The Zombie Plague

There are many constants in the world of gaming: World War 2 settings, health packs you run over to pick up, insanely hard boss battles at the end of levels, the list could go on and on.  There is, however, a more prominent constant that most people may not even have picked up on.  The undead, the altered living, the newly risen, or as most of us call them… ZOMBIES!  I would like to say that zombies were an entirely modern phenomenon, but zombies have been infecting our games for over thirty years now and the spread of the zombie infection shows no signs of abating.

The undead masses of popular culture.

Why do we have such a gaming fascination with zombies? Think about it, we seem to hold in some kind of regard what is basically the most terrifying of all monsters.  Creatures that eat you alive and happily munch on your brains!  Not exactly the perfect role models, and yet still zombie games sell by the shed-load. Indeed, games featuring zombies are some of the highest grossing games out there, quite literally.

Just some of the zombie games on the app store.

If you go on to the Apple App Store and type in the word “Zombie” you will return over a hundred results of the available games, most of which have been given five star user ratings.  To go any way to understanding the infection I think we should first look at where the whole zombie thing started.

Zombies first started their shamble through this world through the beliefs of voodoo. It was widely believed that a dead person could be revived by a bokor, who was basically a voodoo sorcerer.  The belief was that a zombie was a spiritual entity that only exists for a short time to eventually be taken away by God. Some also believed that the quick way to return a zombie to the grave was to feed it salt.  Over the years many have offered suggestions as to the actual reasoning behind zombies; the most popular train of thought is that the state of zombification is actually induced through a cocktail of drugs.  Evidence of actual cases, which are rare to properly uncover, suggests that the person who is to become a zombie is fed a concoction that induces a death like state, almost hibernation.  This makes others believe that the person has passed the mortal coil, then by some magic of the bokor, or the effects of drugs wearing off, the person is then re-animated as a zombie, back from the dead.  Zombie purists are quick to dismiss this theory as utter nonsense due to the fact that it does away with the whole undead theory in place of someone having a really bad trip.

None of this comes anywhere near to explaining the modern iterations of how we perceive zombies, though. So where do the zombies we know and love so much come from?  Three words, George A Romero, the father of the modern zombies.  1968 saw the release of a low budget, political commentary laden film by the name of  ” Night of the Living Dead”.  Romero took two mainstays of the horror genre, the vampire and the zombie and fused them together giving us the Romero Zombies. Instead of mindless slaughter, the zombies, which had been portrayed in films before, now had a blood-lust.  The Romero films were not just about the thirst for blood by the zombies, they also addressed political comments over such issues as slavery, government shortcomings and greed.

But still we are only part of the way to discovering the zombies we know today.  It took until 1985 before our undead chums added the final string to their bow that would make them formidable opponents.  The non Romero film “Return of the Living Dead” was the first film that revealed our zombies true longing, a penchant that up until 1985 we didn’t know about.  A zombie in the film was heard to mumble the word that would strike fear in to so many for generations to come, “Braaaaaaiiiiiiinnnnnnnsssssssss”.  So in cinematic terms at least, 1985 marked the point where the modern zombie finally took the form that we have come to know. But where had zombies featured in games up to this point and beyond?

George Romero with his children.

Often referenced as the first zombie game to come out was a game I played on the ZX Spectrum way back in 1984, by the name of “Zombie Zombie”.  This was a sequel to the very popular Ant Attack and was one of the pioneers of isometric gaming. The zombies just appeared as blobs on the screen and weren’t very scary at all.  Amazingly the ’80s were quite bereft of decent zombie games after that, only a game of the movie “The Evil Dead” went any way to feeding any zombie hunger.  The ’80s were famous for the cult of the “Video Nasty”, films that were deemed too horrific to be seen and were banned. The video game market was still in its infancy at this point and didn’t capitalise on an opening to make nasty games.  The 1990s, however, weren’t quite as sedate and zombie fever started to break out all over the place. One of my favourite zombie themed games was released late 1993, “Zombies”, or “Zombies ate my Neighbours” was a fun, cartoon inspired romp through B-Movie cliches; everything was right about the game.  Still, though, we hadn’t witnessed the true horror of zombies and it wasn’t until a few years later that we were subjected to the true horror of the undead.  Jaws dropped open and couches were hidden behind, all preceded by the now immortal phrasing of two words, “Resident Evil”.

The awesome remake, was awesome!

Resident Evil introduced us to shambling zombie killing machines, intent on one thing, the devouring of humans.  The first cut scene you encountered during gameplay was actually censored for some countries. Here we saw a zombie eating one of your team mates, stopping and turning to the camera dripping in blood. The modern gaming zombie had arrived.  The numerous sequels and prequels to  Resident Evil further cemented the zombies as a mainstay in the world of gaming.  Suddenly zombies were everywhere. The House of the Dead series, Medievil, Wolfenstein, Shadowman, and many more all featured the walking dead.  After a brief dip in popularity, zombies came back with a vengeance in the last five years. Left 4 Dead, Plants Vs Zombies, Stubbs the Zombie, and countless others flooded the market. These games each furthered the modern zombie mythology in their own way. But then something strange happened, Call of Duty World at War featured an unlockable section where you were tasked with fending off zombie Nazis. This was a huge gamble for such a popular series but it paid off and zombie lovers and shooting fans lapped it up.  The infection was spreading more and more now into other gaming genres, and indeed just recently, Red Dead Redemption has added on a zombie pack. Necessary?  That’s for you to decide.

There still is no explanation as to why zombies are so popular in modern gaming. Is it just a cult thing or is there more to it?  From my own point of view, I believe we can trace back the popularity to almost an exact date, June 1997.   Around this time a game called ” Carmageddon” was released. Some of you may know it as a vehicle based combat game, much in the mould of the Death Race film, and you would be right.  However, the game nearly wasn’t released due to one small fact – you ran down pedestrians and saw the red blood splatter about. In an attempt to avoid a total ban or censure the publishers did a very clever thing.  The human pedestrians in the game were turned into zombies, with green blood.  It was now okay to run them over and kill them.  Here we saw the first example of substituting human characters for zombies to be able to mutilate and maim them in a way that would never be allowed to happen to humans in a video game.  Yes the zombies have human form, but giving then green skin and on occasion, green blood makes it morally acceptable to murder them. Now the games had come full circle and were catering to the blood lust of the gamers, not the zombies.

Of course my opinion is small in the whole scheme of things so I roped in some gaming friends to give me their thoughts on our undead brethren.  I wanted to know if gamers actually liked zombies. The results were varied to say the least, “I liked Zombies, until they started turning up in about 80% of games. They’re the new Nazis, vaguely middle eastern turban-wearer, and insignificant security guard all rolled into one”, were the thoughts of one gamer. But was that how everyone felt? “I love them. I’ve had a fascination with zombies since playing Resident Evil and my love of them has just grown through the years due to so many excellent games, films, books and artwork”, one of my zombie loving friends told me. So I was getting opposing opinions already.

I then wanted to know if gamers distinguished between killing zombies over people, “Of course, I mean this is the main impetus for using zombies. The survivors of Left for Dead or Dead Rising can mow down hordes of shuffling corpses without missing a shred of their humanity. They are a complete moral grey area, that’s why they’re so useful for developers”, I was told, and pointed towards a likeness to my own thoughts. “It’s definitely better to kill zombies than people. Zombies are already dead. It’s like kicking an empty can of beer. The precious life force has already been drained, so we can kick away without remorse”, another gamer told me, and it seemed that when it came to zombie slaying, my fellow gamers were in agreement with me.  Although one gamer did have an interesting take on the  killing humans over zombies aspect, “It is better to kill people than zombies as the catastrophes capable by mankind are far greater in number and risk than those capable of zombies”. Food for thought, indeed.

An article about zombies wouldn’t be complete without finding out what zombie games everyone prefers. The results aren’t really surprising with the top votes being split between Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead.  “Resident Evil will always have an seriously special place in my heart because its what opened up my mind to the world of zombies”, a Resi fan told me.  “Left 4 Dead 2. Great characters, and the killing zombies with a frying pan is so satisfying”, was the only culinary reason I got for liking a game.  The Dead Rising games also received lots of votes and praise from gamers but not with as much praise as the aforementioned games.  There were also a few votes for the excellent Plants vs Zombies and a couple of votes for the old Medievil game and the overlooked Stubbs the Zombie.  I will put my vote in for the Resident Evil series. I loved the first game; the Gamecube remake was a stunning piece of software and of course much kudos has to go to Resident Evil 4.  The Left 4 Dead games would be my second place and Dead Rising would occupy the third place.

The terror of Left 4 Dead.

So there you go, zombies started off as a part of the voodoo religion and stayed that way for a few hundred years. The advent of cinema turned them in to violent monsters and the advent of games turned zombies into formidable enemies then ultimately cannon fodder for the masses.  Zombies can be seen as easy targets, some would argue that they are a visualisation of troubled times in society; whatever they mean to you personally, zombies are the current ‘in’ thing in the video games market.  It seems that many big games are relying on zombie mode to assure high sales. Reach, Black Ops and Red Dead all have zombie modes and I wonder if anyone considered this when thinking of buying the games. All this talk of zombies has put me in the mood for a bit of Jonathan Coulton now, maybe zombie music is the next step forward.







3 responses to “The Zombie Plague”

  1. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    It feels like zombies are being embraced by games whereas vampires are turning up in tv and movies more. There have been some great zombie games, Dead Rising 2 was much eagerly awaited but even games without zombies as the core aggressors can be fun. The Island Of Dr. Ned (or Zombie Island) has been my favourite DLC for Borderlands yet I didn’t spend alot of time playing the zombie nazis mode of World At War.

    World War II was a common setting for first person shooters but now it’s more about modern day settings. I wonder how long it will be before zombies become redundant as a core enemy.

    Good read Martin.

  2. Martin avatar

    My worry is, games that really, really don’t need a zombie mode will end up with one, purely for financial gain. Arkham City-zombie challenge! No thank you.
    That aside, I do like zombie games and find them enjoyable, I just don’t want to tire of them.

  3. Ninja avatar

    I read an article about the things a few days ago as it happens! Zombies tend to reflect people’s fears really, a boogieman I guess, whether it be the pure thing of becoming nothing but mindless animals, violent or not, or just as a product of (and/or metaphor for) other things. Anything from the Romero criticisms of racial relations/consumerism/etc to, say, the more modern fears of genetic research a la 28 days later. Or something 🙂 In fact, the meddling of science is a key feature of much horror literature and other fiction from, oh, Frankenstein onward maybe. But that’s a whole other story, eh?

    Zombies are people too 😉

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