What is a Zombie?
Zombies are all the rage in today’s horror and dystopian fiction. Their presence in book stores and movie theatres is inescapable, so you are probably already familiar with Zombie basics. They are undead. Mindless. Near invincible. And bloodthirsty.
Zombies come in all shapes and sizes. As long as the look is gruesome, there’s probably a Zombie to match!
Early, folkloric Zombies resembled a cross between ghosts and the Zombies we know and love today. They had the best of both worlds: solid, physical bodies without signs of decay. Still, they were often disheveled and had un-focused eyes.
After Hollywood got a hold of Zombies, they began a series of rapid transformations.
In the 1960s, the Zombie image was dominated by a single franchise: Night of the Living Dead. For the first time, Zombies began showing signs of decay and oozing wounds. Their skin was pale, with sunken eyes, and they moved stiffly and slowly, with their arms outstretched in front of them.
In the 1990s, video games gave zombies a makeover. These zombies, usually infected with a viral disease, had gorier wounds than their ancestors, and their eyes glowed blue or white. They still moved slowly, but their movement was more fluid, with lolling heads and swinging limbs.
The early 2000s saw yet another reincarnation of the Zombie. This time, they were rabid monsters with inflamed skin and bloodshot eyes. They moved quickly and jerkily, appearing to be in a state of frenzy.
The latest Zombies have shrunken into a skeletal form, with yellowing skin, shriveled up to expose the muscles and fibers below. Despite sporting the goriest wounds of all time, these Zombies are faster and stronger than ever. They can run, climb, jump, and tear you apart limb from limb.
Zombies have always been mindless creatures, with no emotions or complex thoughts, but they have not always been the murderous terrors that we know today.
The very first Zombies were tragic figures. They were bodies left behind by souls who were trapped between heaven and earth, usually a result of violent death like murder or suicide. Without their souls, they had nothing to give them direction, so they were enlisted into slave labor.
After slavery was outlawed, the Zombies needed new masters. They were adopted by Voodoo leaders, called bokors, who claimed that they themselves had created the Zombies. The Zombies themselves did not change much. They were mindless, but not particularly dangerous (unless a bokor wanted you dead).
Hollywood added the bloodthirsty spin to the Zombie’s personality, morphing them into monsters whose only master is instinct and whose strongest instinct is hunger.
Even if they aren’t the masters of their own actions, Zombies are still powerful creatures with a variety of bloodcurdling talents.
Hollywood’s Zombies live to hunt, and like any hungry predator, they have finely tuned senses that help them detect prey. Early Zombies depended on vision and hearing, much like humans, but as Zombie-lore evolved, many of them lost their vision and began to rely heavily on their superb sense of smell. The emergence of nocturnal Zombies created a new breed with a talent for seeing in the dark.
Most Zombies hunt to eat, but when they ravage a town, the victims who get eaten are actually the lucky ones. Victims who are bitten, but not devoured, have a grislier fate. They have been exposed to the Zombie contagion, and unless they are executed by their friends, they will transform into mindless monsters as well. Because Zombies carry this plague, their numbers can quickly swell into an apocalyptic horde.
So why not nip a Zombie outbreak in the bud, before it has time to spread?
Taking out a single Zombie is next to impossible. You can shoot them, rip off their limbs, crush them, and they will still crawl towards you, longing to sink their rotting teeth into your flesh. If finishing off a single Zombie takes that much energy, imagine being caught in a cluster of four or five Zombies. You will probably end up being eaten or infected rather than putting a dent in the Zombie population.
The first germ of Zombie-lore came from Africa, where the native people of Gabon and the Congo believed in dead spirits called ndzumbi or nzambi. The original role of these spirits is unclear.
Belief in these pre-zombies spread during the 1500s, when the Atlantic slave trade began transporting millions of African people to the Americas. Belief in undead spirits became common in many South and Central American countries, but the most famous of them was Haiti.
After enduring years of brutal treatment, Haitian slaves rose up and overthrew their masters. In 1804, they were declared the first free, African republic, and unlike Africans in surrounding countries, Haitians were free to practice their own spiritual beliefs. Unfortunately, their original beliefs had become muddled with various other world religions during the years since they left Africa. Out of this mix, a new religion was born: Voodoo. Voodoo absorbed many ancient, African ideas, including the undead “zombi,” but it also put a new spin on the legend by claiming that zombis were created and controlled by Voodoo priests. Haitians believed that these zombis were used as personal slaves to the priests, but the western world, quick to slander Haiti, spread the idea that everything associated with Voodoo must be bloody and terrifying.
In 1915, forces from the United States of America began an occupation of hate. Since the western world had a tradition of demonizing Haiti, American soldiers were prepared to find horrors galore in this new country. Instead, they found nothing more than ghost stories about witchcraft and zombis (which Americans began calling “Zombies”). They added some extra gore to these stories and brought them back home, where they were turned into pulp fiction magazines and a few small-scale horror movies.
Eventually, the exotic appeal of Zombies began to wear off, and they began to fade out of fiction—until they were re-imagined in Night of the Living Dead, a 1968 breakthrough film that many people consider the debut of the real, red-blooded American Zombie.
Night of the Living Dead opened the floodgates for Zombie films, books, and games. Today, they are some of the world’s most iconic monsters, along with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and mummies.
Naturally, Zombies were immediate superstars in horror films, but they also helped to spawn a whole new genre of dystopian/apocalyptic fiction, which offers the audience a glimpse at the world’s grisly end. Landmark productions include The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, World War Z, Zombieland, Dawn of the Dead, and The Horde.
Zombies have also popped up in some unlikely genres, like comedy (Shaun of the Dead and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and even romance (Warm Bodies).
Finally, Zombies are immortal favorites of the video game genre. They have been with video games since the beginning, back when the “zombies” were just “z”s that you had to dodge as they swarmed around a blank screen. They were popular in pixelated arcade games, and they have helped new styles of video games (like first-person shooter and multiplayer role-playing) find their footing in the market. Some of the biggest Zombie hits are Resident Evil, Call of Duty, Minecraft, and Dead Island.
Zombies as Cultural Metaphors
You don’t have to be a fan of horror movies or shoot-em-up video games to be fascinated by Zombies. Many psychologists and sociologists have used Zombies as a way to track the evolution of cultural fears over time.
While confined to Haiti, early Zombies were a clear metaphor for the horrors of slavery. The original undead spirits were pitied because they were unable to return to lan Guinee, an afterlife that resembled the slaves’ homeland. Instead, they were forced to wander the foreign plantations forever. After slavery was abolished, Haitians continued to fear that they could be forced back into slavery—as shown by their dread of Voodoo priests transforming them into mindlessly obedient zombies.
Meanwhile, the world beyond Haiti demonstrated their fear of Haitian freedom by casting Zombies as terrifying, bloodthirsty monsters, instead of pitiful servants.
Eventually, the Zombie’s connection to Haiti was lost to time, and Americans began projecting their own, unique fears onto Zombies.
In the 1940s, Zombies were popular in comics, where they were seen working as German spies, then fighting outright with the Nazis. Eerily, many of the Zombies around this time could only be killed with atomic weapons.
In the 1960s and 70s, amid sweeping civil rights reformations, Zombies emerge as members of the white establishment. They wear tattered business suits and police uniforms, and they attack minorities or poor, overcrowded urban areas. In some cases, their victims are almost as brainwashed as the mindless Zombies. Those who are lulled into a false sense of security (asserting that the government will save them or delighting over the chance to loot an abandoned shopping mall) are the first to die.
In the wake of numerous global health scares, including Ebola, AIDS, and SARS, the 1980s ushered in viral zombies. Survivors lived in dread of exposure to the Zombie contagion and had to make difficult decisions about executing loved ones who had become carriers.
The latest incarnations of the Zombies have highlighted “us vs. them,” mentality. Staged in a lawless, post-apocalyptic world, these films make human-human conflicts just as dangerous as human-zombie conflict. They also introduce the idea that curing the Zombies and reuniting humanity is the only way to save the world.