The genre with all the gifts: How zombie movies continue to come back from the dead

Nearly a century of "Braaaains!", and still going strong

This weekend sees the release of The Girl With All The Gifts, based on the best selling novel by M. R. Carey, which tells the story of a world ravaged by a zombie-like virus.  

One young girl who has been infected but not incapacitated by it, like the majority of the population, may be the key to unlocking a cure and saving the planet for total annihilation.

The origin virus is actually based in fact, a variation on the Cordyceps fungus (and anyone who has ever played The Last Of Us video game will spot the similarity), which has already been documented as a zombi-fying, mind-controlling virus... albeit solely in the insect world.

There is some fear that the fungus could species jump and become something humans can be infected by, which is where The Girl With All The Gifts steps in. Once again, the zombie movie sub-genre reflects the deepest, darkest fears mankind is currently experiencing and passes a light through them, projecting them on to the big screen.

With what seems to be another animal-based killer virus arriving each year - from Zika to bird flu - there is a humming sense of horror at being infected with something we don't understand, we can't control, and we potentially can't cure.

And that's exactly what zombie movies have done through the years, starting off when White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) instilled and solidified the Western world's fear of the unknown, which at that time was voodooism. Zombies are far from the only sub-genre of horror to be rooted in some social anxiety or other. Dracula and vampires are based in sexual fears, while Frankenstein is a warning of what happens when man plays God. But zombies are the only ones that can morph and change to suit whatever this generation's prevalent fear might be.

Jumping forward to the 1960s, and we've got The Night Of The Living Dead, a movie that featured a black lead that managed to survive the night of a zombie onslaught, only to be shot dead by a police officer the following morning. While writer/director Romero claims that the casting of a black man in the lead was not intentional, his fate bounced back to audiences in a time when Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were still fresh in their minds.

Moving forward a decade or two, and the general cynicism, as well as the ever-growing Cold War/Red Threat issue, lead to the likes of Dawn Of The Dead (1978) which found people turning into mindless commercial consumers, blindly swarming around shopping centres in death much as they did in life.

Day Of The Dead (1985) put everyone in a bunker, avoiding life on the outside, hoping science could make their lives and futures that much easier, which can be read as either a fear of a nuclear strike, or a commentary on people and families who just sit at home, wanting their TVs, microwaves and dishwashers to do everything from them.

There were a few decades when zombies went out of fashion, at least in cinema. The Resident Evil series of games launched on PlayStation in 1996, but it wasn't until 28 Days Later... in 2002 that movies and movie-goers took zombies seriously again. To this day, director Danny Boyle abhors referring to the monsters in his London horror as zombies, instead simply saying they're "rage-infected". Released barely a year after 9/11, the zombies can now run, flinging themselves at us in full sprint and blind with anger, wanting nothing except to consume and destroy the uninfected.

Since then, zombies have come back into fashion, and have remained that way, beomcing more refracted in their potential definition; from The Walking Dead nailing home the inherent loneliness and flimsiness of modern society, [REC] piling on religious representations of zombie-dom, and even Shaun Of The Dead showing how relationships can become brainless exercises if you're not willing to put the work in.

So if you're ever curious what society is currently afraid of, you often don't have to look much further than your local cinema.