Sci-fi and fantasy author Richard Matheson has passed away aged 87, leaving behind a legacy of books, TV and film. Even if you don’t recognise his name, you will probably have seen his work on screen. Many of his stories were adapted for film, including I Am Legend, Duel, and A Stir of Echoes, and he wrote perhaps the most famous Twilight Zone episode of all time, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. I don’t normally write memorials but I feel I owe Matheson one because he’s responsible for one of my generation’s most enduring monsters – the zombie.
Now, zombies were around before Matheson, of course – having hit the mainstream way back in 1889 when Lafcadio Hearn reported tales of the walking dead in the Caribbean. But up until the 1950s, they were more magical than biological. When Matheson penned his post-apocalyptic novel I Am Legend in 1954, his monsters were stripped-down vampires that fed on human flesh and avoided the sunlight, but wore none of Stoker’s gothic accessories. Fourteen years later, a young filmmaker named George Romero set about making a film that borrowed largely from I Am Legend. However, rather than set the story at the end of civilisation, Romero thought it would be interesting to film the beginning of the outbreak, and thus Night of the Living Dead was born. The ghouls ate human flesh, and within the scope of the film, only really came out at night (bear in mind the film ends at daybreak, with the humans seemingly triumphant). This is why, famously, the word zombie is never spoken within the film – it wasn’t really supposed to be a zombie movie. Originally termed Night of the Flesh Eaters, the distribution company Walter Reade changed the title to Night of the Living Dead, thus muddying the distinction between streamlined vampire and zombie, and in doing so, they accidentally gave zombies a whole new non-magical narrative, and gave pop culture one of its great icons.
By the time the Will Smith version of I Am Legend came out in cinemas, things had come full circle, and this film is better known as a zombie flick than a vampire one, even though the monsters are capable of emotion, reasoned planning, and have an aversion to daylight. Even the BBC seems a bit uncertain as to whether I Am Legend is a vampire or a zombie novel – although to be fair, their description is on the mark: it’s a vampire novel that ushered in zombies.
So, fans of the undead, raise a glass tonight to the father of the zombie, the incomparable Richard Matheson.