The Man Who Invented Zombies

by J.D. Cook

Last Saturday the world lost one of its great writers when Richard Matheson passed away. Although he is not the most talked about name out there; he is certainly one of the most influential. You see the Zombie craze that has completely devoured our current popular culture would not exist without him. Don’t believe me? Well keep reading!

In 1954 Richard Matheson published the novel I Am Legend. It was adapted many times to film but only the Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price truly captures the story. In Vincent Price as Richard Neville the novel Richard Neville is the lone survivor of a pandemic which turned the population into Vampires. That sounds familiar doesn’t it? Well that’s because that plot has been used in virtually every Zombies story to date. A small group of people faces a world overrun by flesh eating creatures while trying to survive a world that has utterly changed. Richard Matheson gave the world that plot. Along with that Matheson presented two types of Vampires in the story. One was an intelligent group and the other rather mindlessly attempted to eat him every night by surrounding his house and pounding on the door. Essentially I Am Legend was the seed for all the Zombie stories to come.

Many years later in 1968 George A. Romero would release his classic Night of the Living Dead. The film follows a small group of survivors trying to survive the night in a Pennsylvania farm house while fending off the ‘Living Dead’. This is the true invention of Zombies as we know them today. Before Romero the only zombie that existed were the old Voodoo types talked about in a few old films and by the various Voodoo Queens of New Orleans. Where did Romero get the idea for Night of the Living Dead from?

I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend, which is now back with us after a couple of incarnations prior. I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I said if you’re going to do something about revolution you should start at the beginning. I mean, Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit. I couldn’t use vampires because he did so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead?”

-George A. Romero in an interview with CinemaBlend.com

After Night of the Living Dead zombies began their slow crawl into the worlds public awareness. At first they only appeared in the Romero created sequels and a few films that used them to create very strange comedy films. It should also be noted that Romero wasn’t trying to create a film where people get eaten with lots of gore and action. All of his first three Zombie films are social commentary wrapped in the Zombie concept. Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism as the survivors become trapped in a mall and Day of the Dead deals with the military industrial complex of the era. Still Zombies had pretty much faded from most people’s consciousness by the mid-nineties.

It was video games that would then reanimate the undead. The Japanese game Biohazard known as Resident Evil in America was what put them back on the map as terrifying Shaun of the Dead enemies that could not be stopped and just kept coming. The franchise exploded soon after its release in 1996 and before anyone knew what was happening a Resident Evil movie was released in 2002 resulting in its own film franchise. Full disclosure I love the games and the first movie really got me into zombies but virtually every film since has been horrendous. Still Resident Evil really rebooted the living dead. The video game series even appears in an episode of Spaced starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and many hilarious other familiar British faces as well as being directed by Edgar Wright. This same crew would go on to make the hilarious Shaun of the Dead in 2004 which was a loving parody of Night of the Living Dead. Backtracking for a moment 2002 also saw the release of the fantastic 28 Days Later, a film that deals with Zombies in a way that is reminiscent of Romero in that it uses the pandemic to paint a gripping social commentary that deals with its characters on an extremely personal level.

Fast forward a few years and zombies have literally taken over. The Walking Dead comics are huge, and the show dominates television. Max Brooks has cashed in with his Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. There seems to be a new zombie film or video game RIP Richard Matheson every week and every time I think the zombie fad will return to its grave a new Zombie film, or game manages to make tons of money again. Thankfully for those who read this you now know where this all started and who is responsible…the late great Richard Matheson. So do yourself a favor and go read I Am Legend or one of his other fantastic works. Hell check out one of his Twilight Zone or Star Trek episodes. You can even check out some of his works made into films. The movie adaptation of What Dreams May Come literally changed my life as it made me aware of death. I hope in years to come more people come to view Matheson in the incredible light he deserves.

Want more Zombies or Post-Apocalypse stuff? Check out these links:

The Last of Us Review
The Basement of Solitude
Why You Don’t Lie: A Zombie Morality Tale
The Boy Who Would Survive the Undead
Resident Evil Nutshell Review
Resident Evil 2 Nutshell Review
Resident Evil 4 Nutshell Review