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Mythological Makeover - The Zombie

By Edited Apr 11, 2016 6 6

Zombie Head

Zombies are popular antagonists and sometimes protagonists in all types of media; films, books, television series, role playing games, computer games and graphic novels all have zombies in them. Zombies have been around for some time, but the two most common modern variants evolved during the late 60s and 70s. Their popularity may wax and wane but they have been a constant for many years.

Modern zombies evolved out of predominately vodou traditions, although various types of undead are common in all types of folklore.


Vodou (also known as voodoo, vodoun and vodun) is a religion with a number of different structures and originates out of West African beliefs, usually combined with elements of Christianity as well as other spiritual beliefs. It was brought to the Caribbean through slaves from Africa. Vodou itself originated in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the 18th century.

The Vodou Zombie

Haitian Creole: zonbi; North Mbundu: nzumbe

The vodou zombie is in many respects the original zombie. A vodou zombie may be a corpse brought back from the dead using magic by a bokor (a sorcerer). These zombies are mindless and possess no will, remaining under the control of the bokor. Another tradition holds that a zombie is created by a witch killing a person and then possessing their body in order to make them into a slave.

Black Spotted Pufferfish
Pharmacological Zombies

Rather than being undead, it has been suggested that what were considered to be zombies were actually individuals who had been drugged by the bokor or witch. Two powders were administered to the potential zombie; the first included the powerful neurotoxin tetrodotoxin (found in pufferfish) and the second drugs such as datura, a hallucinogenic or dissociative plant-based drug.[2]

Zombies in Fiction

Frankenstein's Monster(109381)

Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein has Victor Frankenstein building a gigantic creature from various body parts and then giving it life. Frankenstein's Monster was not "truly" a zombie, being composed of many parts rather than being a resurrected corpse. Frankenstein's creation eventually destroys everything dear to its creator.

Early 20th Century Zombies

It was in the 20th century that the idea of the reanimated dead started to become popular in various forms of fiction.

The Magic Island

The Magic Island was a 1929 novel by W.B.Seabrook. The narrator of the book encounters voodoo cults on the Caribbean island of Haiti, and the resurrected slaves they employed. This book, according to Time magazine, was responsible for introducing the word "zombi" into English.[3]

Herbert West - Reanimator

Herbert West - Reanimator is a short story by American horror writer H.P.Lovecraft written between 1921 an 1922. It was originally written as a serial, and Lovecraft himself was unhappy with the work. The story is considered to be Lovecraft's poorest work,[4] although it does introduce Miskatonic University, a fictional university in the fictional Massachusetts town of Arkham, which would later appear in many other of Lovecraft's works.

The reanimated corpses in the story have been created using science, not magic, similar to Frankenstein's Monster - and indeed, Lovecraft is reputed to have said that the story was a parody of Frankenstein - and are often violent. They eventually track down and presumably kill West; although it's possible he is reanimated by his killers.

The 1985 film Re-Animator and its' sequels were based on the story.

Bela Lugosi
White Zombie

White Zombie was released in 1932. It was directed by Victor Halperin and starred Bela Lugosi - most famous for his later role as Dracula and also appeared in another zombie film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, which is considered to be one of the worst films ever made.[5] White Zombie is considered to be the first ever zombie film. Like with The Magic Island, the zombies in the book were voodoo based. Zombies continued to appear in films sporadically after this. It wasn't until George A Romero put his spin on it that the modern zombie truly emerged.


The Modern Zombie

There are two main types of zombies seen today; the Infected and the Necromantic. Occasionally, a vodou zombie will make an appearance, but this is comparatively rare.

The George A Romero or "Infected" Zombie

George A Romero is probably the most responsible for the spread of the infected zombie - in fiction, not in real life that is - through his portrayal of them in film.

George A Romero

Romero is an American writer, editor and film director most famous for his zombie films, although he has done other works. He has also appeared in a number of his zombie films, usually in a cameo role, starting with his first film, Night of the Living Dead.

Zombie Eating Human Flesh
The Infected

Infected zombies are usually the dead that have been reanimated by some sort of disease. This disease causes the zombies to both want to eat the flesh (and sometimes the brains) of any surviving humans. Being bitten by an infected zombie (a manner of transmission strongly reminiscent to the spread of vampirism) will cause the bitten human to also be infected, eventually resulting in them also becoming a zombie. Infected zombies rarely exhibit any intelligence or self-awareness.

Resident Evil
The origins of this infection are often unknown; in the Resident Evil series it was a genetically engineered virus (the T-Virus) that had been released, usually by accident, but in many cinematic stories the actual source of the virus is not known. In Night of the Living Dead it was suggested that it could have been caused by debris from a space probe returning from Venus that had exploded, but this was never actually confirmed. The Return of the Living Dead series had the zombies created from the release of a toxic gas.

Whilst being bitten by a zombie will usually kill the person bitten, and reanimate them as a zombie, in some cases those who die of anything will shortly afterwards return as a zombie. This second type will vastly increase the rate of spread of the virus, as any corpse will require immediate destruction.

Killing the Infected

The primary means of killing an infected zombie is through head injuries. Although the zombie will take damage from anything, and cannot usually heal that damage, only by destroying the brain is it possible to actually destroy the zombie.

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead Ghouls
George A Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is probably the first example of the modern "infected" zombie type. Many of the traits exhibited my the modern infected zombie were first portrayed in this film.

At the beginning of the film Barbra and her brother Johnny drive to a graveyard in Pennsylvania in order to visit their fathers' grave when they are violently attacked. Johnny is killed when he attempts to rescue his sister; Barbra flees to a farmhouse pursued by her brother's killer where she finds a partially eaten woman's body inside. Running outside she sees several more people similar to her pursuer, before being taken back into the house by a man called Ben. There is a group hiding inside the cellar; Ben finds a report on the news that describes how the recently deceased are coming back to life as the living dead and are eating people. The rest of the film portrays the attacks on the house by the dead, and the living's attempts to resist them.

Ben fron Night of the Living Dead
Rather unusually and potentially controversially for the time the main hero of the film, Ben, was played by Duane Jones who was an African-American (although referred to then as a Negro), making it the first mainstream horror film with an African-American in a, if not the, lead role.

Within the film itself, the undead were referred to, somewhat inaccurately "Ghouls"; a "Ghoul" - originally from the Arabic ghÅ«l (demon) - is a monster that can often be found in graveyards and cemeteries. It was not (originally) an undead being, but a corporeal demon, although it does feed on human flesh and blood. In the credits of the film, however, the undead were referred to as "Zombies."

Night of the Living Dead is mostly responsible for the redefinition of zombies as the resurrected, flesh eating dead.

I Am Legend

I Am Legend is a 1954 novel by Richard Matheson which has since been made into several films. Although the monsters in the novel are referred to as Vampires the book has been responsible for a substantial amount of the development of the modern infected zombie, as well as the concept of a worldwide apocalypse caused by a disease, which later evolved into the Zombie Apocalypse.

In an interview Romero stated that he took much of the inspiration for Night of the Living Dead from I Am Legend.[1] I Am Legend is set after the apocalypse caused by the spread of a disease with only one survivor remaining. Romero wanted to start from the beginning, with the events leading up to the apocalypse, rather than the end after it had already happened.

Night of the Living Dead has so far had five sequels as well as a number of remakes of films in the series. Due to a mistake on the part of the original distributor of the 1968 version, Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain.

The zombies in Romero's more recent film Land of the Dead did start showing some intelligence, no longer being the mindless eaters of human flesh they usually appear as.


The concept of zombies wanting to eat brains, as opposed to just being happy with regular human flesh, was introduced in the film The Return of the Living Dead, which itself spawned four sequels. The Return of the Living Dead was released in 1985, the same year as Romero's Day of the Dead, and was co-written by John A Russo who also co-wrote Night of the Living Dead.

The Return of the Living Dead was more of a comedy-horror film, and gave an alternate follow-up to Night of the Living Dead. The film caused a legal fight between Romero and Russo, as Romero claimed that Russo's film had taken part of the title of the original film and was also plagiarizing the slogan for Dawn of the Dead.

Simon Pegg(109391)
Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead, which is also comedic horror and a parody of the remake of Dawn of the Dead, was released just two weeks after the remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004, although it was originally scheduled to be released at the same time. Shaun of the Dead, despite its similarity to Dawn of the Dead (it being so similar in many respects was why the release date was altered), didn't cause the legal trouble that The Return of the Living Dead did; Romero was actually so impressed with the work of writer Edgar Wright and writer and star Simon Pegg that he invited them to cameo in his 2005 film Land of the Dead, which they did as zombies.

Not Technically Zombies

There are some films that have antagonists that in many ways resemble infected zombies, yet they are not actually dead. These pseudo-zombies are often the victims of a virus, and will transmit the virus in the same way and also have a fondness for human flesh. Two notable examples are 28 Days Later, with the "rage" virus that had caused a situation very similar to that of a zombie apocalypse within Britain, and Quarantine, with an unknown genetically engineered virus with similarities to rabies. Another example is the computer game Left 4 Dead in which the infected exhibit zombie-like qualities without having actually died.

Zombie Apocalypse

One common theme with the infected zombie is that of the Zombie Apocalypse. In this situation, the zombie infection has spread to the extent that the civilization is in ruins. The majority of people have been infected and turned into zombies; as more people are killed by the zombies, more of them turn into zombies. This has a cascading effect, destroying military and law enforcement's attempts to contain it. The spread of the infection is what destroys civilization. Such stories usually focus on the efforts of a small group of survivors to stay alive after the apocalypse.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead was originally a graphic novel (or "comic" as they used to be called) based on a group of survivors attempting to stay alive after a zombie apocalypse. The story is set after the apocalypse has already happened, with the main character of Rick Grimes, a police deputy, awakening from a coma in hospital after being shot in the line of duty to find that the world has become filled with walking corpses.

The Walking Dead has also been made into a television series and a video game.

The Fantasy Role Playing Game or "Necromantic" Zombie

The other main category of modern zombie is that of the "necromantic" zombie. These zombies are most prevalent in fantasy role playing games, and media based or evolved from them.

Role Playing Games (RPGs)

Role playing games involve the player assuming the role of a character in a fictional universe. Early RPGs were based in a primarily fantasy setting, where the use of magic was prevalent. Evil mages and wizards are common in fantasy, and zombies became standard minions of them.

Not all RPG zombies are necromantic in origin. Given that role-playing games can be made based on anything and not merely a fantasy or magical setting, many of them have been written around "infected" zombie themes or based on media of the same. Indeed, even some fantasy settings may feature "infected" zombie types.

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D, DnD)


Dungeons & Dragons was developed in the 70s, primarily by Dave Arneson and E Gary Gygax, with the first edition being published in 1974 and evolved from table top wargaming. D&D was essentially the first role playing game, and was based in a fantasy setting.


The word necromancy comes from the Latin necromantia, which comes from the Greek νεκρÏŒς meaning "dead body" and μαντεία meaning "prophecy or divination." The original concept of necromancy was that of divination using the dead.

More recently necromancy has come to mean dealing with the dead (and undead) in a broader way, not just limited to divination, usually using some magic of some description.

The Necromantic zombie is a corpse that has been raised from the dead by magic; the person doing the raising often referred to as a Necromancer.

Necromantic zombies are often mindless, fairly minor undead that are usually used as cannon fodder and they are mostly dangerous en-masse. Individually, they rarely present a challenge to the heroes, and individuals killed by them do not themselves turn into zombie.

The Portrayal of Zombies in Computer Games

Computer game zombies can vary in type. Fantasy based computer games, such as Oblivion or the MMORPG RuneScape tend to the necromantic type of zombie. Action, survival horror or science fiction games such as the Resident Evil series (which has itself spawned several films) tend more to the infected type of zombie, although those in the game DOOM and its' sequels owed more to occult magic than they did to technology.

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Sep 21, 2012 1:34pm
Thank you for a great article! I also like your illustrations. Thumbs up!
Sep 22, 2012 4:36am
Thanks, glad you liked it.
Sep 21, 2012 4:02pm
Killer article! Pun totally intended, but seriously, great job. This is definitely one of the most interesting pieces I've read here.
Sep 22, 2012 4:35am
Thanks, I had fun writing it.
Sep 25, 2012 11:11pm
great, I just know resident evil zombies and egyptian zombies before, but you make it clearer with this article.
Sep 26, 2012 3:23am
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  1. "Interview: George A. Romero On Diary Of The Dead." Cinema Blend. 14/08/2012 <Web >
  2. "Wikipedia." Zombie. 15/08/2012 <Web >
  3. "Books: Mumble-Jumble." Time. 15/08/2012 <Web >
  4. S.T. Joshi "H.P.Lovecraft." Scriptorium. 15/08/2012 <Web >
  5. "The Golden Turkey Awards." Wikipedia. 15/08/2012 <Web >

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