ZOMBIES : Throughline Zombies have become a global phenomenon — there have been at least ten zombie movies so far this year. Which made us wonder, where did this fascination for the undead come from? This week, how one of our favorite monsters is a window into Haiti's history and the horrors of slavery.
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ZOMBIES

ZOMBIES

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PATRICK SYLVAIN: The fear is to become a zombie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYLVAIN: The moment a family member is dead, they will drive a stake into the person's heart or into the person's head so that their children and so forth will not be turned into a zombie. And so the people are taking precautions out of their own understanding that perhaps a dead person is not fully dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYLVAIN: The zombie is real. Right? That zombie is real.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ANDERSON COOPER: As you already know, the zombie apocalypse is upon us. The flesh eaters appear to be everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED FOX NEWS HOST: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted a guide called Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Economic Modeling Specialists International ranked cities on their ability to defend against a zombie attack - stockpiling food, containing zombies, finding a cure. You may think that this is all fun and games, but these guys mean serious business. Their motto is - if you can survive a zombie apocalypse, you can survive anything 'cause you never know what can happen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's going to be a zombie apocalypse. It's just when.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR...

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present.

Hey. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And on this episode - zombies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Zombies are a global phenomenon. They're in the news, as you just heard, and appear in the countless number of books, movies, video games and TV shows that make up the zombie genre.

ARABLOUEI: A genre that's going strong - at least 10 zombie movies have come out in 2019 alone. Some people are so zombie-obsessed that they dress up like zombies and roam the streets - and not just on Halloween. And then there are those people who are prepping for a zombie apocalypse. You heard a description at the top about the Department of Zombie Defense, which was started by former law enforcement officials to teach survival tactics in case of an apocalyptic scenario, zombie or otherwise.

ABDELFATAH: Our collective fascination with zombies started almost a century ago, which made us wonder - who invented the zombie, and why are we still so drawn to these flesh-eating monsters? THROUGHLINE producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson tells this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYLVAIN: The music, right, is almost like in a circus. Right?

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: (Laughter).

This is what it sounded like when I first got connected to Patrick Sylvain. He was talking to me from an NPR station in Boston.

SYLVAIN: (Laughter) This - that's the WGBH zombie music.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Turns out, we were just crossing wires with their hold music. Still, it was a creepy way to begin our conversation.

SYLVAIN: I'm a lecturer at Brown University, and my work is actually on zombies.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Patrick writes about the origin of the zombie as well as the contemporary obsession. His fascination goes back to his childhood growing up in Port-au-Prince.

SYLVAIN: There was a farmer. And in order to protect his field - because he used to grow corn - and he would put indigo crosses on his corn in the same way that you might have scarecrow, for example. And so he used to tell us that in his field, he has a zombie. And as young boys, we will dare each other - you know, why don't you go into the field? And we will say, no, I do not want to be caught (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In Haiti, zombies aren't just scarecrows in the fields, and they're not just scary, flesh-eating monsters that only exist in movies.

SYLVAIN: I grew up in fear of becoming a zombie.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: When Patrick was a kid, that fear hit especially close to home.

SYLVAIN: So I was about 12 or 13. And my sister Mildred (ph), who was a soccer player - football player - and she was a star in Haiti. And one of her teammate give her food in which, a few hours later, she collapsed, and she was sick. And she was convulsing, and she went into what looks like a coma.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A nearby Voodoo priest told Patrick's family not to take her to the hospital.

SYLVAIN: Because that was not a natural seizure - that was not a natural collapse.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Patrick's family believed that one of Mildred's teammates poisoned her out of jealousy, which put her in a coma - a zombie-like state.

SYLVAIN: We don't know exactly what happened to my sister. Was she really poisoned out of jealousy, or was it her own illness? We don't know. But what I remember vividly is the way in which she was rushed out of the house, the way she was carried; she was convulsing. And she was, you know, fine the day before. And the narration was that it's because it was jealousy. They wanted to steal her soul.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The Voodoo priest gave Mildred specific foods and remedies to try and coax her out of her coma.

SYLVAIN: She was bathed with so many different leaves. I remember, you know, her head was covered, you know, with certain leaves, which I did not know what they were. After four days of treatment, Mildred returned to consciousness. She did not become a zombie. The system was restored.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Patrick says being poisoned and entering into a zombie-like state...

SYLVAIN: Is a very prevalent fear in Haiti because of - the zombie is real. Right? It's not abstract. It's real.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: To understand how the zombie came to be associated with a death-like state, a body without a soul, we need to go back to the original zombie in Haitian culture. After the break, how the myth of the living dead was born out of being enslaved.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PEPIN: Hi. This is Pepin (ph) from Gouldsboro, Maine, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Before Haiti was called Haiti, it was a French colony called Saint-Domingue. And in the 18th century, Saint-Domingue was one of the most profitable colonies in the world.

SYLVAIN: Between 1697 to, let's say, the 1780s, France became a superpower. So the rate of import of slaves was extremely fast within a short period of time, and sugar production surpassed all other production throughout the world.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The colony produced about 40% of all the sugar and 60% of all the coffee consumed in Europe.

SYLVAIN: So Haiti was called the Pearl of the Antilles because of what Haiti provided - or Saint-Domingue provided the French. So the rate of accumulation of wealth, we can also equate that to the rate of death.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Life on the plantation was so brutal for the enslaved Africans that many didn't live past their teenage years. They were literally worked to death. And that backbreaking, endless labor they faced day in and day out hardly felt like living.

SYLVAIN: It was a place where the slaves were broken - right? - to make docile and servile. This person becomes, in a sense, a machine of production. And so a slave who is broken becomes an automaton. From dawn until sunset, all I'm going to do is work and work and work and work. And therefore, the loss of the will, symbolically speaking, this person becomes a zombie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The word zombie seems to trace back to numerous Central and West African languages.

SYLVAIN: We could think of the word mvumbi (ph), which is a cataleptic individual. You have nsumbi (ph), which means devil. You have zumbi (ph), which is kind of fetish and Nzambi is also a deity - a deity of death.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Some languages interpret the word as corpse. And in others, like the Congo language, zombie directly translates to the spirit of a dead person. Many of these original interpretations allude to a soul that's been dispossessed of its own body but somehow remains trapped within it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: By the 18th century, Africans had been forced into slavery all over the Caribbean, including and especially Saint-Domingue. Between 1783 and 1791, enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue made up a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade.

SYLVAIN: The slave is the perfect zombie.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In a way, their word for the living dead became the same word for being enslaved.

SYLVAIN: The loss of will, the loss of home, cannot speak, has no say - it is a person what was made to be dead-like but used still within the plantation system to become a slave.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is one type of Haitian zombie - the broken slave, someone whose soul has been stripped from them due to the unfathomable cruelty of the colonial slave economy. But there is another type of zombie in Haiti that gets at the belief in a returned soul - the revolutionary slave.

SYLVAIN: These are people who refuse to submit themselves to the harshness of slavery, and they resisted by various means. And one of the means was really to poison their masters.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: These individual acts of resistance against the French planters eventually grew into one of the largest and most successful slave rebellions in the history of the Americas - the Haitian Revolution.

SYLVAIN: You had this active resistance in which the colonialists, the French, were being killed.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The zombie is this unbelievably fearful thing on both ends - right? - because if you're an enslaved person, the zombie is your biggest fear because you don't want that to be your fate. And then on the other end, if you're the planter, the zombie is your biggest fear because that's the revolutionary.

SYLVAIN: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The Haitian Revolution began in 1791 and raged on for 13 years. It's during the middle of this war that the word zombie was written about, perhaps for the first time, by a French writer named Moreau de Saint-Mery. And he refers to zombie as the slave's belief in a returned soul, and that's published in 1797.

This is Elizabeth McAlister.

ELIZABETH MCALISTER: And I'm a professor of religion and African American studies at Wesleyan University.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In 1884, seven years after that documented reference, the Haitian people ultimately defeated their colonizers. They trashed the colonial name Saint-Domingue and called their newly freed nation Haiti, which means land of high mountains in the island's indigenous language. Haiti is the first independent country to be founded by former slaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The Haitian Revolution ended French colonial rule. But...

MCALISTER: The idea of slavery is still very much alive.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In an effort to boost the economy, Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer passed the Rural Code, which denied farmers the right to leave their own land and enforced production quotas. And then, in the 1820s, France demanded reparations for their losses due to the revolution. France refused to recognize Haiti's independence until it paid them 150 million francs, the modern equivalent of $21 billion.

SYLVAIN: It's injustice.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Just 20 years after their independence, Haitians were still, in effect, endlessly working the plantations for the French.

MCALISTER: And I think that the figure of the zombie is a reminder that slavery happened to people, that they freed themselves from it, that it still happens in a kind of an afterlife and in echoes in social practices.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Haiti had to hand over its profits to France, not only because there were military ships waiting to attack if they didn't but it was the only way they'd be allowed to participate in global trade. This made it impossible to create a stable economy. And by the early 20th century, Haiti was still in a state of social and political turmoil.

SYLVAIN: The U.S. claimed they wanted to stabilize Haiti. Of course we've heard this term before. Right?

MCALISTER: It's the same old story. You know? It turns out that it's really about political economy. It's really about Americans gaining interest in business opportunities in Haiti.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: At the time, other Western countries had influence in Haiti. Germany, for instance, dominated trade on the island.

SYLVAIN: And with World War I, the U.S. claimed that the Germans in Haiti were agents of Germany, that they were using Haiti as an excuse to invade the United States.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And so in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the U.S. Marines to invade Haiti.

MCALISTER: The Marines occupy Haiti between 1915 and 1934.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: They instituted a formal system of unpaid labor, which forced Haitians to build new roads. This imposed yet another form of slavery and zombification.

MCALISTER: And along with this occupation comes a kind of a vanguard of journalists and travel writers.

SYLVAIN: And they had never encountered autonomous, independent black men who resisted white rule. And so how do you then demonize these people who resisted? Call them cannibal. Then the black man, the black body becomes a consumer of flesh.

MCALISTER: And there's this one guy named William Seabrook.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: William Seabrook was a World War I vet-turned-New York Times reporter and was notorious for his excessive drinking, womanizing and sensationalist travel writing. He had a desire for what he perceived as the occult and developed a particular interest in Haitian Voodoo.

MCALISTER: Seabrook finds his way to somebody who tells him about the phenomenon in Haiti where someone is punished by having their soul extracted and by being made to work in the cane fields. And he writes a whole chapter about this dead man working in the cane fields, and he describes a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Seabrook said that's how all this was described to him by Haitians he met. He said he himself didn't believe in zombies. Nonetheless, he wrote about it with high drama.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2, BYLINE: (Reading) The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize it into movement and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull, heavy tasks and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Seabrook also wrote embellished descriptions of religious ceremonies.

SYLVAIN: And so you have this kind of trope. Haitians become nothing else but an orgy-driven people, death-driven people. That's all they do is play the drum and, you know, have orgies, suck each other's blood. And they kill each other, turning each other into zombies. Oh, my God. This is so juicy. But yet - oh, my God - these people are so uncivilized; these people are barbaric.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In 1929, Seabrook published "The Magic Island."

SYLVAIN: It became a best-seller.

MCALISTER: And it's widely read in the United States.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Giving Americans a new nightmare - the living dead.

SYLVAIN: So it wasn't until after the U.S. occupation in which the zombie is made into this walking monster. Having this kind of portrayal, the U.S. occupation is then given proper rationality - OK? - that we deserve to be there because we are saving these black people from their own savagery and we are civilizing them.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So the production of that narrative is defending...

SYLVAIN: Is defending.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...U.S. actions.

SYLVAIN: Exactly. Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The U.S. occupation of Haiti brought the zombie onto American soil. When we come back, zombies go to Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CAROLINE KILBOURNE: I'm Caroline Kilbourne (ph) in North Bethesda, Md., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: By the early 1930s, Hollywood was in its golden age. Movie studios were king, and so was horror. Some of the most iconic monsters were terrifying audiences on the big screen. You had "Frankenstein"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FRANKENSTEIN")

COLIN CLIVE: (As Henry Frankenstein) It's alive. It's alive. It's alive. It's alive.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ..."Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE")

FREDRIC MARCH: (As Mr. Hyde) If you could see me now, what do you think? (Laughter).

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...And...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DRACULA")

BELA LUGOSI: (As Dracula) I am Dracula.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Then, just one year after these three blockbusters, Bela Lugosi - Dracula himself - stars in "White Zombie."

(SOUNDBITE OF "WHITE ZOMBIE" TRAILER)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: From Haiti, land of the Voodoo, comes the most infamous cult of all, the sinister power behind the "White Zombie."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYLVAIN: You have a white couple. Again, you know, you cannot have a honeymoon without going to paradise. Right? (Laughter). You have to go to a place that is exotic. Right? So you have this, you know, white couple going to Haiti. And the first thing they encounter upon their arrival is a group of males walking away from a plantation without any kind of life force - walking as if they are, like, robots.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WHITE ZOMBIE" TRAILER)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: This soul-killer takes men from their graves to be his slaves.

SYLVAIN: The innocent white couple have never seen anything like that. And the coachman had to tell them, you know, be careful; these are zombies. And the moment they heard this word, they're like, well, zombies - what?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHITE ZOMBIE")

JOHN HARRON: (As Neil Parker) Zombies?

LUGOSI: (As Murder Legendre) Yes. They are my servants.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A wealthy plantation owner falls in love with the woman, Madeline, and wants her for himself. He turns to a Voodoo priest named Murder - seriously - who tells him that to get Madeline, she has to be turned into a zombie. So they poison her, bring her back to life, and chaos ensues. But naturally, all ends well for the white couple. The evil Voodoo priest is killed, Madeline's zombie spell is broken, and she and her husband live happily ever after.

SYLVAIN: That became the sensation in Hollywood in the 1930s.

KILBOURNE: And this becomes a genre of American films made out of Hollywood that are set in the Caribbean and that speak to Americans' fears of racialized others rising up in protest. And the whole space - the Caribbean space in which these are shot is sort of this primitive, creepy, superstitious, borderline diabolical space.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: "White Zombie" inspired many more of these exploitative horror films. "Maniac" came out in 1934. "Revolt Of The Zombies," a type of loose sequel to "White Zombie," came out in 1936. "King Of The Zombies" came out in 1941.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING OF THE ZOMBIES")

MANTAN MORELAND: (As Jeff) (Unintelligible) Big black ones with frozen faces - with eyes that look at you and they don't see nothing.

JOHN ARCHER: (As Bill) What's he talking about?

MORELAND: (As Jeff) Oh, zombies. Mr. Bill, let's get out of here. Why, this place is a walking cemetery.

ARCHER: (As Bill) Wait a minute.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And "I Walked With A Zombie" came out in 1943.

(SOUNDBITE OF "I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE" TRAILER)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: And out of their West Indian island comes a tale of terror and Voodoo, of witchcraft and zombies and all the weird black magic that the white man seldom sees.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in foreign language).

MCALISTER: These early Hollywood representations of zombies really are a great example of what the late and great Toni Morrison called American Africanism, which was her word to talk about, like, the ways that African peoples have come to signify and be misread by Eurocentric and American intellectuals. So it's, like, white Americans' projections onto black people.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This first iteration of the American zombie narrative goes strong for a solid decade. And then, after World War II, as the U.S. entered into the Cold War era, the zombie trope slowly starts to morph away from the Caribbean, away from the backwards Voodoo practitioner and straight for the mad scientist.

MCALISTER: From the 1940s to the 1960s, Hollywood produced a slew of what got called trash films. And they featured mutated or hybrid monsters. And in these trash films, a lot of them were mutants because they had been subject to radioactivity.

SYLVAIN: Then the zombie becomes a ghoul - right? - that is, this person who was dead, with flesh kind of dripping and worms coming out the eye socket and so forth. That became the desirable theme.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is the zombie era of experiments gone wrong. You've got sci-fi films like "Teenage Zombies"...

(SOUNDBITE OF "TEENAGE ZOMBIES" TRAILER)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #3: Never before has man been transformed into such hideous proportions. Never have teenage girls been subjected to the terrifying ordeal in the fantastic room of torture.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...And "The Last Man On Earth," which is based on the novel "I Am Legend."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And then, out of nowhere, a newbie filmmaker came onto the scene and changed everything. George Romero was a few years out of college when he and some buddies wrote and directed their first feature length film.

(SOUNDBITE OF "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD" TRAILER)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #4: "Night Of The Living Dead" - the dead who live on living flesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY BAKER: So his first movie, which set the tone for how we understand zombies now, was "Night Of The Living Dead" in 1968.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is Kelly Baker.

BAKER: I have a Ph.D. in religious studies, and I've written a short book on zombies and zombie apocalypses in American culture.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: "Night Of The Living Dead" took a new approach to the zombie narrative.

MCALISTER: There's a zombie outbreak. There's some contagious disease. And a little band of survivors who don't know each other hole up in a farmhouse in the middle of rural America. It's really brilliantly shot in this one little space that's one little farmhouse. And it's so creepy because it's this bucolic, you know, farmhouse. And there's a cemetery nearby, and it's just Americana. And yet, the world of America is in the process of total collapse.

BAKER: And later what we find out in this is that space radiation is causing corpses to rise. And then they target humans.

MCALISTER: They all are freaking out, and there's zombies coming at them. And you see, you know, this - the drama of a band of survivors trying to figure out - who's the leader? What do we do? Whom do we follow?

And so the hero of that film is the black American student named Ben. Clearly, Ben has the best plan and is most capable. And yet, the white guy doesn't want to take orders from Ben.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And most of the zombies are white.

BAKER: Which is again, you know, different from some of those earlier incarnations. It is very much this kind of inversion of that - right? - so that we move from Haitian zombies, black bodies who are zombies into a lead character who is human and complicated and contradictory and is trying to survive the zombies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

BAKER: It pretty much is - when society falls apart, what happens? And Romero's answer is humans are terrible. (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAKER: It's a film that you can't watch without thinking about black-and-white race relations. It's unavoidable because of the way that Ben comes into conflict with other white characters, because of the way the film ends. And I want to ruin it for people that haven't seen it, but it does not go well for Ben. So it is a very different take and, I would argue, a very kind of radical political take.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The funny thing is the word zombie is actually never uttered in Romero's first movie - not once.

BAKER: He calls them things instead of zombies.

MCALISTER: You know, the public decided that this is what these figures were. And so the public called them zombies, and the name stuck.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Ten years after his first film, Romero returned to his zombie apocalypse roots with "Dawn Of The Dead."

BAKER: I might even argue that "Dawn Of The Dead" might be his best one. I think there are people who would fight me about that. But you know, this is a great film, too. Right? It actually starts with a racist cop just shooting black and brown people.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAWN OF THE DEAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Look out (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF AMMUNITION FIRING, CRASHES)

BAKER: So we're picking up those themes from the earlier movie about race. But also, it's a movie that becomes about consumerism.

MCALISTER: The survivors have to shelter in a shopping mall, and so Romero is really critiquing the hyper consumption that America is beginning to put itself into and the banality of consumption, the banality of the mall.

BAKER: Maybe the mall is a problem and capitalism is a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAWN OF THE DEAD")

GAYLEN ROSS: (As Fran) They're still here.

DAVID EMGE: (As Steve) They're after us. They know we're still in here.

KEN FOREE: (As Peter) They're after the place. They don't know why. They just remember - remember that they want to be in here.

ROSS: (As Fran) What the hell are they?

FOREE: (As Peter) They're us. That's all.

MCALISTER: One of the survivors, whose name is Peter, you know, he says something like...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAWN OF THE DEAD")

FOREE: (As Peter) When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.

MCALISTER: So the idea is that the zombies are inhabitants of hell, which is somehow backed up and overflowed into the malls (laughter).

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Peter says this as he and his fellow survivors are watching the zombies pressed up against the locked sliding doors outside of the mall, trying to claw their way in.

BAKER: I do love - right? - that you just have zombies kind of wandering around at the mall in the ways that I'm sure that lots of us spend some time just kind of aimlessly wandering around the mall - right? - that all of us capitalism is around us. And that - we might not even be engaging or something, but there's something about that space that draws us in - that these zombies come back to the places that comfort them. And the place that comforts them, of course, is the place they would shop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Romero continues to poke holes in the status quo with his third film in the series, "Day Of The Dead."

MCALISTER: It's set in this underground military bunker and so Romero is critiquing the over militarization of the country. And he's critiquing kind of military blind following of orders and military becoming out of control and out of civilian hands. Romero's brilliant because he's an anti-establishment filmmaker. Right? And so these films are all parables about the corruption in America, about consumerism, about racism - which then become cult classics.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: When we come back, how a cult series turned into a nationwide obsession and what that means about us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HENRY: Hi. My name's Henry (ph), and I like zombies because I just like all scary things. And I like them even more after I watched "Thriller."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: "Thriller." Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL JACKSON SONG, "THRILLER")

VINCENT PRICE: The foulest stenches in the air, the funk of 40,000 years...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: You can't talk about zombies in the '80s without talking about Michael Jackson's "Thriller." In the music video, Jackson and his date walk through the dark streets as bodies rise from graves and tombs - until Jackson leads the undead in one of the most groundbreaking and iconic dance numbers of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL JACKSON SONG, "THRILLER")

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Around the same time, Dunkin' Donuts came out with what might be its most iconic commercial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL VALE: (As Fred the Baker) Time to make the doughnuts - the doughnuts.

SYLVAIN: Time to make the doughnuts (laughter). Right?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Patrick Sylvain loves this commercial.

SYLVAIN: The baker automatically gets up, sort of arms raised. And the first thing that he says is, time to make the doughnuts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VALE: (As Fred the Baker) Time to make the doughnuts. Time to make the doughnuts.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #5: Great doughnut-makers aren't born; they're made.

VALE: (As Fred the Baker) I made the doughnuts.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: By the way, there are more than five variations of this commercial made over the course of the '80s, so Patrick is not alone in his love for the doughnut zombie.

But once we hit the '90s, all things zombie took a plunge.

BAKER: Part of why we don't have zombies quite in that time period is that there are other monsters that are more popular. Right? Like, there are other concerns here that folks have.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Mainly, serial killers.

BAKER: Like, I feel like all the films are about some kind of serial killer. Right?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So then what brings zombies back in vogue and when?

BAKER: After 2001 until, like, 2012, there are over 200 zombie films made. So there's something that happens in 2001 - right? - that really motivates this - Sept. 11.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAKER: That very much captured the American psyche in that moment. Terrorism is something that can happen on the ground where you are. It's not something that happens really far away. There is this deep concern about what other people might do to us. Right?

So when you look at zombies and this threat that they pose, you can't reason with them. Right? You can't reason with a zombie and convince them not to attack you. You can't predict what they're going to do. You can't prevent it. That really works with the lingering nervousness over something like terrorism.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And with that, the zombie trope took another turn.

BAKER: After 2001, it's definitely a shift to where the concern is we're frightened of other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAKER: There is an axis of evil out there that wants to do us harm. And so it's very much that the threat comes from outside, not from within.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And it was during this time that the president of the United States told us to go to the mall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH: We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don't - where we don't conduct business, where people don't shop. That's - that's their intention.

SYLVAIN: Go shopping (laughter) - right? - you know, because they did not want what happened in 9/11 to disrupt the economy. Right? Then go shopping, you know? It's not like, well, go and read books (laughter) - you know, go visit your neighbors - but it's go shopping.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: 9/11 set off a whole new level of zombie mania. This craze got so big that there was room for zombie parodies, with movies like "Shaun Of The Dead" and, I kid you not, "Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'POULTRYGEIST'")

CALIMARI SAFARI: (Singing) 'Cause this is Poultrygeist, where the blood keeps spilling. This is Poultrygeist, where there's lots of killing. You'll be eaten alive by zombie chickens tonight.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It's also a time when people started prepping for a zombie apocalypse. So why, almost a hundred years after the first zombie movie, are we all still so hungry for these flesh-eating monsters?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I love zombies 'cause I just love how it brings out people - like, people in this really basic primitive form where you see people end up becoming just as evil as the monsters around them and...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Just last week, we asked THROUGHLINE listeners why you love zombies so much, and you delivered.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's all about how human nature comes forth in an environment where social rules collapse and pandemics, which humans have an innate fear of. We're terrified of sicknesses.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's a character style that doesn't seem to be going away any time soon, and I think that's because it's so malleable. You can kind of make it into a lot of different things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The invincibility of zombies seems to be that they can take on any desired meaning. They can shapeshift into almost anything we want them to.

BAKER: So it can be about consumerism with this all-consuming monster. It can be about bioterrorism and corporations who are negligent. It can be about epidemics and how they can ravage us in some sort of way.

MCALISTER: But the zombie also is, you know, the hordes of brown people at the border. The zombie is a cipher. The zombie, by definition, has no consciousness. The zombie is this empty category into which you can load meaning.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Elizabeth says there's one consistent theme that keeps zombies relevant. It's always there, looming in the background or sometimes right up in your face and speaks to one of our most fundamental fears.

MCALISTER: Which is that we are all going to die and that everyone who's ever lived dies. So the zombie figure forces the living to face the condition of death, and - which is what religion is there to help humanity do, but the United States is becoming more and more secular. This is a kind of a secular way to contend with, think about, imagine, dress up like and confront the human condition of dying.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Something that may be on our minds more than usual these days.

MCALISTER: Certainly now more than ever, humans are facing the realities of climate change and of the degradation of the ecosystem, and the idea of apocalypse is on the minds of humanity.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: At the same time, because zombies are now everywhere, they've kind of casually integrated themselves into our everyday existence. People have zombie-themed weddings, go on zombie-themed cruises. The CDC has a gag zombie preparedness page on its Web site. And then, of course, there are the people who are just living their best zombie lives.

MCALISTER: One time, I was walking down the street in Manhattan, and I saw this woman dressed up as a zombie bride, and, of course, being me, I decided I would follow her. And she went into Macy's, and she was walking around Macy's. And, like, she's this beautiful young woman all dressed up in a real wedding gown, and she's made herself up like a bride except that there's blood everywhere.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And you were just like, hi. I happen to be a zombie scholar.

MCALISTER: Exactly.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Can we talk?

MCALISTER: Hi. I'm a zombie scholar. Can I follow you wherever you're going? She's like, sure. I'm going to Macy's. Come along.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Everyone that I interviewed for this story is clearly fascinated with zombies, but to be honest, they're also a little fatigued by the oversaturation and disheartened by a lack of substance - something Kelly says zombies have gradually been losing post-Romero.

BAKER: George Romero has radical political commentary. It's very much about Americans. It's very much about the racial state in America. It's about the consumerist state. It's about thinking about what we're doing, the systems that we're inhabiting, how they're oppressive. When zombies are everywhere, maybe they've lost some of their radical power. Where they might have been subversive, now they're just mainstream. I mean, if Disney can have a movie about zombies in which a zombie and a cheerleader who is human fall in love...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEDAY")

MILO MANHEIM: (Singing) I know it might be crazy, but did you hear the story?

MEG DONNELLY: (Singing) I think I heard it vaguely.

MANHEIM: (Singing) A girl and a zombie...

BAKER: I really feel like we've reached a point where the radical commentary is gone (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEDAY")

MANHEIM AND DONNELLY: (Singing) Oh, what could go so wrong with a girl and a zombie?

MANHEIM: (Singing) You're from the perfect paradise.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Patrick worries that Haiti and the original meaning of the zombie is getting lost in all of this. The American zombie, that brain-eating ghoul, has been exported all over the world. But he wonders how many people know that this horror figure is rooted in his country's history.

SYLVAIN: Once we've had this globalized figure of the zombie, then the question becomes, who owns it? Does it really belong to Haiti? No. The zombie, again, is a wonderful trope, but we must not forget where it came from, its essence. To lose the genesis of the zombie within trans-Atlantic slavery, that would be a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC'S "SANTO DOMINGO")

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...

ABDELFATAH: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

ARABLOUEI: Jamie York.

ABDELFATAH: Lu Olkowski.

ARABLOUEI: Lawrence Wu.

ABDELFATAH: Jordana Hochman.

ARABLOUEI: And Njeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: And we want to give a special shout out Ramtin's bandmates in Drop Electric.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you for the amazing music you help make every week.

ARABLOUEI: If you liked something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter @ThroughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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