The classic by George A. Romero Dead The movies may have sparked an explosion of zombie media, but it took a while for these undead ghouls to invade TV screens. Unlike Ghosts, Werewolves and Vampires, which have benefited from popular shows like dark shadows, buffy the vampire slayer and Supernatural, dragging corpses were usually left out of prime time shows. Although that changed with the success of AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman The Walking Dead, this does not mean that the zombies were always absent from the small screen. That’s why I’d like to explore the inevitable rise of “Z-TV” and why we still love it.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll only consider “modern” undead zombies, since the voodoo-inspired drones of early horror have little in common with the cannibalistic monsters we know and love. We also exclude ghostly/spooky depictions of the undead, as that would stretch the definition of “zombie” a bit too much.
In any case, arguably the first instance of anything resembling modern zombies on television happened in 1964, predating Romero’s iconic version of the flesh-eating ghouls by four years! In blurred areait’s Mr. Garrity and the Graves, Rod Serling brought audiences the supposedly true story of a Wild West con man who convinced the people of a small town that he could raise the dead. Although it primarily focuses on the social consequences of resurrecting deceased citizens, the episode ends with the disgruntled corpses of Happiness Town rising from their graves, determined to exact revenge on the living.
The haunting image of an empty graveyard packs a hell of a punch, but these reanimated revenants aren’t exactly the traditional undead monsters we’re used to. It wasn’t until the ’90s that TV would really start to play with genre storytelling, with media behemoths like X files and buffy the vampire slayer finally bringing creatures like aliens and demons to the small screen. Even then, there were still very few zombie-specific stories, though we saw a handful of memorable ones.
buffy had a particularly fun zombie episode in season 3 dead man’s party, where a macabre Nigerian mask begins reanimating the deceased residents of Sunnydale, dragging undead revelers into Buffy’s homecoming celebration. This same season would also tackle reanimated corpses in The Zeppowith Xander befriending a group of undead high school kids in an attempt to look “cool”.
Curiously, the 7th season of X files was originally meant to feature a story inspired by night of the living dead, with a screenplay written by Stephen King and the episode allegedly directed by George Romero himself. Although the idea was ultimately scrapped, the zombies would still make their way into the series’ canon through a crossover episode with Millennium, which also served as an abrupt series ending for Chris Carter’s underrated spinoff. Mulder and Scully teaming up with Lance Henriksen’s Frank Black in a battle against cannibalistic ghouls may not have been the kind of closure that Millennium fans were looking for, but it still made for a fun episode with plenty of references to Romero’s classic.
In the animated world, The simpsons zombies first encountered in Z for zombies part of the third Horror Treehouse special, which features Bart unleashing an undead apocalypse after he attempts to revive the family’s recently deceased cat, Pet Sematary-style. We would also see special zombie-themed episodes in other anime shows, with everything from South Parkit’s classic pink eye for Animaniacs‘ Night of the Living Buttons make fun of the subgenre.
In one of my favorite examples of TV zombies, Edgar Wright’s third episode Space features Simon Pegg battling imaginary ghouls after playing Resident Evil 2 while being drugged. Not only is it a hilarious episode of a great series, it’s also the inspiration behind Wright and Pegg’s Shaun of the Deadmaking it a horror-comedy landmark.
From Supernaturalit’s Dead men don’t wear tiles for Communityis the infamous Halloween special Epidemiology, the 2000s would continue the paranormal trend in television, allowing for more special zombie episodes even in non-horror programs. However, this decade’s zombies would be more influenced by movies like 28 days later and Zack Snyder’s dawn of the dead remake instead of old-school horror movies, playing up the contagion and body-horror aspects of the undead menace.
It wasn’t until 2008 that we would also see the first entirely zombie-themed program with Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set mini-series, a parody of reality TV where Big Brother the contestants find themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Not only was the show a huge success, inspiring quarantine challenges in the real Big Brother and a possible Brazilian remake on Netflix, but it also paved the way for the horror show that was about to change everything.
Two years later, the zombie revival was about to begin with the release of Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Walking Dead. Originally formatted as a six-episode miniseries, the show’s first season was absolutely groundbreaking, once again turning zombies into a believable threat and making the case for serialized horror storytelling in general. Even if you’re not a fan of the show’s later seasons, there’s no denying its lasting influence on the horror genre.
Over the past decade, the show’s longtime success has led to a plethora of shows featuring reanimated flesh eaters. From death valley for iZombie, Ash vs Evil Dead and even spin-offs like Fear the living dead and Z Nationis underestimated black summer, I think it’s safe to say that zombies have completely infected mainstream programming. The genre has become so popular that it’s now common to see subversive and even satirical versions of its many tropes, reimagining the classic zombie for new audiences.
With The Walking Dead Still airing its 11th and final season and with streaming services like Netflix working on several new zombie shows (not to mention additional seasons for existing ones), the menace of the walking dead is more popular than ever. Maybe it’s because we like to imagine how we’d react to a deadly apocalypse, or maybe we just like watching flesh-eating shenanigans on the small screen, but the fact is Z-TV is here to to stay. And I can’t wait to see where TV zombies go.