A Brief History of Nazi Zombies — And 3 Reasons They're Still So Popular

It all started with the three bodies Americans found under some Nazi weaponry.

This weekend, a new horror film about Nazi zombies will hit theaters. Did you get deja vu just now? Overlord, which is produced by J.J. Abrams, is merely the latest in a decades-long trend of genre fiction that combines the undead with the equally scary Third Reich. Everyone knows what Nazi zombies are, but no one’s completely sure why they’ve endured so many years of notoriety and pop cultural relevance. Zombie Nazis first appeared on film in 1941 before WWII even ended, and in the seventy-plus years that followed, they’ve been featured prominently in various movies and video games, most notably the Wolfenstein series and Call of Duty. But why?

To pinpoint the staying power of the undead Nazi, we have to get into both ideas separately first. Zombies originated in the blended cultures of Haitian and African slaves in the United States, while Nazism refers to the fascist beliefs and practices of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, including racial hierarchy, eugenics, extremist nationalism, and white supremacy. They don’t have obvious overlaps upon first glance, but quite a lot ties them together, not least of which being the Nazi obsession with the occult.

Dead Snow nazi zombies
Dead Snow nazi zombies

As Salon pointed out in 2015, the connection between Hitler and the undead ignited in 1945 when an American excavation mission in Germany uncovered the remains of Prussian king Frederick the Great, Field Marshall von Hindenburg, and his wife under a Nazi weapons storage facility. The fourth, empty coffin, was engraved with the name “Adolf Hitler,” so it isn’t difficult to determine what the Nazi party leader had planned. He intended to have his body laid to rest next to warlords he believed would have welcomed him. However, a Life magazine article published in 1950 offered another theory: that Hitler intended to reanimate King Frederick. “This is perhaps where the idea that the Nazis hid the bodies in hopes of resurrecting their fallen warlords came to be,” Salon’s Noah Charney writes.

But it can’t all be about those corpses, right? Here are three more reasons Nazi zombie movies and video games won’t just die already.

Nazis and zombies are easy targets

Nazis have long been an easy villain to toss into genre films, from Indiana Jones to Captain America, because up until, oh about 2016, Adolf Hitler’s followers were the easiest shorthand available for pure evil. No one was going to make the case for bargaining with Germany’s Nazi party following World War II, so any movie, comic book, or cartoon hero could punch up a few of them without batting an eye. Tons of your favorite characters have killed Nazis, including but not limited to Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Superman, Magneto, and Hellboy.

Hellboy punches a Nazi
Hellboy punches a Nazi

Using Nazis as the bad guys in any movie, TV show, or video game works exactly like the orcs in The Lord of the Rings — they’re essentially just mindless bad guys who exist in a story to be thrown into a meat grinder. We’re not supposed to think about whether they chose to be evil.

For the most part, when Nazis appear on screen, they are very rarely intelligent. They mostly just march around and take orders. So it’s all the more creepy when they can string a few words together. The most notable, recent example of this was Hans Landa in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, the role that launched Christoph Waltz’s career.

Choice (or the lack of it) is important in zombie stories, too. In fact, the zombie is just a modernized character from Haitian and African folklore, and the original scariest thing about them was their lack of agency. When they first appeared in oral history stories, zombies were an allegorical way for slaves in America to talk about freedom within their changing religions — if you killed yourself, many Haitian slaves came to believe, you lived a sort of spiritual half-life forever at the whim of your white master.

“He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti,” The New York Times wrote of the trope in 2012. “To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand.”

Nazis were obsessed with the occult

There are two big types of zombies in fiction and both feature easy connections to Nazism. Some are created by a virus, and that virus is usually released into the wild because of human hubris. Virus-zombies, like the ones in 28 Days Later, The Girl with All the Gifts, and The Walking Dead, usually appear in stories about how mankind meddles with concepts out of our control. That idea ties in neatly to the extremely efficient, but horrifically inhumane and immoral experiments carried out in concentration camps in the 1940s. Science, these zombie stories imply, has a dark side.

The other type of zombie appears in fiction when characters dabble in the occult — these are the zombies from Evil Dead, Indiana Jones, and Hellboy. Though it might seem a little too on-the-nose to call Hitler a devil worshipper, he was notably obsessed with seances, the supernatural, and magical thinking. He even had a team, the Nazi Ahnenerbe, or the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Organization, devoted to supernatural experimentation, and he regularly consulted psychics and astrologers when plotting his battle maneuvers. Since zombies often appear in stories cautioning viewers about the occult, it makes sense that Nazis might pop up in that space too.

History repeats itself

Zombies are frightening because they’re humans who died (a natural process) and were reanimated (an unnatural process). Seeing a Nazi in modern times is just as frightening because their presence implies the evil that once poisoned Europe survived or was even re-animated, decades later. No one promises the dead will stay dead, but just a few decades ago, the entire world promised Nazis would never again gain power.

modern nazis in america
History repeats itself.

Never again is the key phrase there. It has been incorrectly attributed to Zionist leader Meir Kahane throughout history; though Kahane did help popularize the phrase “never again” via a book he published, “Never Again!: A Program For Survival”, with the help of the Jewish Defense League, it’s not actually his. According to The Times, it first appeared in a 1961 Swedish documentary called “Mein Kampf,” the title of Adolf Hitler’s infamous anti-Semitic book. Over some b-roll footage of the death camp Auschwitz, the documentary narrator says, “It must never happen again — never again.”

Just as a zombie shuffling toward the camera means something in the natural world has gone wrong, a Nazi walking around in mainstream society, saying outright that non-Aryan people are lesser than European whites, means something in society and culture has gone wrong. When you combine the two ghouls, Nazis and zombies, it proves that any combination of things has gone awry, and that disturbance is what makes a good horror story.


Overlord hits theaters November 9.