The Social Upheaval/Zombie Movie Index

Annalee Newitz, editor of the science-fiction blog i09, created a chart showing the number of zombie movies produced annually in the West (mostly the U.S. and Europe) since 1910:

INSERT DESCRIPTIONChart design by Stephanie Fox.

The chart shows several spikes in zombie-movie production that, according to Newitz, “always seem to happen eerily close to historical events involving war or social upheaval.”

Some of the “upheavals” that she correlates with production spikes (like the launch of Sputnik) seem like a bit of a stretch; and overall, more movies are being made today than at the beginning of the century — but Newitz claims that the zombie-movie spikes are significant regardless.

If she’s right, and there is a zombie-strife correlation, why would gruesome movies about the undead be popular after a war?

Eric Melin, on his movie blog Scene Stealers, suggests that zombies are popular because they serve as social mirrors, helping society come to terms with itself and its actions.

Overcoming Bias’s Eliezer Yudkowsky seems to support the “zombies are us” theory in his own zombie-movie script, where zombie researchers discover that they, in fact, are the zombies, and exclaim:

We’re the ones with the virus. … My God, it’s true.

Any other theories?

Mike Nemecek

In times of troubles, don't we all seek out some good brains to help set things right? Brains .... brains ....

science minded

So I guess we are about to see a rise in the near future. Wouldn't mind a new version/remake of that great zombie like move- "The Day The Earth Stood Still."

Bruce - MyEmployee.Net

There's a zombie-strife correlation because zombies, deep in our subconscious, really symbolize hope. Zombies pull themselves together, rise up from the ashes - and to the occassion pretty well. They stumble, fall, then bounce back taking one step at a time. Their focus and tenacity mirrors the strength of the human spirit. It's the very same zombieness that built America and the very same zombieness that will rebuild it.

Thanks! Bruce


Could this extend to zombie video games as well? Valve's "Left 4 Dead" zombie game will be released tomorrow.

Steve Boyko

I would like to see this expressed as a percentage of the total movies made. I have a feeling more movies are made now than in 1939.


I wonder if the Vampire movie index wouldn't look similar. How about the Chick Flick Movie Index? Does it go up when times are good? Or the Princess movie index?

Personally I blame sunspots.


Zombie movies tend to involve some kind of apocalypse, so it's not incredibly surprising that people might have some issues they need to work out regarding the world coming to an end after war/upheaval.

Also, they tend to be quite gory, so maybe nasty images in the media leads to nasty images on screen?


wow, seriously?!? I hope this was just meant as a joke and not to be taken seriously...

How about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1929 stock market crash, and all the other events that didn't contribute to an uptick? Guess they didn't cause any social upheaval after all...

Not to mention that in many cases (e.g., the events of 1968) the upheavals probably happened too late in the year to contribute to the number of zombie movies attributed to them (assuming it takes at least a year to produce a movie from start to finish).

Remember, data first, then conclusion, the other way around leads to trouble...


Zombies are perhaps the best way for social commentators to get out their message. For example, George A. Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead, which takes place in a shopping mall, is the ultimate criticism of consumer culture and the West's obsession with material goods. Some of the best life lessons are delivered via the Undead.


Every horror movie villain represents the fear of the day - for example, radioactive superbugs in the 50s representing fear of nuclear science.

Zombies represent fear of humanity - ourselves. Their rise corresponds with the rising consciousness we have of our role in the destruction of the planet.

We have seen the enemy and it is us.


Melin's Scene-Stealers blog mentions a metaphor for every Romero movie. Can a straight line really be drawn through all of "his" zombie movies that can't be drawn through others? (Although he also mentions Shaun of the Dead too, to be fair.)


Considering how regularly there are wars or some sort of social upheaval, it's not surprising that it could be correlated with zombie movie fads. (You'll notice the zombie movies come in waves, much like zombies themselves.)

Did you know when Washington State University goes to the Rose Bowl, a massive war breaks out within a few years? It's true. WSU went to the Rose Bowl in 1916 (WWI), 1931 (WW2 started in Asia in 1933), 1998 (Afghanistan), etc.

Tkwon CMS

I also think this is pretty far-fetched. For example, how come there was no spike in the 1950s when the Korean war was raging on? How about when the SARS epidemic was looming (you could argue there was a small jump during 2002, but still not enough to confirm a trend)?

Anyways, the concept Annalee Newitz uses is pretty interesting... when people are angry and anxious, demand for zombie movies skyrockets. I think there is a "lurking" variable in the midst, but the underlying concept seems sound.


As something of a horror junkie, I've noticed some correlation between zombie movies and wars or other conflicts. I'd argue that it only (arguably) works for a particular kind of conflict, though. The whole "the zombies are us" idea is pretty common, but morally ambiguous violent conflict seems significant (be it civil rights demonstrations or Vietnam). I note that the WWII spike is sort of ... not really there. And Korea? I wouldn't read that much into it, in any event - the spikes probably have as much to do with the time it takes for old (or foreign) ideas to look ripe for a remake.

I'd wager that vampire movie surges tend to track social concern about disease and sex at least as closely. Dracula was published during a time of real concern about widespread syphillis (which isn't very subtle in the book), and that tone has really stuck, along with a paranoia about darkly attractive foreigners out to steal our women with vaguely described oral acts. Lugosi's Dracula arguably reflected a certain puritan retrenchment against the moral excesses of the '20s. AIDS in the '80s saw a HUGE surge in (mostly terrible) movies about vampires swanning about the club scene.

But, as with zombie movies, to the extent there is a correlation to current events it's usually pretty obvious and intentional. No mystery there: art (even commercial art) takes force from events in the real world.



I have a better idea -

Hollywood is a copycat world. One studio comes out with a zombie movie, the other studios try to cash in on the success of the first with their own knock-off movie. Moviegoers eventually get tired of the zombie-genre, and production wanes.

After a few years, fans are ready for another zombie movie and the cycle repeats itself.

I suspect you see similar patterns in any number of movie genres.


The historic events involving war or social upheaval seem to be rather arbitrary in their selection. What criteria was used? 9/11 isn't on there, only the Iraq War which was several years later. What about Iraq I, Nixon's resignation, JFK/RFK/MLK assasinations (and riots following MLK's death). The connection is very loose at best, especially considering the number of peaks that do not show any correlation on the chart. The trend might have more to do with someone making a zombie movie well, and knock-offs and copycats trying to make a buck by catching the wave. As Kathryn noted, political opinions can be injected to the themes at will, but are not inherently reflected in the genre.

Matt Osborne

Zombies are a sci-fi staple precisely because we can project our fears onto them. An onslaught of zombies can represent political indoctrination, disease, or whatever the zeitgeist demands. But the unifying theme is FEAR -- which is why you wouldn't see a spike in the Korean War years, as the war was never considered a direct threat to America. Conversely, the Cuban Missile Crisis was brief; there wasn't time for a contemporary examination. But as the Vietnam and Cold wars ramped up, so did the level of fear, which is why zombie movies became more popular. And not all zombie movies are easy to recognize; "THEY LIVE" features a kind of economic zombification that corresponds to the decline of the blue-collar middle class, while "THE THING" is an alien zombie that came in the days of a raging AIDS epidemic. It strikes me that there's a lot of truth in this hypothesis.

One proof to look for: will some wingnut filmmaker produce a zombie movie inspired by the election of Barack Obama?


Eric M. Jones

I think it can be blamed on Global Warming.


I am not convinced there is any correlation. What about all of the spectacular world events that occurred in times when the zombie flick industry was dormant? These are not listed on the graph.

The only thing that is clear is the upward overall trend in zombie movie production, but I would wager this is due more to the continual expansion of the world movie industry.

This not blog-worthy.


For the most part, I would say that correlation between these movies and world events such as war does not indicate causation ,as is known. However, perhaps zombie movies on the whole have increased since the human population has become more open-minded and thus more willing to enjoy a rather unrealistic plot. In the old days, people were stricter and more rigid, rarely curving off the common road of thought. However now producers realize that the consumer pool for zombie movies has grown and thus more attention is being paid to this type of film. Because of the economic idea that more profit from a good, indicates that suppliers will be more willing to invest their time in improving and increasing the supply of their good, in this particular case zombie movies.