Zombie Manifestations in the Digital Age

(First written in 2012, updated in 2015, never before published)

Although the horror genre was littered with countless B-movies with incredulous titles in the early days such as The Giant Claw (1957), The Alligator People (1959), and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), it had slowly gained some sort of industry and critical acceptance over the decades with films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), and The Shining (1980), among many others, now considered canonical works of the genre.

Some of the critical respectability and cultural significance that the horror genre obtained came from Night of the Living Dead (1968), the breakthrough zombie film by George A. Romero, and later, 28 Days Later (2002), a revisionist post-apocalyptic zombie film by Danny Boyle that was seen as bringing life back to the subgenre. 

The rise in digital technology in the late 1990s and early 2000s appears to coincide with the rejuvenation of the zombie film, which was close to non-existence in mainstream cinema in the late 1980s and for much of the 1990s.

This paper looks at the zombie subgenre from a sociocultural, filmic, and technological standpoint by situating it in the age of the digital media.  It attempts to explore digital video (DV) filmmaking and the zombie subgenre as in the case of 28 Days Later; the attraction of found footage films and its impact on the zombie film as in the case of the Spanish zombie movie REC (2007); and lastly, the rise of surveillance cinema and its implications on the depiction of zombies in relation to the self-reflexive horror film The Cabin in the Woods (2011).

The result is a manifestation of the classic zombie in three different contemporary forms – the DV zombie, the found footage zombie, and the surveillance zombie.

The DV Zombie
As far as zombies are concerned, they do not care how they are filmed.  The type of camera used does not distract them from their ravenous flesh-eating appetite. 

The rise of DV filmmaking in the late 1990s and 2000s as characterized by the works of Lars von Trier (The Idiots, 1998), Abbas Kiarostami (Ten, 2002), Jia Zhangke (Still Life, 2006), and David Lynch (Inland Empire, 2006) has profoundly changed the ways how films are shot and conceived, including the zombie film.

Portability is a key concept in DV filmmaking as stated by Ganz and Khatib (2006).  They saw that “the electronic cinema envisaged a transformation of the traditional organizational structure of film production by enabling pre-production, production, and post-production to occur simultaneously” (p. 24). 

Thus, the portability of the DV camera allows filmmakers the flexibility of shooting and assembling their film on location without the inconvenience of handling large and heavy equipment required for making films. 

This concept of portability has seen Boyle reinterpret the zombie film in more interesting ways, thus contributing to its success in rejuvenating the subgenre, and inspiring a host of other similar films, including the sequel 28 Weeks Later (2007). 

Shot using portable DV cameras by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, 28 Days Later centers on Jim who wakes up in a deserted hospital only to find out that he is in a post-apocalyptic London ravaged by a virus that has turned humans into raging zombies. 

“It spread fast. No one could run, all you could do was climb… Looking down, you couldn’t tell which faces were infected, and which weren’t. “

What defines Boyle’s film as inherently different from other zombie films of the past is its aesthetic of realism made possible by the DV camera.  Bishop (2009) described the film as making “the somewhat abstract potential of zombification a much more visceral reality” (p. 23). 

Although the author explained that this visceral realism stemmed from the fact that the zombies were referred to as ‘infecteds’ by the film’s characters, thus they were still recognized as naturally and biologically human, and hence were “more frightening than the traditional fantasy monster”(p. 23), I wish to make the argument that while much of the visceral quality of 28 Days Later might have come from its less supernatural characterization of the zombies, it also comes as a result of its DV aesthetic.

Gans and Khatib (2006) explained that in DV filmmaking, “the immediacy of the image becomes the aesthetic” (p. 28).  In other words, the DV aesthetic provides a kind of look that is best described as transparent without any mediating presence that would stand in the way of the viewer’s “immediate relationship to the contents of [the] medium” (Bolter & Grusin, 1999, p. 24). 

In a number of scenes, the immediacy of the DV image is characterized by an intentional and slight degradation of the visual quality, giving a hand-held ‘home video’ feel. 

The most eye-catching singular example of the DV camera’s portability and unique aesthetic is the zombie’s point-of-view shot that is inserted before an imminent attack on the lead characters in a house. The DV camera assumes the gaze of the zombie as it runs towards a lighted window in a frenzied manner. 

This DV aesthetic, evident in many other scenes, instills Boyle’s film with a visual style that is generally striking, and occasionally calls to attention to its pixelated nature, which gives a kind of pseudo-documentary authenticity to the events that unfold in the film.

“Look, if someone gets infected you’ve got between 10 and 20 seconds to kill them. It might be your brother, or your sister, or your oldest friend. It makes no difference. And just so you know where you stand, if it happens to you, I’ll do it in a heartbeat.”

It is also intriguing to note that zombies in the digital age move faster than ever before.  In most of the early films such as Night of the Living Dead,and the Lucio Fulci cult classic Zombi 2 (1979), the zombies walk. 

But in Boyle’s film, and other post-28 Days Later zombie films such as the Zack Snyder remake Dawn of the Dead (2004), they sprint.  Perhaps this is symptomatic of the digital age where everything moves quicker due in part to the increasing processing speeds of the computer.

Cameron (2012) compared the classic zombie with the modern zombie, or what I would like to call the ‘DV zombie’, in relation to the nature of media technology in an interesting way: “If Romero’s shambling figures replicate the slow and steady unspooling of low-resolution analogue media, then the contemporary zombie reflects digital media’s capacity for speed and random access” (p. 73).

In some way, the DV zombie can be seen as a socio-technological symbol of speed in the digital age, a kind of grotesque reflection of both the fast-paced digital world that we live in, and our strong dependency on speed to engage us.  Think of this: if a website does not load within a few seconds, most of us will click the refresh button rather than wait. 

Ironically, while the DV zombie is free to express its desire for flesh through its own natural speed and strength, we are constantly at the mercy of the speed and power afforded (or limited) by the digital technologies that govern our lives.

Borne out of the digital technology and new media culture of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the DV zombie has become a common sight in popular culture from films to video games to graphic novels.

Its familiarity is taken to even more intimate heights with the found footage zombie, the offspring of the DV zombie that is also borne out of the digital era, but more specifically, of the popularity of found footage horror films.

The Found Footage Zombie
It is difficult to discount the box-office success of The Blair Witch Project (1999) as a major factor in establishing the contemporary cinematic phenomenon that is the found footage horror film. 

The commercial sustenance of the Paranormal Activity (2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015) series is also a strong indicator of the attraction towards the found footage film by mainstream moviegoers.

While conceived entirely from the fictional imagination of the filmmakers, found footage horror films give viewers an even more heightened sense of reality because its perceived aesthetic mirrors that of a visual recording of events that had occurred in the past, very often that of the near past. 

Because the modern found footage film is deeply rooted in the genre of horror, it does not take long for filmmakers to realize that the technique can be effectively adopted and used in the zombie film.

“There are incredible security measures in place. We know nothing. They haven’t told us a thing. We saw special forces, health inspectors wearing suits and masks, and it’s not very comforting.”

One of the most famous examples is REC (which was remade as Quarantine only a year later), a Spanish found footage film that sees a television reporter and cameraman follow a group of firefighters into an apartment building after receiving an emergency call. 

They find themselves unable to escape as humans infected with an unknown virus start to attack them.  Whatever the viewer sees (or do not see) from the film is dependent on the spatial position of the cameraman.

The portability of the DV camera as mentioned earlier comes into play.  When the cameraman runs, the camera ‘runs’ along with him—the images captured are shaky and sometimes pixelated. 

Even if both 28 Days Later and REC share a somewhat similar DV aesthetic, most if not all viewers will perceive REC as more realistic if realism is defined primarily by a film’s mode of address, which in REC’s case is entirely a recording of events as they happen.

The found footage zombie then emerges, in the sense that the violent attacks are captured by the presence of a free-roaming camera in the form of a visual record. 

“We have to tape everything, Pablo. For f—‘s sake.”

Rombes (2009) suggested that the “resurrection of real-time [is in line with the] logic of the very first cinema: the work of the Lumière brothers” (p. 26).  This gives rise to the idea that an attack launched by the found footage zombie as seen in REC can come very close to being perceived as the actual recorded event by the viewer.

However, the concept of horror itself suggests that reality is only fabricated.  Keisner (2008) described horror films as “a simulation of a reality, or more accurately, they fall under Jean Baudrillard’s definition of a simulacra – a creation of reality that never existed” (p. 416).  In REC, the found footage zombie does not exist in the physical reality, but exists in the filmic reality.

On the other hand, Rombes (2009) argued that in the digital age, “all of our technologies conspire to dispel the illusion of cinema” (p. 137).  He wrote about the nature of undirected films, which he defined as “those films where the director is literally absent or where the concept of director control is challenged” (p. 135), and of digital technologies like the DV camera which reminds us that “what we are watching when we are watching a [undirected] film is really the history of the film’s making” (p. 137).

REC could be considered an undirected film if films such as Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project are also regarded as such.  The director’s sleigh-of-hand is conspicuously missing in these found footage films as what the viewer sees is not a film (in the manipulative, artistic sense) but a ‘historical’ recording (in the factual, unobtrusive sense).

The Surveillance Zombie
However in REC, the recording can only be seen when it is ‘found’ and played.  What if the footage is live, and the zombie is moving and attacking in real-time?  It then becomes a surveillance zombie.  This brings us to surveillance cinema, a concept not so far off from the notion of the found footage film. The key difference is the idea of temporality.

In Manovich (2002), the author wrote about how “the classical screen displays a static, permanent image; the dynamic screen displays a moving image of the past; and finally, the real-time screen shows the present” (p. 103). In this regard, REC shows a record of the past, and thus is seen through a dynamic screen. 

But in surveillance cinema, certain scenes show the concurrent filmic present through a real-time screen, though that is itself shown through a dynamic screen (i.e. the theatrical screen) when viewed by the moviegoer.

The real-time screen makes appearances in The Cabin in the Woods, which sees a group of teenagers entering an eerie cabin in the middle of the woods, oblivious to the fact that they are being watched in ‘real-time’ by a secret corporation involved in a diabolical setup. 

The teenagers are to be slaughtered by zombies that are kept as ‘slaves’ by the corporation, and their blood to be collected to appease some unknown but powerful entity who can wreak havoc on an apocalyptic scale.

“Oh, my God. I’m on a reality TV show. My parents are gonna think I’m such a burnout.”

The surveillance nature of the real-time screen feeds our curiosity, and in the case of The Cabin in the Woods, our curious urge to see real-time violence inflicted on hapless people. 

In Turner (1998), the author argued that “films that address the practice of surveillance… integrate the use of surveillance as a narratival device to promote suspense and subsequently, violence” (p. 94).

Our fixation with violence, fuelled by the constant bombardment of violent media imagery on the news broadcast, is symbolized by the surveillance zombie.  Like any other zombie, the surveillance zombie attacks humans. 

But because the attack is shown in ‘real-time’ through the digital technology that powers the real-time screen, the events achieve an even higher level of immediacy than any other interface from both visual and temporal standpoints.

Levin (2002) mentioned that the cinema of ‘real-time’ sees referentiality as “shift[ing] from spatial to temporal indexicality… in terms of what could be called a rhetorics of surveillance” (p. 593). 

In this regard, the surveillance zombie in The Cabin in the Woods achieves realism not through the film’s aesthetic (which is certainly much more polished than REC or 28 Days Later), but through a mode of address that sees the referent as time-based, or more specifically, in the basis of ‘real-time’.

“Yes, you did. Yes, you had zombies. But this is Zombie Redneck Torture Family, see? They’re entirely separate species. Like the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.”

Because the surveillance zombie is constantly captured on the real-time screen, it becomes more visible than the found footage zombie.  Zimmer (2011) wrote that “the production of the body as visible, measurable, and categorizable is without question one of the defining facets of both surveillance practice and modern subjectification” (p. 428). 

The found footage zombie is seen only if the camera manages to capture it in the thick of chaos, or by ‘luck’.  In contrast, the surveillance zombie is seen wherever it goes, not because the surveillance camera is portable, but because it is ubiquitous. 

With increased surveillance post-9/11 in the form of the widespread use of the CCTV camera and other kinds of equipment for security reasons, there have been fiery debates over the intrusion of privacy caused by the omnipresent surveillance camera. 

It is thus ironic that in The Cabin in the Woods, surveillance cameras (not omnipresent, but hidden in strategic locations) are not used as a form of deterrence to any kind of attack on the teenagers, but as a blatant invasion of their privacy, and in some cases, capturing the glorious, blood-soaked moments of their deaths.

In addition, Zimmer (2011) wrote about how cinematic narratives of surveillance “should be viewed not just as ‘reflections’ of an increasingly surveillance-centred media, but themselves as practices of surveillance (p. 439). 

The Cabin in the Woods applies the practice of surveillance as part of its self-reflexive concept, as it tries to reinvent the zombie film, or more generally, the horror film in a different light, thus giving us the peculiar yet familiar surveillance zombie.

Digital technology, digital media, and digital culture have changed the way the viewer sees and reads the contemporary zombie film.  While fundamentally the zombie film has not deviated much from Romero to Boyle in that zombies have been consistently portrayed as bloodthirsty flesh-eaters, the digital era has transformed the way the zombie film is made and presented. 

From the DV zombie to the found footage zombie, and then to the surveillance zombie, we see how zombies continue to adapt to the changing trends in the cinematic landscape.

The future of zombies (and the subgenre) is highly dependent on where digital technology will go in the next ten years.  The rise in the use of 3D technology in films in recent years as spearheaded by James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) has seen zombies get the 3D treatment in blockbusters such as Resident Evil: Retribution (2010) and Resident Evil: Afterlife (2012). 

In summer 2013, another zombie apocalypse blockbuster hits the screen in the form of World War Z.  Will the zombie manifest itself again in the digital age?  Perhaps so, when there seems to be a case for the ‘spectacle-d’ zombie.  


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