A ‘zombie‘ is the term associated with a person (often, but not always infected by a virus of some sort), that possesses the brain and shuts down the internal systems of the victim, basically transforming them into one of the walking dead. After this mutation occurs, the victim is no longer a person, but instead a mindless shambling corpse with an insatiable hunger for flesh. In contemporary versions, these are generally reanimated or undead corpses. Stories of zombies are as old as the human race, with mentions of them in the oldest known work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Furthermore, Zombies can’t be thought of as the existence of life (or at least animation) after death because then people will think they won’t hurt anyone.
Other, more macabre versions of zombies have become a staple of modern horror fiction, where they are brought back from the dead by supernatural or scientific means, and eat the flesh of the living. They have very limited intelligence, and may not be under anyone’s direct control. This type of zombie, often referred to as a Romero zombie for the filmmaker that defined the concept, is archetypal in modern media and culture.
Rarely, Zombies can also be animals, though this is scarcely recognized by Zombie enthusiasts. It is unknown which particular animals are susceptible to the disease, or if they are at risk at all.
Most Zombies can be found roaming around their places of death in search of living organisms to feed on. The zombies will walk around, searching for food until it locates a living being, at which point it will raise its arms and form a guttural moaning deep in its throat, attracting other zombies in the area.
In a first world country, most people showing symptoms of infection (fever, disorientation) will be brought to the closest hospital. After a few hours, depending on the severity of the infection, the infected will die and then reanimate into a fully developed zombie.
Contrary to popular belief, a graveyard is usually a safe haven from zombies. It takes a few hours at most from “death” to reanimation and as it takes a few days at the very least for a burial to be organized, there have been no reports of a zombie reanimating in a coffin. In fact, zombies tend to avoid graveyards as it is simply wide stretches of abandoned land. Even if a zombie did reanimate here, the only danger would be if it reanimated during the burial. It would most likely animate in the coffin where, to get out, it would have to claw through a foot of steel and six feet of dirt.
Zombies in voodoo
According to the tenets of Vodoun, a dead person can be revived by a bokor or Voodoo sorcerer. Zombies remain under the control of the bokor since they have no will of their own. “Zombi” is also another name of the voodoo snake god Damballah Wedo, of Niger-Congo origin; it is akin to the Kongo word Nzambi, which means “god.” There also exists within the voudon tradition the zombi astral which is a human soul that is captured by a bokor and used to enhance the bokor’s power.
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 Felicia wandering the streets in a daze thirty years after her death, as well as claiming the same with several other people. Hurston pursued rumors that the affected persons were given powerful drugs, but she was unable to locate individuals willing to offer much information. She wrote:
- “What is more, if science ever gets to the bottom of Vodou 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 traveled to Haiti in 1982 and, as a result of his investigations, claimed that a living person can be turned into a zombie by two special powders being entered into the blood stream (usually via a wound). The first, coup de poudre (French: ‘powder strike’), induced a ‘death-like’ state because of tetrodotoxin (TTX), its key ingredient. Tetrodotoxin is the same lethal toxin found in the Japanese delicacy fugu, or pufferfish. At near-lethal doses (LD50= 5-8 µg/kg), it can leave a person in a state of near-death for several days, while the person continues to be conscious. The second powder, composed of dissociatives like datura, put the person in a zombie-like state where they seem to have no will of their own. Davis also 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, although there is wide recognition among the Haitian people of the existence of the “zombie drug”. The Vodoun religion being somewhat secretive in its practices and codes, it can be very difficult for a foreign scientist to validate or invalidate such claims.
Others have discussed the contribution of the victim’s own belief system, possibly leading to compliance with the attacker’s will, causing psychogenic (“quasi-hysterical”) amnesia, catatonia, or other psychological disorders, which are 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, zombies are referred to as Ghouls, it was commonly believed that the souls of the dead could return to earth and haunt the living. The belief in Revenants (someone who has returned from the dead) is 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 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 China, Japan, the Pacific, India, and the Native Americans.The Epic of Gilgamesh of ancient Sumer includes a mention of zombies. Ishtar, in the fury of vengeance says:
- Father give me the Bull of Heaven,
- So he can kill Gilgamesh in his dwelling.
- If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,
- I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
- I will smash the doorposts, and leave the doors flat down,
- and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
- And the dead will outnumber the living!
- Translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs
The Modern Zombie
Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. In his films, Romero “bred the zombie with the vampire, and what he got was the hybrid vigor of a ghastly plague monster”. This brought into being a new apocalyptic vision of monsters that have come to be known as Romero zombies.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times chided theater owners and parents who allowed children access to the film. “I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them,” complained Ebert. “They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else.” According to Ebert, the film affected the audience immediately:
- The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
Romero’s reinvention of zombies is notable in terms of its thematics; he used zombies not just for their own sake, but as a vehicle “to criticize real-world social ills—such as government ineptitude, bioengineering, slavery, greed, and exploitation—while indulging our post-apocalyptic fantasies”. Night was the first of five films in the Living Dead series.
Innately tied with the conception of the modern zombie is the “Zombie Apocalypse”, the breakdown of modern society as a result of zombie infestation, portrayed in countless zombie-related media post-Night. Scholar Kim Paffrenroth notes that “more than any other monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic… they signal the end of the world as we have known it.”
Night made no reference to the creatures as “zombies”. In the film, they are referred as “ghouls” on the TV news reports. However, the word zombie is used continually by Romero in his 1978 script for Dawn of the Dead, including once in dialog. This “retroactively fits (the creatures) with an invisible Haitian/African prehistory, formally introducing the zombie as a new archetype”.
Traits of a classic Zombie
Popular culture depictions of zombies have evolved into a relatively consistent archetype generally consistent with the Romero zombie and characterized by the following traits:
- A body comprised of a deceased human that has subsequently reanimated, usually because of a viral infection incurred in the brain while the body was still living.
- Reduced speed of movement relative to normal humans (however, some recent theatrical depictions of zombies portray them as moving as fast as a healthy human, or even faster). This is possibly due to their decaying muscles (leading to slow movement) or adrenaline (leading to quick movements).
- Increased endurance relative to normal humans; some sources attribute this to removal of normal neurological limits to muscle endurance (e.g., Golgi tendon reflex). This could also mean their inability to feel pain at times, as they are not affected by nerves.
- Profoundly reduced or absent cognitive function – Zombies may have impaired eyesight, hearing or smell. However, they are known to be attracted by bright lights or loud noises, possibly meaning that they may instead be highly sensitive to them. Some even believe that zombies are attracted to the anything that makes noise which is widely supported and seen in films and media like the Walking Dead and even in Night of the Living Dead.
- An insatiable and endless desire to consume living animal flesh, usually human, sometimes favoring brains. Some depict zombies simply possessing the desire to kill or spread the disease.
- Lack of normal human biological functions such as sleep, digestion, sexual function, or cardiac function.
- Lack of normal human biological requirements such as conventional food, sleep, or even oxygen.
- Supernatural resistance or immunity to traumatic injury of any part of the body except for the brain. This is mainly due to the death of their nerves which makes them unable to experience pain or irritation.
- Vulnerable only to attacks that remove the head or destroy the brain. Some zombies are depicted to also be vulnerable to powerful attacks (crushing of the body, high-caliber shot) which also kills them outright, but the simplest way, still, is to destroy the brain.
- Has high aggression and little intelligence and has the some of the traits of a rabid person.
- Ignores or is oblivious of fellow zombies.
- In some depictions, zombies can be seen eating each other if there is a lack of humans, as was the case in the video game “Resident Evil Operation Racoon City”, however, it seems they favor humans. They will stop eating each other if a human gets too close.
Not all bite victims fit the traditional definition of the Zombie. Unless infected by some kind of mutagenic pathogen, and subsequently become deceased and reanimated with the hunger for the living, a human cannot be termed a Traditional Zombie. Examples of this are in the movies 28 Days Later and Quarantine. In 28 Days Later, the victims are infected with a ‘Rage virus’. In Quarantine, the virus is likened to Rabies, only with symptoms that show in minutes or hours instead of months. In both cases, the victim will ‘turn’ while still alive, and while the virus infects the brain and the blood, will not physically change the body. While losing that which makes them human, they become filled with rage and will attack any living being while recognizing its own. The infected can be killed by any normal means used to kill an uninfected human and will even starve to death without the instinct to feed itself for sustenance.
Zombies in popular culture
Zombies in popular culture Zombies are very popular in horror- and fantasy-themed entertainment. They are typically depicted as mindless, shambling, decaying corpses with a hunger for human flesh (walking dead). Fictional zombies have a long history in Western culture, dating back to the 1600s, with many evolution’s of the concept from literature to films and beyond. Zombies have appeared in countless films and media. Mainly brought back from the dead by a human-made virus or nuclear war, these types of zombies only hunger for human flesh, not brains in particular. They are very easily killed with a shot or bludgeon to the head, and can usually be killed by a bullet to the chest. Found in groups (because of humans need to stick together in a zombie crisis, only to die and reanimate together) they search for humans night and day, moaning, and with enhanced hearing and smell, detect humans from miles away, moaning at their prey to put them in a fear induced sweat making them easier to detect.
Some zombie fans continue the George 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.
The world’s largest zombie walk was held on October 29, 2006, in Monroeville Mall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the setting of Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead film. The walk consisted of 894 attendees who all were instructed to bring canned food for a local food drive. The walk was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest zombie walk ever held.
Zombies in religion
As stated before, zombies have been present in voodoo culture, but also in Christianity.
Here are a few Bible verses that tell us about zombies and how they shall come to be:
“This is the plague with which the LORD will strike all the nations that fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. On that day people will be stricken by the LORD with great panic. They will seize each other by the hand and attack one another.”
Isaiah 26: 19-20
“But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. Go, my people, enter your rooms, and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while … until His wrath has passed by”