part of the horror movie craze in the 1930s and early 1940s, though back then the dead didn't eat the living or conform to any other of the rules for appropriate modern zombie-like behavior.

During the depression years, horror films became a way for Americans to wring-out their anxieties over all their troubles, With Frankenstein, Dracula and later the Wolfman, Universal pictures established the monster movie as a theatrical cash cow. Americans wanted so spend their scarce entertainment dollars to be terrified. Looking for more box-office business, studios scrambled for scripts with anything evil. That's how zombies got enlisted in the campaign at saturday matinees to distract the dwellers in the dust bowl from the reality of soup kitchens and Hoovervilles.

Mostly drawing on zombie-mythology from Caribbean voodoo practices, the original zombies were either living humans bewitched by evil forces or the dead brought back to life to serve their evil masters. They walked like arthritis victims and had no will of their own. Shuffling along in films like White Zombie (1932) or Revolt of the Zombies (1936) they too found their way to the silver screen.

Zombies 1.0 continued to show-up in movies from through the 1960s, but they never really caught on as an established franchise. While Universal's Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman appeared in movies again and again, there were never zombie sequals.

The living dead were simply second-tier horror.

Zombie movies still appeared occasionally because they were cheap to make, like the other scary staple of the time, the guy in gorilla suit. Zombies were even less expensive than renting a ape suit. No make or special effects required, producers just had had to hire extras to amble around like they were walking. Even then, more often than not, the studio would spring for the gorilla costume, cranking our really bad films like the truly awful Bela Lugosi Meets the Brooklyn Gorilla (1952).

Over time, monster movies in general became less of a box office draw. Americans had real horrors to worry about. With our troops fighting on every front from Germany to New Guinea, the war film became the place where we worked out our darkest fears. In movies like Guadalcanal Dairy (1943), the GI generation, during and after the war, watched the all-American squad with one kid from Jersey, one from New Mexico, and another from some farm in Iowa, topple real-life monsters.