A zombie is traditionally an undead person in the Caribbean spiritual belief system of voodoo. Essentially a dead body re-animated by unnatural means, the zombie creates dread among the living. Zombies have become a staple of modern horror fiction, where they usually engage in the consumption of human flesh. The term "zombism" is sometimes used to refer to the condition or disease associated with being a zombie.
Zombies in voodoo
In its original form, a zombie is a person revived by a priest to serve him. He is an empty shell with neither a soul nor a will of his own. His only purpose lies in fulfilling the tasks that his master gives him. Obviously, a myth which is heavily influenced by the experience of slavery. According to the tenets of voodoo, a dead person can be revived by a in Bogor or Mambo. After resurrection, it has no will of its own, but remains under the control of the person who performed the ritual. Such resurrected dead are called "zombies". "Zombi" is also the name of the voodoo snake god of Niger-Congo origin; it is akin to the Kongo word nzambi, which means "god." It may also derive from the word zumbi meaning "fetish".
In 1937, while researching folklore in Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston encountered the case of Felicia Felix-Mentor, who had died and been buried in 1907 at the age of 29. Villagers believed they saw her wandering the streets in a daze thirty years later  (although this was subsequently found to be false). Hurston pursued rumours that the affected persons were given powerful psychoactive drugs, but was unable to locate anyone willing to offer much information. She wrote:
- "What is more, if science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than gestures of ceremony."
Several decades later, Wade Davis, a Canadian ethnobotanist, presented a pharmacological case for zombies in two books - The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988). Davis travelled to Haiti in 1982 and, as a result of his investigations, claimed that a living person could be 'zombified' by the ingestion of two special powders. The first, coup de poudre (French: 'powder strike' - a wordplay on coup de foudre, 'lightning-strike'), induced a 'death-like' state, the key ingredient of which was tetrodotoxin (TTX). Tetrodotoxin is the same lethal toxin found in the Japanese delicacy fugu, or pufferfish (Tetraodontiformes). At near-lethal doses (LD50 of 1mg), it is said to be able to leave a person in a state of near-death for several days, while the person continues to be conscious. The second powder of dissociative hallucinogens held the person in a will-less zombie state. Davis popularized the story of Clairvius Narcisse, who was claimed to have succumbed to this practice. There remains considerable skepticism about Davis's claims, and opinions remain divided as to the veracity of his work.
Others have discussed the contribution of the victim's own belief-system, possibly leading to compliance with the attacker's will, and causing quasi-hysterical amnesia, catatonia, or other psychological disorders, which are then later misinterpreted as a return from the dead. Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing further highlighted the link between social and cultural expectations and compulsion, in the context of schizophrenia and other mental illness, suggesting that schizogenesis may account for some of the psychological aspects of zombification.
Zombies in folklore
In the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed that the souls of the dead could return to earth and haunt the living. The belief in Medieval revenants] (someone who has returned from the dead) are well documented by contemporary European writers of the time. According to the Encyclopedia of Things that Never Were, particularly in France during the Middle Ages, the revenant or zombie rises from the dead usually to avenge some crime committed against the entity, most likely a murder. The revenant usually took on the form of an emaciated corpse or skeletal human figure, and wandered around graveyards at night. The "draugr" of medieval Norse mythology were also believed to be the corpses of warriors returned from the dead to attack the living. The zombie appears in several other cultures worldwide, including Japan, China, the Pacific, India, and even the Native Americans.
Zombies in literature and fiction
The first book to expose modern western culture to the concept of the zombie was The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook in 1929.
Zombies are regularly encountered in horror]- and fantasy-themed fiction, |films, television shows, video games, and role-playing games. They are typically depicted as mindless, shambling, decaying corpses with a hunger for human flesh, and in some cases, human brains.
Prior to the mid-1950s, zombies were usually presented as mindless thralls controlled like puppets by mystical masters. Sometimes the zombies were reanimated corpses, and sometimes living humans, but never independently malevolent. There was sometimes a strong sexual component in the depiction of these mindless beings.
The depiction of zombies changed with the publication of I Am Legend by author Richard Matheson in (1954), the story of a future Los Angeles, overrun with undead cannibalistic/bloodsucking beings. One man is the sole survivor of a pandemic of a bacterium that causes vampirism. Continually, he must fight to survive attacks from the creatures. Although ostensibly a vampire story, it had enormous impact on the zombie genre, particularly the film maker George A. Romero. The film "The Last Man On Earth" (1964) starring Vincent Price is based on this story.
Many works of fiction feature zombies who spread their affliction from one to another, in a viral fashion. More often than not, the condition is spread through means of a bite or scratch, and the victim will most likely die and mutate soon after. In others, however, the condition is only acquired after death.
A common plot in zombie fiction is an outbreak of the zombie plague growing out of control, resulting in an apocalyptic scenario. The story then focuses around a small group of survivors attempting to either stop the plague, or merely survive and escape the destruction. In typical horror fashion, zombie fiction rarely has a happy ending, generally ending in a dark or ambiguous manner. Popular causes of zombie outbreaks in fiction include radiation or toxic chemicals acting on the brains of the dead, evil magic or voodoo, aliens, nanotechnology, the use of drugs, viral infection, and telepathic control.
In pop fiction, zombies can generally be disabled by dismemberment or destruction of the brain and/or upper spinal column. In a few cases the entire body of the zombie must be destroyed, generally by burning, as individual body parts continue to move after being severed from the body. Shotguns are the stereotypical zombie-killing weapon, or explosive weapons such as grenade launchers.
In the Xanth series by Piers Anthony the zombies are re-animated by a magical talent held by Jonathan the Zombie Master. He can re-animate any deceased creature, human or otherwise, and have it under his personal control. Even when he commits suicide, he himself returns to life as a member of the undead. The zombies of Xanth can continually fall apart without losing any mass.
In the Dune series of novels by Frank Herbert, the Gholas are essentially clones grown in tanks from genetic material retrieved from the cells of a deceased subject. (Note the similarity to the word ghoul.) The distiction between gholas and clones is that the ghola retains many personality characteristics of the dead person, and this can be unsettling to others. In the period of Dune, gholas are merely physical copies, but at the end of Dune Messiah], the ghola of Duncan Idaho recovers the memories of the original, essentially becoming a reincarnation of Idaho.
The character of Reginald Shoe in Terry Pratchett's Discworld books becomes a zombie by refusing to stay dead after being shot and killed. He later forms a support group for other undead, claiming they are merely "differently alive". Several other Discworld zombies, including Mr. Slant, work as unsympathetic lawyers. This is one of the few areas of fiction where zombies retain all memory and cognitive function.
In contemporary horror fiction, Leisure Books has published Brian Keene's debut novel The Rising and its sequel City Of The Dead, which deal with a worldwide apocalypse of intelligent zombies, apparently caused by demonic possession. Walter Greatshell's novel Xombies is about a plague that turns women into the undead. The 2006 Stephen King novel, Cell, involves zombie-like crowds of people transformed by a signal from mobile phones.
In comics, Dark Horse Comics ZombieWorld: Champion of the Worms and its sequel Winter's Dregs feature the undead, as well as Steve Niles' Dawn of the Dead adaptation and The Walking Dead series by Robert Kirkman. In the comic series The Goon by Eric Powell the prominent villain is a necromancer who constantly rejuvenates his undead army by employing lepers to rob the graves of the town cemetery. A Marvel Comics miniseries called Marvel Zombies features an alternate Earth where a zombie plague has infected all the heroes and villains.
Zombies in film
Although the depiction of zombies in film has recently become much more varied, they were originally presented in White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932) as mindless, unthinking henchmen under the spell of an evil magician/overlord. This depiction continued through the 1930s until they started to move around more of their own accord, as in I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943).
In 1968, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead premiered. Critics initially reacted negatively to its depiction of cannibalism and gore and the movie's pessimistic tone, but the film soon developed a strong following and is now considered a modern classic.
Though cannibalism in horror was nothing new at the time, the movie standardised the practice of eating human flesh in zombies, and created new rules still in use today, such as a severe head injury being the only way to kill a zombie. The depiction of zombies staggering around slowly, moaning and in various states of decomposition, can also be traced back to Romero's movies. With an army of dead persons marching towards a certain apocalypse, every loss for the poor surviving humans means one more combatant in the ranks of the smelly stumblers. A truly vicious strategy for conquest. The zombie feels at home in large shopping malls, a phenomenon first established by Romero's next part of his Dead-quadrilogy, Dawn of the Dead. It is here that the zombie becomes the ultimate metaphor for consumerism. A mob of indifferent, unsatiable buyers/feeders. An ugly image, but not necessarily too far off target.
Romero's even more successful sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), can be regarded as the father of the modern zombie movie subgenre. The third entry in the series was Day of the Dead] (1985), followed two decades later by the fourth entry, Land of the Dead (2005). Still, it is interesting to know that the original movie made no reference to the creatures as "zombies." It is quite likely that the term "zombie" was coined in reference to the trance-like stupor of the creatures, not their cannibalistic tendencies.
Internationally, Dawn of the Dead was released under the name Zombi, inspiring Italian director Lucio Fulci to create Zombi II (1979), an unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead, which would be released in North America as Zombie and spawn its own series. In America, Dan O'Bannon's 1985 movie, Return of the Living Dead, took a more comedic approach to distinguish his movie from George Romero's; it had the zombies hunger specifically for brains instead of all human flesh.
After the mid-1980s, the subgenre became mostly relegated to the underground. Although director Peter Jackson made a notable entry with the ultra-gory Braindead (1992) (released as Dead Alive in the US), and Michele Soavi received rave reviews for Dellamorte Dellamore (1994), it was not until the next decade's box office successes (the Resident Evil movies (2002, 2004), 28 Days Later (2002), the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), and the homage/parody Shaun of the Dead (2004)) that the zombie subgenre experienced a resurgance. The new interest allowed Romero to create the fourth entry of his zombie series. The zombies in some of these recent films differ from previous versions because they possess speed and agility, or collective intelligence.
Around the turn of this century, there have been numerous direct-to-video (or DVD) zombie movies made by extremely low-budget filmmakers using digital video. These can usually be found for sale online from the distributors themselves, rented in video rental stores or released internationally in such places as Thailand.
Some zombie fans continue the George A. Romero tradition of using zombies as a social commentary. Organized zombie themed flash mobs or Zombie Walks, which are primarily promoted through word of mouth, are regularly staged all over the world. Usually they are arranged as a sort of surrealist performance art but they are occasionally put on as part of a unique political protest such as on Buy Nothing Day, November 25, 2006, in Montreal, a crowd of Zombies invaded the downtown core to take part in a "Shopping Spree of the Dead" and ridicule the compulsive aspect of Christmas shopping. In the leadup to the 2000 US elections, a group promoted themselves as "zombies for gore".
Other organizations such as Zombie Squad use the genre as a way to promote disaster preparedness and to encourage horror fans to become involved in their community, through volunteering or hosting zombie themed charity fund raisers.
The zombie-themed episode of the Showtime series Masters of Horror entitled Homecoming was hailed by many as an original and innovative use of zombies in a work of political and social commentary.
Notes and references
1. Gallaher, Tim (1997). Zora Neale Hurston, American Author
- The Ultimate Zombie Book List A listing of many zombie-related works of fiction.
- SupportZombies.com A site dedicated to giving zombies a helping hand!
- Rise of the Dead A collaborative fiction forum where authors can write George Romero style zombie fiction with other authors.
- Zombie Squad An international disaster preparation and charity non-for-profit made up of thousands of zombie fans.
- Zombie Preparedness Initiative A large website with over 100 members, dedicated to preparing in all seriousness for the zombie apocalypse.