The History of Zombies in Popular Culture, and How Dead Rising Fits Into the Scene

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Zombies are arguably a large part of modern popular culture. A presence that is by no means restricted to a specific medium, zombies can be found in film, literature, television and, of course, games. With the release of Dead Rising 3 on the horizon we at Giz bring you a brief look into the history of the zombie.

 

The 'traditional' zombie

Believe it or not, zombies weren't always the flesh eating monsters we know and love. The concept can be traced back to the tenets of Voodoo in West Africa, and later Haiti. Within Voodoo a 'zombi' is the body of a deceased person that is revived by a sorcerer or 'bokor'. The revived body has been stripped of its humanity and any free will. From then on the zombi fall under the bokor's control and forced to do their bidding. Unlike the modern idea of a zombie, Voodoo zombis are not especially dangerous.

The idea of zombis may have come from legend and folk tales, and hasn't stopped attempts to understand the origins of the tales and make sense of them. Such explanations have included combinations of psychotropic drugs that would induce a zombie-like state and various mental illnesses. For the most part these explanations have not been well regarded in the scientific community. So like all myths, they remain myths.

 

The modern 'undead' zombie

As you may now be aware, the modern depiction of a zombie is noticeably different from the traditional kind. Like the Voodoo zombi, the modern zombie is a dead body given new life with little will of their own. The major difference is that the modern zombie has not been brought back through mystical means and in most cases the phenomenon is more widespread than a single individual. These zombies are mindless beasts, driven by pure instinct and often characterised with a craving for human flesh, though some depictions restrict this craving to the brain.

The modern zombie owes its existence to George A Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. At the time it was a huge jump from previous depictions of the undead on film. Drawing from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, with the zombies being described as taking aspects of the Voodoo zombi and blending them with aspects commonly associated with vampires, it created a creature more or less unknown at the time of the film's release.

But despite the success of Night of the Living Dead and its 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, zombies were not as widely popular as they are today. By the mid 1980s the genre had almost completely disappeared and was, for the most part, restricted to underground cinema with the likes of Peter Jackson's Braindead.

The turn of the century brought about a renaissance for the zombie genre. Not only did the popularity of zombie cinema spike in the Asian film market thanks to a number of low budget films, but they began to be featured heavily in films and games in the west. The likes of 28 Days Later, Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and the film adaptation of Resident Evil brought zombies back from the brink and into the public's imagination once more.

 

The 'infected human' zombie

Many purists would adamantly deny the right for examples of this sub genre to be classified as zombies, but the introduction of the idea of an infection that induces zombie-like symptoms on the victim has had some impact on the popularity of the genre. But despite the protests of said purists, this cause of zombification is not new and can be again traced back to I Am Legend -- as the vampires in the novel included humans infected with the plague in addition to the reanimated dead. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later and Dead Rising all feature some sort of zombie archetype in which the cause is a medical infection of some sort.

This sub genre of zombie cinema and gaming also gave rise to the so-called 'fast' zombie, named due to the fact that they are not slow, lurching, dimwitted creatures, but are instead faster, tougher, and in some cases possessing near-human intelligence. A far more terrifying thought.

 

Zombies in the world of gaming

Despite the dip in popularity of zombie cinema, they have had a fairly consistent presence in the gaming world since the mid 1980s. That being said, it wasn't until the mid to late 1990s that any universally-recognisable and influential zombie games were released. I do of course mean the likes of House of the Dead, Resident Evil and the beloved piece of gaming nostalgia Medi-Evil (whatever happened to that anyway?). Following on from these successful entries, zombies spread out into the world of gaming in a variety of interesting and unique ways. Anyone who has played Half Life or Halo will remember the quite distinct (and oddly similar) zombie-esque creatures that are present throughout each game. While the Head Crabs and The Flood may not match the exact definition of a zombie, the influence can be seen nonetheless.

The past 10-15 years have seen an explosion of memorable zombie games. 2001 brought us the concept of Nazi zombies in Return to Castle Wolfenstein from Doom creator iD Software -- an idea that would be adopted for multiplayer in Call of Duty: World at War. Fast forward a few years and you have the ever-controversial Postal 2 in 2005 and later on in 2008 we were introduced to Valve's zombie apocalypse shooter Left 4 Dead alongside the zombie-inspired Dead Space. Since 2005 there have been that many zombie games that it would be impossible to list them all here.

 

How Dead Rising fits into things

The original Dead Rising came out in 2006 on the Xbox 360 to critical acclaim, though the idea of combining zombies with comedic elements is almost as old as the zombie genre itself. The special thing about Dead Rising is that the comedy is much more subtle; it is entirely possible to complete and play the game through without coming across any comedy at all. Rather than being plot-specific, the comedy in Dead Rising lies in the sandbox and what you could achieve outside the main storyline. No other game lets you turn your character into a guitar-wielding cross-dressing zombie slayer, does it?

But how does Dead Rising fit into the zombie genre? The zombies themselves fit the archetypal view of the lumbering, mindless husks, but the cause is a defined scientific infection -- one that can be held at bay if treated regularly. They are sort of a middle ground between the various breeds of zombies that have developed -- they have the physical characteristics of the classic undead zombie but with the scientific basis that is ever-present in more recent zombie fiction.

The most striking thing about the first game is its resemblance to Dawn of the Dead, a claim that has been dismissed as a coincidence by creators Capcom. But this resemblance is so uncanny that Dead Rising was forced to include a disclaimer on the cover. That similarity can't have been an accident. When you think about it carefully, could Dead Rising have brought the zombie genre back to its roots as a social commentary? Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead both having larger themes than just flesh eating monsters, after all. Night' s zombies were supposed to be a metaphor for capitalism and its inherent greed, whilst Dawn was a commentary of American consumerist culture.

Dead Rising's notable similarity to Dawn of the Dead could well be a revival of Dawn's commentary of consumer culture, using the subtle humour within the game as a form of satire. The fact that you can use a variety of the merchandise from the shopping centre setting as weaponry could well be implanting the idea that in the end it's all useless. Hence why it breaks so infuriatingly quickly. Gameplay mechanics, be damned.

Similarly Dead Rising 2 and its Las-Vegas-clone setting could well have been intended as a satirical view of the obsession with celebrity and reality TV. There does seem to be a reality TV show about everything these days -- if zombies were real I honestly wouldn't be surprised if they were the focus of a television programme developed by Simon Cowell.

It's not a stretch to assume that the Dead Rising series is bringing the thematics of the zombie genre back to its roots and using the popular genre to highlight and ridicule certain aspects of modern life.

That being said, the true focus of the Dead Rising series has, of course, always been about finding creative ways to kill as many zombies as possible. Dead Rising 3 is set to be no different.

Like the previous instalment Dead Rising 3 brings back the combo weapons -- custom weapons made by combining a number of others, taping chainsaws onto a kayak paddle for example. But there's an exciting new feature here, the introduction of 'super combos' -- a feature that will make mutilating the undead far more fun and interesting than ever before. One such weapon is the epically named Ultimate Grim Reaper, a combination of a katana, a scythe, a gas canister and a gas mask. Quite frankly it sounds like a contender for the prestigious title Greatest Video Game Weapon Ever.

Most importantly, there is a new feature in the game's Sandbox, combo weapons can be crafted out and about -- unlike Dead Rising 2 which necessitated a trip back to a workbench to make your kick ass custom weapons.

But Dead Rising 3 is more than a mere rehash of previous games with a few extra weapons added, this is a game built specifically for the Xbox One. Those of you with loud-mouthed flatmates may want to go shopping before November 22nd and stock up on that sweet silver silencer known as Duct Tape. With Kinect plugged it silence is essential as it does something rather special, if you talk within range of the sensor's microphone the in-game zombies will hear it. You heard that correctly. A simple conversation about football, or what pizza to order will reel in the unending zombie hordes. Lips locked people.

But wait there's more! Kinect also allows you to give instructions to allies and fire taunts at enemies, all through the power of your voice. No more pesky conversation window navigation for us!

Similarly Smartglass features help to improve the quality of your Dead Rising experience. The app can be loaded up during game play as your own personal PDA-like device, granting you extra missions, weapons, and the spectacular ability to call in military support. Need to get back to a safehouse but there are just too many zombies in the way? With Smartglass you call in an air strike. Simples!

It's a great example of the potential of Kinect and Smartglass in the next generation of Xbox gaming. By allowing that simple segment of immersive gameplay it gives you a greater gaming experience, as if you're actually there living through a zombie apocalypse. Better yet, the power behind the Xbox One means that it is able to render three times as many zombies as before. That's a lot of skulls to smash.