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  • The trouble with zombies is that they keep coming

  • back.

  • Shoot 'em, maim 'em - doesn't matter: unless you destroy the head -

  • they'll just keep coming.

  • The living dead saturate cinema, television, and games - a cultural phenomenom that seems

  • impossible to stop.

  • An unholy congregation with limitless appetite:

  • It's not a matter of if they'll get you -

  • but when.

  • So, how did zombies become a mainstay of pop culture?

  • What games ensured their massive popularity today?

  • And when will this never-ending trend finally die?

  • The living dead first emerge in folkloric tales out of African culture: powerful Vodou

  • magic capable of raising corpses as undead servants.

  • Such tall tales made it to American shores during the interwar occupation of Haiti - quickly

  • finding cultural fascination.

  • Talking pictures hit their stride around this time, and ushered in a new era of horror - Dracula,

  • Frankenstein and The Mummy.

  • The first feature-length zombie film was made in such a mould: White Zombie, in 1932.

  • Its treatment of the living dead is far removed from modern expectations - essentially a new

  • twist on vampire legend, with the voodoo master's thralls serving as an obedient workforce rather

  • than a brain-craving mob.

  • Early zombies were tales of possession - the horror derived from loss of control: comely

  • white women swayed by the unchristian values of Vodou.

  • Often repeated, this formula eventually became stale, and more optimistic science fiction

  • stole the limelight by the 1950s.

  • Save for a few B-movies - the zombie fad was over.

  • No rest for the dead, however - and almost as soon as they were consigned to the crypt,

  • a new era dawned under the direction of George A Romero.

  • 'Night of the Living Dead' in 1968 rewrote the rules; revived the genre; and influenced

  • every zombie that emerged thereafter.

  • The cobwebs of classic horror were dusted off - and the shackles of Voodoo were shed.

  • Instead, a full blown zombie-apocalypse: a thoughtless horde; unrelenting, unexplained

  • - yet believable.

  • This was coupled with a bleak, nihilistic tone - with no real heroes nor a happy ending.

  • A risky proposition, but it worked - it was the most profitable horror film of its era:

  • and as audiences queued up, so too did Romero's imitators.

  • Most were awful: subtlety stripped away in favour of exploiting visceral thrills: gore,

  • rotting flesh - and buckets of blood.

  • Not everyone has the stomach for it, of course - and by the mid-80s, Hollywood horror had

  • gone in another, more gothic, direction.

  • Once again, zombies returned to their grave -

  • but the dawn of a new artform had already begun.

  • The arrival of the home microcomputer democratised game development, and allowed the imagination

  • of hobbyist programmers to roam free.

  • It was only a matter of time before someone made a game about zombies.

  • The very first is difficult to pin down: an obscure origin amidst a primordial soup of

  • type-in BASIC and amateur games which never saw distribution.

  • Perhaps the first commercial release is 'Zombies', for the ZX81: derived from an earlier BASIC

  • game called Chase, the idea is to lure a crowd of zombies into potholes - their behaviour

  • simple, but their numbers rife: Clearly influenced by Romero's slow, stupid mobs.

  • Early machines struggled with numerous enemies - with each vying for CPU time and occupying

  • vital RAM, the rendition of convincing undead mobs was some distance off.

  • Despite these limitations, 1984's 'Zombie Zombie' was a solid attempt at an isometric

  • city-based zombie apocalypse.

  • Armed with an air-cannon and helicopter, instead of direct violence, the goal was to lure the

  • undead off high buildings.

  • At this point, the concept of a 'zombie game' was ill-defined: they normally found themselves

  • part of a spooky ensemble cast: rubbing shoulders with vampires, mummies, ghosts and goblins.

  • The late '80s were an era of excess, not suited to subtlety: action films, guns and increasingly

  • gory action.

  • As 16-bit machines took hold and graphics became more realistic, games could start to

  • mirror the lurid scenes of horror.

  • Arcade titles like Beast Busters had endless parades of zombies to shoot, with huge sprites,

  • unprecedented levels of on-screen violence - and exploding body parts.

  • Blood-soaked coin-ops of this era would be a key inspiration for early first person shooters:

  • indeed, Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake all feature zombie-like opponents - and gibbing aplenty.

  • There's a certain irony in all this: Once designed to deliberately offend Christian

  • values; Now ersatz human targets that could bleed, be dismembered and slaughtered by the

  • dozen: But it's alright - they're just zombies.

  • However, horror can be more sophisticated than a splash of red pixels.

  • With deft pacing, tone and atmosphere - you can exploit the psychological aspects of fear.

  • To be effective, the shoot 'em up had to be discarded and the player left disempowered:

  • combat should be scary - and every bullet should matter.

  • Survival horror begins with games like Capcom's Sweet Home: an RPG not afraid to punish the

  • player, with limited resources - and character permadeath.

  • Infogrames' Alone In The Dark was another stab at domestic horror: this time, taking

  • an action-oriented, cinematic approach.

  • The world was 3D, to an extent: To limit polygon count, static backgrounds were used - fixed

  • camera angles and awkward, voyeuristic composition imparting a sense of dread.

  • The elements for the perfect survival horror game were starting to fall into place - and

  • zombies would prove just the glue to hold them all together.

  • The mid-90s saw a return in focus towards console gaming - and an identity shift towards

  • a new adult audience.

  • The Sony PlayStation was making moves, and boasted a line-up of attractive titles like

  • Wipeout, Tekken, Tomb Raider - and Resident Evil.

  • It did for games what Romero did for film.

  • Resident Evil threw out the clichés of reheated zombie horror: distilled its essence; and

  • became a new prototype for future games to follow.

  • An unlikely origin, too - considering zombies were never particularly popular in Japan:

  • Widespread cremation and reverence for the dead largely excludes walking corpses.

  • Titled 'Biohazard' in its native market - instead of mystical force or voodoo magic, the zombies

  • are a deliberate act of terror: a mutagenic bioweapon called the T-virus.

  • A spontaneous idea that was likely influenced by the 1995 Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo.

  • Resident Evil marks the maturation of video game horror.

  • From the time you encounter the first zombie to the ultimate escape - the tension was held

  • in ways no game had ever done before.

  • Its enemies were varied: rather than a shambling homogeneous horde, the introduction of multiple

  • monster types prevented players from becoming complacent.

  • Innovative enough to forgive its slightly awkward controls and camp dialogue: it spurred

  • a golden era of survival horror.

  • The PlayStation era is defined by such games: Silent Hill, Parasite Eve, Dino Crisis, Fatal

  • Frame.

  • Knowing a good thing when they see it, Sega took zombies to the arcades - adapting the

  • light gun action of Virtua Cop into horror shoot-em-up, The House of The Dead.

  • It wasn't quite as nuanced as Resident Evil, with a less serious style and a pace on rails

  • - but when you have full polygonal graphics and non-stop action blaring from its impressive

  • cabinet - atmosphere is less important.

  • Western games also took inspiration: the darkened corridors of Doom 3 and its choice between

  • firearm or flashlight - or the limited ammo and multiple zombie types introduced during

  • Ravenholm in Half-Life 2.

  • Most of all Resident Evil proved that zombies could be cool again - and that you don't always

  • have to stick to the rules.

  • By the time of the PlayStation 2, 3D performance had become more confident: twin-stick control

  • the norm; and action-oriented games dominant.

  • Capcom had muddied their own market with countless spin-offs - and what was originally refreshing

  • became cliché.

  • Survival horror had had a good run, I suppose: and as military, sci-fi and crime-themed games

  • took hold -

  • it looked like - once again - zombies had expired.

  • The new millennium was quick to shatter any optimism the 90s left behind.

  • 9/11: Anthrax; SARS; the war on terror - a culture of fear, magnified by 24-hour media.

  • During all of this, something unusual happened: normally, video games borrow from cinema -

  • but this time, the debt was repaid.

  • Released in 2002, 28 Days Later was a surprising success: fusing classic Romero with a twist

  • of inspiration from Resident Evil.

  • Its zombies were different: they were fast.

  • A biological aspect was there, too: a blood-borne virus that quickly infects: turning the slightest

  • scratch into a tragedy.

  • Genuinely scary: a new approach that reinvigorated a dying genre.

  • As more films shuffled out of production (including an official adaptation of Resident Evil, and

  • the comedic-yet-serious Shaun of the Dead):

  • a trickle of zombie games turned into a flood.

  • Another generation of consoles had begun: new hardware and new possibility.

  • Capcom remained at the forefront of zombie games, with the success of Resident Evil 4

  • and its shift towards more action-oriented gameplay.

  • They also invested in a new, less-serious franchise: Dead Rising.

  • A sandbox game filled to the brim with zombies, its sprawling mall taken from Romero's Dawn

  • of The Dead.

  • The then-new Xbox 360 could handle more zombies and larger maps than ever before - a convincing

  • realisation of a full-blown zombie apocalypse.

  • An affection for free-roam gameplay would define the generation - and Rockstar were

  • the kings of the category.

  • Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare is a standout for DLC of the era and a rare sighting

  • of the lesser-spotted Zombie Western.

  • Call of Juarez developers Techland made a similar leap with Dead Island, its trailer

  • promising emotive drama amidst a tropical setting.

  • What was delivered proved slightly disappointing, but its blend of brutal melee combat and crafting

  • hinted at greater potential.

  • Dying Light would better realise the concept: Parkour makes traversal of its world more

  • fluid - and a stark day/night dichotomy means running is often necessary to escape doom.

  • Zombies aren't always so sombre - sometimes they're seen with a sense of humour.

  • The more light-hearted efforts tend to exploit the campness of B-movie horror - and what

  • they lose in visceral impact, they gain in comedy.

  • Plants vs. Zombies is a franchise firmly tongue-in-cheek, with an unlikely botanical match-up.

  • The static plants suit the tower-defence gameplay, and while motivated by brains, the zombies

  • end up eating a vegetarian diet - an intrinsic irony of its all-out garden warfare.

  • Zombie survival serves co-operative play perfectly - and the increasing popularity of online

  • multiplayer meant that a union was inevitable.

  • Left 4 Dead arrived in 2008: a cinematic 4-player journey through zombie-infested levels, punctuated

  • by safe-houses.

  • It evokes classic horror while taking notes from newer sources: fast zombies, and special

  • infected types.

  • Valve's usual polish and extensive playtesting helped set the bar for 4-player co-op - and

  • its dynamic reshaping of game intensity under an AI Director meant that even seasoned players

  • might be left surprised.

  • The perennially popular Call of Duty was in full swing by this point, and while its primary

  • draw was as a military shooter, World at War would venture into the crossover realm of

  • zombie horror and war.

  • Originally added as an afterthought - a reward for completing the campaign: Nazi Zombies

  • would prove one of the most compelling features of Treyarch's entries to the franchise.

  • With escalating waves of challenge, 4-player character co-op and surprisingly complex easter

  • eggs - the zombie aspect went from strength to strength, with a string of DLC and sequels.

  • Similar is the spin-off from Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army, now a horror co-op trilogy.

  • Shooting reanimated fascists is reward enough, but Sniper Elite illustrates the destruction

  • of grey decaying organs with gratuitous slow-motion and x-ray vision.

  • Between undead mobs and survivor factions, it's in a massive scale of multiplayer where

  • zombies can really stretch their legs - the survival sandbox.

  • Indie games are a cornerstone here: Perhaps small teams without a publisher are more willingly

  • seduced by already-popular themes - where larger budgets might not bank on the continued

  • success of an already long-lived trend.

  • An early browser-based example is Urban Dead: not much to look at, but within its simple

  • elements lie a surprising complexity: the chaotic influence of so many players coalesce

  • into a living undead city.

  • Independent games excel at simplicity: and the elementary blocks of Minecraft are an

  • origin point: first designed with survival in mind, base building by day and a zombie

  • onslaught by night.

  • Its block-by-block approach is arguably more successful as a LEGO simulator - but the limitless

  • freedom to build and roam is compelling.

  • Larger, more detailed worlds are tempered by technology: and while consoles lay stagnant

  • late-generation, the PC's potential took the lead.

  • DayZ started as a mod for milsim ARMA 2, and from its outset its goal was to portray a

  • zombie outbreak as realistically as possible.

  • With supplies scattered across its massive map, and a host of variables to manage - hunger,

  • thirst, temperature, blood pressure: staying alive requires careful management of parallel

  • demands.

  • Throw in a handful of other survivors, and zombies become the least of your concerns:

  • much of the drama and emergent gameplay arises directly from player interaction.

  • Minecraft and DayZ are both definitive survival sandbox games, and have each inspired many

  • imitators.

  • Between abstract block-building, crafting and realistic needs: it's a genre that indulges

  • both player creativity - and a competitive side.

  • Zombies are not a necessary element of these games, but they do underpin the common themes

  • - a breakdown of society and a consequently hostile world.

  • A seductive idea that's the perfect vent for modern-day frustrations: no more daily grind

  • - instead utter freedom and pure survival instinct.

  • Such settings run rich with drama: and narrative-focussed games like Telltale's The Walking Dead exploit

  • this.

  • Running parallel to the popular TV series, it's an exercise in episodic storytelling

  • with many tough choices within.

  • Action takes a back seat - largely replaced with puzzles and dialogue - but despite this,

  • the game is no less powerful.

  • After all, the most interesting stories focus on the survivors' struggle: desperation, mutiny,

  • sacrifice.

  • If there's one moral to take from zombie fiction - it's that the greatest threat to safety

  • isn't the predictable, ponderous fate that claws at the window:

  • it's ourselves.

  • From the fast, dark danger of modern horror to the classic Romero formula - the kitsch

  • charm of B-movies, or the mystic origins of Voodoo: Zombies straddle several eras.

  • They endure courtesy of an occasional willingness to defy definition - and break the rules.

  • For instance, the so-called Zeds from Killing Floor are not zombies - but failed experiments

  • instead;

  • Dead Space's Necromorphs are extra-terrestrial in origin: a pathogen that co-opts corpses

  • in grotesque fashion;

  • The Last of Us' apocalypse occurs via a fungal vector - infectious, spread via bites and

  • prompting aggressive behaviour.

  • Zombie prescriptivists might discount these examples: but the undead influence is clear

  • - and if it looks like a zombie, and walks like a zombie...

  • Well.

  • Today, zombies remain massively popular - and neither their presence in games, films nor

  • television show any sign of abatement.

  • It has to come to an end eventually - no audience has an unending appetite, and over their 80

  • year span in popular culture - they've receded to the