Zombies 101: A History of the Living Dead
These days, you’d have to be living under a rock to not have at least an idea of what a zombie is. You may be able to identify a zombie on sight, but have you ever stopped to think where the concept of zombies came from? How long has the idea of zombies been around? Have zombies always been portrayed like the shuffling, groaning, festering creatures they’re shown as today? Here’s enough information to satisfy your curiosity on your favorite undead creatures.
Most commonly found in creative works in the horror and fantasy genres, zombies are basically defined as undead creatures that are essentially reanimated human corpses. The term ‘zombie’ comes from the Haitian French word zombi or the Haitian Creole word zonbi; in Haitian folklore, the term is used to refer to a dead body that is animated or controlled by magic. This is unlike modern depictions of zombies, who are usually raised through methods such as viruses.
The reanimated undead in folklore
Zombies play a major role in Haitian rural folklore, where zombies are dead people that are physically brought back to life through necromancy. The necromantic ritual is typically done by a bokor, a witch or a sorcerer, as opposed by the houngan or priest and the mambo or priestess of the Vodou religion. Once revived, the zombie has no will of its own and is completely controlled by the bokor.
Haitian tradition also depicts another type of zombie, an incorporeal ‘zombie astral’ that is part of the human soul. This zombie astral can be captured by the bokor and used to enhance his power. A bokor can also seal this zombie astral in a specially designed bottle and sold to customers for luck, healing, or business success. This incorporeal zombie is only temporary, though, as God is believed to eventually reclaim it.
The existence of two types of Zombies in Haitian folklore is thought to represent soul dualism, a major belief in Haitian Vodou. Each type of zombie, representing the flesh and the spirit, then makes up half of a whole soul.
The significance of the zombie figure has been used as a metaphor for the history of slavery in Haiti. Enslaved Africans brought the belief in zombies, and other New World experiences, to Haiti. It was even said that those who had offended the Vodou deity Baron Samedi would forever be a zombie, a slave after death, unless fed salt. Those who are in Baron Samedi’s favor would be gathered from their graves and brought to a heavenly afterlife.
Other cultures offer varying concepts of the zombie. The jumbee of the English-speaking Caribbean refers to an incorporeal, undead being. In the French West Indies, zombies of a spiritual nature are also recognized.
In some South African cultures, xidachane in Sotho/Tsonga and maduxwane in Venda refer to creatures that are zombie-like physically. Witches in these South African cultures are also believed to be capable of turning a person into a zombie by killing the person and possessing him or her to force the zombie into slave labor. When rail lines were built in Africa for the transportation of migrant workers, stories about ‘witch trains’ started to spread. These trains were operated by zombie workers who were controlled by a witch. A person boarding these trains at night would be turned into a zombie.
Another popularly cited case of alleged zombies was encountered by acclaimed American folklorist, anthropologist, and author Zora Neale Hurston. While researching Haitian folklore in 1937, Hurston came across the story of a woman who was claimed to be Felicia Felix-Mentor, who had died and had been buried in 1907. When the woman was examined by a doctor, though, X-ray findings revealed that she did not have the leg fracture that Felix-Mentor had sustained in life. Hurston wrote that some important medical secrets unknown to medical science, rather than gestures of ceremony, give Vodou in Haiti and Africa its power.
Zombie portrayal from the 19th century to the 1950s
The zombie phenomenon in Haiti first gained widespread international attention when the US occupied Haiti, from 1915 to 1924. Case histories of alleged zombies began to emerge, affecting popular culture. The first popular book covering the topic was published in 1929, written by William Seabrook and titled The Magic Island. Seabrook was convinced of the zombie phenomenon, stating that the Haitian criminal code officially recognized zombies as early as 1864. Time magazine has credited The Magic Island with introducing ‘zombi’ to US speech.
Outside of Africa, zombies have been portrayed in literature for a long, long time; in fact, June Pulliam and Anthony Fonseca, authors of Encyclopedia of the Zombie: The Walking Dead in Popular Culture and Myth, have written that the lineage of zombies can be traced as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Many zombie experts believe that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein provides the groundwork for the 20th-century concept of the zombie, in that the dead is resurrected through scientific means and that the reanimated corpses are more violent and have degraded mental faculties. Other influential 19th-century literature includes Ambrose Bierce’s The Death of Halpin Frayser and the various Gothic Romanticism works of Edgar Allan Poe. Although these are not strictly considered zombie fiction, these tales had an influence on authors who later explored the concept of the undead, such as H.P. Lovecraft.
In turn, popular American author H.P. Lovecraft published several novellas that featured the undead, with the short story series Herbert West-Reanimator having the most impact on popular culture. This series of short stories saw mad scientist Herbert West attempting to resurrect human corpses and achieving varying results. The reanimated corpses are primitive in action, extremely violent, mostly mute, and completely uncontrollable. This portrayal is highly similar to the way zombies are portrayed in popular culture today.
In the early 1950s, EC Comics published several comic books that prominently featured zombies bent on revenge. These comics, which included Weird Science, Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror, portrayed undead creatures in the Gothic style. They also included adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories, including Herbert West-Reanimator.
Romero’s zombies, aka modern zombies
The novel The Last Man on Earth and its subsequent 1964 film adaptation, depicting a human survivor fighting a world of vampires, greatly influenced an American director and screenwriter named George A. Romero. This resulted in the 1968 low-budget film Night of the Living Dead, which forms much of the basis of the modern concept of zombies. In his classic Living Dead series of films, Romero combined the zombie and the vampire, depicting the zombie as a ghoulish creature that spread like the plague and were malevolent in nature.
In the scripts for his movies, Romero initially used the term ‘ghoul’ to refer to his creatures. The word ‘zombie’ first appears in the 1978 script for Dawn of the Dead, the sequel to Night of the Living Dead. According to Romero, film critics, especially the French magazine Les Cahiers du Cinéma, were integral in associating the term ‘zombie’ with the creatures he had created. Prior to that connection, Romero had been convinced that zombies were undead slaves in Haitian Vodou. Zombies had previously been depicted as such in Victor Halperin’s 1932 film White Zombie, which starred Bela Lugosi. In the film, zombies are portrayed as the mindless henchmen of an evil magician, who controlled the zombies through a spell.
In his Living Dead series, Romero used zombies not only to explore post-apocalyptic possibilities, but also as a thematic device to criticize problems and issues in the real world, like slavery, exploitation, greed, bioengineering, and government ineptitude.
The creatures heavily featured in Romero’s films are distinguished today as Romero zombies. Romero zombies are created when the brain of a recently dead person is reanimated due to unknown purposes. A zombie pandemic ensures when the phenomenon occurs in corpses all around the world. Bites from these animated corpses are lethal, but are not necessary in spreading the virus.
Romero’s zombies move in a slow, shuffling manner, mostly due to the poor condition of their ankles and rigor mortis. These zombies make basic grunts, groans, and screams, but aren’t capable of doing much more in terms of speech.
Romero’s zombies lack full cognitive function and are driven only by their need to seek and eat living flesh. These zombies eat animals as well as humans, although they derive no sustenance from living flesh at all. As discovered by one of the characters in the films, there is also no physiological need for Romero zombies to consume flesh. Although initially lacking in cognitive function, these zombies can be trained to achieve basic intelligence and can learn to put off immediate gratification for a more significant reward.
Romero zombies have little to no memory of their previous life, but they are all capable of walking and using their hands for several basic tasks. They are also able to recognize structures such as malls and houses and objects such as cars ad doors. Eating and biting have also been retained as instincts for these zombies. When faced with the lack of immediate victims to hunt, zombies will crudely go through the motions similar to life activities.
In Romero’s films, zombies can be killed only it its brain is destroyed. Body parts that are severed from the zombie will simply become inanimate. Removing the head isn’t enough either.
Zombie portrayal from the 1980s onward
Zombies have been popular subjects for films and literature for years. In the 1980, the zombie subgenre of films continued to flourish. The 1985 film Return of the Living Dead by Dan O’Bannon featured brain-hungry zombies that evolved from a zombie contagion caused by mutagenic gas. Notable films such as 1985’s Re-Animator, 1992’s Dead Alive (Braindead in countries outside the US) and The Evil Dead series all explored the presence of the undead in modern society. Several low-budget Asian films such as Bio Zombie, Wild Zero, and Stacy also entered mainstream cinema.
The 2000s and 2010s saw a resurgence of the zombie subgenre, evident in box-office successes such as the British films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later in 2002 and 2007, respectively, and the Resident Evil film series. 2004 saw a remake of Dawn of the Dead, as well as pastiche Shaun of the Dead, which is highly popular among zombie enthusiasts today. The new Dawn of the Dead film featured zombies that are far more vicious, agile, and intelligent than the modern zombie.
Romero also returned to his iconic Living Dead series, with the films Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2008), and Survival of the Dead (2010). Romero’s portrayal of zombies has changed little through the years.
Zombie portrayal in music, TV, art, and literature
Perhaps the most recognizable portrayal of zombies in music is in Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller. The music video features choreographed zombies dancing with Jackson and remains to be one of the most iconic music videos even today.
One of the most popular TV series today, AMC’s The Walking Dead, explores a post-apocalyptic world swarming with zombies. The show has one of the highest audience ratings of any show in the US, broadcast or cable, with an average of 5.6 million viewers.
Zombies have also been portrayed in several pieces of art throughout the years. Artist Jillian McDonald has created several works of video art depicting zombies, exhibiting the works in her 2006 show. Artist Karim Charredib also primarily uses the zombie figure in his work. In 2007, Charredib created a video installation where zombies walked in villa Savoye, Paris like tourists.
Zombie fiction has also emerged as a popular literary subgenre, starting in the 1990s. John Skipp and Craig Spector edited the Book of the Dead compilation and its follow-up Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2. Book of the Dead features Romero-inspired stories from renowned authors such as Stephen King. It’s widely regarded as the first true ‘zombie literature’.
Stephen King has written about zombies, in the form of short story Home Delivery and the novel Cell. Cell depicts a young artist traveling from Boston to Maine to save his family from a potentially global outbreak of zombie-like creatures. 2005 Bram Stoker award winner The Rising, written by Brian Keene, explores the aftermath of a zombie plague that results when a particle accelerator experiment opens an interdimensional rift and allows demons to possess the dead.
Other popular zombie-themed books include Max Brooks’ World War Z, depicting accounts of the devastating global conflict caused by the zombie plague, and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which sets a zombie epidemic in the British Regency period setting of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Zombie portrayal in comic books and videogames
Publishers such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics have also released magazine series and comics about zombies. In 1973, Marvel Comics released Tales of the Zombie, a black-and-white magazine series depicting the adventures of the Zombie, a supernatural character who could be controlled by an amulet. Marvel Comics has also published a series titled Marvel Zombies since 2005; in the series, a virus transforms various Marvel superheroes of another Earth into zombies.
In the Blackest Night’ story arc of DC Comics’ Green Lantern comics, the Black Lantern Corps is introduced. The Black Lantern Corps is an organization of maliciously animated corpses of dead DC metahumans.
Zombies are also a prominent figure in videogames, particularly those in the survival horror, first-person shooter, and role-playing game genres. The most popular horror videogame franchises include Resident Evil, Dead Rising, House of the Dead, Left 4 Dead, and The Last of Us. The Call of Duty title series also features a Zombies game mode.
2009 saw the release of indie hit Plants vs. Zombies, a tower defense game that pits various plant-based defenses against different types of zombies. Zombies were also featured in the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) genre through Urban Dead, a browser game where human survivors and zombies fight for control of a ruined city.
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