What is a Zombie?

This is the question nobody asks - "everyone knows what a Zombie is". They just seem to see a person or animal and instantly label them; "Zombie" or "Not a Zombie". However, I think there is a lot more to this question because, when curious individuals have asked me to define exactly what a Zombie is, I struggle to give an answer (a rather embarrassing moment for a lifelong Zombie fanatic).

I have heard a few different responses from others; the infinitely wide-ranging "any undead" to the more typical "slow, lumbering mindless undead brute that will stop at nothing to get your lovely warm meat-filled body". It is this latter description that I would agree with and until the last couple of years, I too would have defined a Zombie in this way. You see, the concept of a Zombie or, to be more precise, how they are portrayed in the media has changed, evolving just as human life has evolved.

Increasingly we have seen movies where Zombies run at near inhuman speeds, where the change from human to Zombie is so quick that it is not clear if the once-human is technically undead or just plagued by a behaviour-altering virus, where Zombies use reason to negotiate obstacles and even discharge firearms. The term "Zombie" has branched, split apart, fragmented into a thousand different strands. Perhaps there was no true definition of a Zombie at all and the term sprang into our language like an unknown and unwanted disease.

© Tom Clark | Made using Pivot Animator

The term Zombie was first used in Haitian culture in the religion called Vodou (often incorrectly referred to as Voodoo). A Bokor, a Vodou sorcerer, would "apply" a special "Zombie Powder" to an unsuspecting Haitian - quite how this Powder was applied is left to the imagination. Shortly thereafter the unfortunate Haitian would fall down, unconscious. On examination by trained doctors, the victim would not be breathing, would have no pulse and would have no heartbeat - clinically, they were dead.

Events proceeded as normal for a recent death - a funeral was held, the body was buried and so on (no one had any suspicion of foul play or the wilful application of "Zombie Powder" by a third-party). Later that night - or any following night for that matter - the Bokor would sneak to the gravesite and exhume the corpse. The dastardly Bokor would then give the corpse an antidote to the "Zombie Powder" and, to the absolute astonishment of anyone watching, the dead body would slowly re-animate. It appeared the helpful Bokor had performed a miracle - he had driven back death to bring the poor dead Haitian back to life! Oh joyus day!

However, such happy thoughts are far from reality. The revived Haitian was only a shell of their former self - personality, will and independent thought were removed. Only half-alive and with no will to reject instruction, the Bokor - presumably a sinister smirk forming across their face -, lead the dazed and essentially lifeless Haitian away, forcing them into slavery, dooming them to carry out manual labour for the Bokor until their bones seized with age. The devilry of the Bokor extended beyond their own personal gain though - often they would sell the "zombi astral" or soul of the revived Haitian to another, transferring ownership of the pitiful worker lost somewhere between life and death.

Pretty grim stuff I think you'll agree and all a bit supernatural with sorcerers and "Zombie Powder". It can, however, be rationalised down quite simply into a scientific procedure (using a sprinkling of guesswork here and there).

In the early 1980s, a Canadian anthropologist and ethno-botanist from Harvard University called Wade Davis took samples of "Zombie Powder" from different regions around Haiti. Each regional substance had different ingredients but nearly all contained some form of paralysis drug or strong toxin that would, when injected into a living host, give the appearance of death - no pulse, no heartbeat and so on. The most virulent of these was Tetrodotoxin, found in a local species of puffer fish. One variety of the demystified "Zombie Powder" actually contained human remains - ergh!

Instead of the Bokor giving something to the alleged deceased to make them ambulatory again, it seems to have been somewhat of a crapshoot - the targeted Haitian might recover, they might not. For the whole lack of free will thing, my theory is that it was nothing more than 'Power of Persuasion'. A mind that has been taken to the point of very near death and then suddenly thrust back into the world of the living is just not going to be working at 100%. Combine this with the person waking up in the night in a burial site likely quite a distance from their last memory with a strange man standing over them, and that person is going to be very open to persuasion.

That is, excuse the pun, the bare bones of Zombiism. The next twist in the tale came in 1968 by a young and largely unknown film director called George A. Romero. Romero directed and co-wrote a small, black-and-white, ultra-low budget movie titled Night of the Living Dead. This movie ushered in a whole new direction for Zombiism - no longer were Zombies the product of hocus-pocus and dark magic, now they were real, biological, tangible entities, now they were at your door and would stop at nothing to lay their hands on your enticingly warm flesh. This movie, once slated by critics and damned by professionals for (at the time) an excessive use of gore, would go on to become one of the most iconic Zombie movies of all time. The "Romero Zombie" was born and for decades to come, it was synonymous with the word "Zombie".

A "Romero Zombie" was a true undead creature. Its brain was a mess - reasoning skills, advanced hand eye coordination, speech and complex tool use were gone. A Zombie was driven only by the basest of human instincts; the need to feed, the need to devour, to collect and consume the proteins to keep going - their prey; humans, animals and any other source of meat they could get their decomposing hands on. Their motor skills were also lacking, either through lack of brain power or rigidity of the joints post-death, limiting the hapless Zombie to a slow shuffle and very occasional jog when excited by nearby food. They were not self-aware and, on the surface at least, showed no reaction to pain, happily walking into walls, spikes and other gut-wrenching implements if it got them closer to their next meal. They did have one advantage though, driven only by the base-layer of the brain, Zombies were nearly invulnerable. Only complete destruction of the brain or severance of the head from the body would eliminate the undead menace (severing the head does not actually "kill" the Zombie, the head continuing to be animate but it will remove much of their threat). Burning can also be used successfully as a weapon against the living dead though it takes time for a body to burn sufficiently to "end" the Zombie - a flaming Zombie is just as deadly, perhaps even more deadly, than a non-flaming one.

The cause of these undead terrors was speculated upon heavily during the film though no absolute answer was ever given. Radiation from space, divine punishment from the almighty and a virus, either natural or man-made, were all considered. This mystery is partially responsible for the foothold Zombies have in popular culture - just how did they come to be? What sort of vile monstrosity could cause dead corpses to walk and desire the chewing of their live brethren? Could shady government types really be responsible, embarking on a foolhardy attempt to weaponise this chaotic and nearly unstoppable force? Just these few questions were enough to start debate and debate led to interest and where there was interest, there were off-shoot questions such as "what would I do when faced with the walking dead?" or "why might somebody actually want a Zombie virus?" - a generation of Zombie fans were born.

So while much of the mystery remained, Romero brought the Zombie moaning and groaning into the scientific age of cold, hard fact while leaving just enough intrigue to tickle our taste buds. Zombies were out there, creatures of nightmare brought convincingly into reality, nowhere was safe from the undead monsters that could survive almost any punishment, they were here, they were banging on your door, they were smashing your windows and they were trying to kill you, without remorse, without fear and without emotion. This brings me to another important cornerstone in Zombie mythology. Zombies are creatures of horror. Night of the Living Dead first shows a Zombie in the most spookiest of settings - a graveyard. The mindless brute lumbers along in comical fashion, tripping and stumbling, the danger masked. The lead character's brother teases; "they're coming to get you!" providing a backdrop. It strikes, lurching forward, bringing its teeth close. However, Zombies are weak, no more powerful than the person they were before death - the clumsy attacker is easily evaded. The nightmare continues beyond that brief encounter, the horror not yet past. More and more of the frightful Zombies creep out of the blackness, making next to no noise as they assault the farmstead the humans shelter in, no apparent reason for their hostile actions. The night draws on. More come, more and more. Someone bitten by one of the freaks lurks inside and the thrown together living inhabitants of the farmhouse do nothing to alleviate the uneasy sense of tension - the monsters outside will get in, the death clock has started its countdown.

The fact that something will stop at nothing to kill innocent people, without any regard for its own safety or well-being and is seemingly invulnerable to attacks, is more than enough to send shivers up my spine. The slowness is equally important to the air of dread. The victim must see the attack coming, they must know that danger is at their door and unless they act, that door will be slammed shut, casting them into an agonising fate. To complete the horror mixture, hope is added - you cannot have true fear without hope of salvation. The living can remain out of reach of the clawing dead, protected by the farmhouse walls, the shuffling hordes too mindless to open doors. If there are not too many of the walking corpses, the living can survive that little bit longer, they can keep the defensive walls from braking under the weight of rotting flesh, rescue can reach them if they just hold on.

© Tom Clark | Made using Pivot Animator

Moving into the 21st century, the definition of a Zombie changes, evolving from the universally excepted "Romero Zombie" to make them a much more horrific threat against the entire human race rather than simple pockets of survivors. The dead did not rest easy in their graves.

The first major change to Zombie behaviour was their ability to run. Movies such as 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (the reimagining of one of Romero's greatest works) saw Zombies launch themselves at victims with break-neck speed, earning them the moniker of "Usain Bolt Zombies" after the incredibly fast Olympic sprinter. I can see that for some genres the introduction of fast-moving Zombies works and works well, especially where it can be explained by the Zombies being living humans infected with a rabies-like virus. This creates scenes of instant 'blam-blam-blam' action that, in today's world of instant gratification, teenagers adore. However, for scary horror Zombies, much has been removed. There is no atmosphere or heightened sense of dread. It is over in a flash, a survivor sees an undead guy and wham - the survivor is dead or the undead guy is dead with no time for panic to set in. As an analogy, the big slow-moving spiders where you can see every sure-footed movement and have plenty of time to survey it in all its many eyed, hairy detail is infinitely more foreboding than the tiny-terror that scuttles across the floor in the blink of an eye.

The addition of running Zombies has a knock-on effect that calls into question a feature many would think the most essential requirement for a Zombie - their "undeadness". It is simply unclear whether a person needs to die before becoming a Zombie. Indeed, if you asked the director of 28 Days Later, the legendary Danny Boyle, if he had ever made a Zombie movie, the answer would be a blunt "No" - a fact totally in contradiction to popular opinion and one that may shock people who believe 28 Days Later to be the best Zombie movie ever made. The book Dead City by Joe McKinney also features Zombies that are still alive - their hearts still pump and their blood still flows. The 2009 movie Zombieland is a classic example of 'living zombies'. While it is ambiguous from the movie, the writing team have confirmed that the Zombies in their movie are in fact alive mortals, gone insane through the application of a virus. World War Z (the mediocre film and not the masterful book) leaves the question as to the health status of the devilishly fast Zombies unclear - they obviously feel no pain, falling from great heights without so much as a yelp, but are they true undead figures?

Another bucking trend, is that of memory, intelligence and tool-use. Many of Romero's later works have depicted Zombies getting smarter and retaining memories from their pre-death lives. In Survival of the Dead, Zombies are shown to rhythmically carry on tasks they regularly performed during life, stopping to attack the living only when someone approaches. This, in keeping with the "Romero Zombie" lore, can still be seen as a mindless action - the re-enactment of a chore done several times during the Zombies pre-death life. Other movies including the original Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead (also directed by George Romero) and games such as Resident Evil 5 and 6, have all toyed with the idea of Zombies becoming intelligent. In the works by Romero - the so-called Godfather of the Dead - this intelligence is limited to one Zombie in each case. Maybe it is some random spark in the brain left on during the transition to undead, but the reason why one Zombie is more intelligent than the rest is left unexplained. Both movies hint at less-skilful Zombies being taught either by human benefactors or, more worryingly, by the intelligent Zombies themselves. Through this teaching, Zombies that can think (an idea you may find offensive), gain the ability to use firearms - lacking in accuracy though showing an advancement in tool use beyond the simple bludgeons that could be used by the earlier "Romero Zombies". In the later Resident Evil games (and also the later movies), Zombies have the ability to fire weapons and hurl projectiles with some degree of precision, making what was once only a concern at close quarters, a long-range threat.

The fourth big area where Zombies have changed, in my mind at least, is how they are represented by the media. Zombies started as creatures of horror - flesh-hungry ghouls with decaying bodies and often blood-caked wounds immediately inspire nightmarish visions so it was only natural that Zombies sunk their vice-like jaws into the horror genre. Now, those jaws are loosening their grip. Zombies have shambled into the genres of action, comedy and even family entertainment. The lifting of the speed-restriction made a shift into action natural but who could have believed that walking corpses would do wonders for romantic comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies? Re-animation of the dead is, bizarrely, a seemingly perfect fit for movies with a comical tone - the insane Zombie-romp Zombieland received top-notch reviews from the critics and grossed over a hundred million dollars from the ravenous public. With the mindless behaviour of Zombies and their total lack of self-preservation, it is not difficult to see where the potential hilarity comes from.

I've only covered some of the major trends in Zombiism that are shared amongst many works. There are many other changes to the original Romero formula from incomprehensible wall-walking acrobatics, Zombies that talk just like regular humans, right down to the just plain wrong vegetarian Zombies who turn their noses up at meat. Thankfully, most of these bizarre changes are one-offs so I can try to build up a complete picture of a universal Zombie.

© Tom Clark | Made using Pivot Animator

We started with the Haitian Zombie - nothing more than a still-living man that believed he was dead, encouraged to a supposed afterlife of eternal slavery by a shamanistic Bokor. True undead Zombies were brought into the spotlight in the late 1960s by George Romero, an amateur filmmaker who dispelled most of the mystic whatnot and replaced it with hints of physical science. Some mystery remained to galvanise public interest but primarily his creatures were deceased humans brought back from the dead to hunt the living. They were slow, they lacked agility, they had only very primitive brain-functions and they showed no regard for self-preservation. This was not the end state for Zombies. Moving through the decades, Zombies started to become smarter - not as smart as the average human but definitely adopting a basic learning intellect. They became faster, running at speed, blurring the line between the re-animated dead and those who are still alive, some external agent driving them into grotesque frenzies for human blood. Finally, Zombies expanded into other genres than their horror roots - the public adopting the funny side of a walking corpse.

What is a Zombie? To me, a Zombie is a biological machine fit for almost every need. A Zombie is simply a fleshy tool that can be bent and moulded into a variety of shapes. Zombies do not require to be dead, or even undead - living Zombies exist in many different works. Zombies are not constrained to a slow, shambling gait - this may make them perfect for true blood-boiling horror though heart-pounding action requires lightning-fast 'in your face' attackers. Zombies survive all manner of punishment yet can still be destroyed, they present a sense of hope for mankind even when facing seemingly insurmountable odds. Zombies can be explained through some diabolical experiment gone wrong (or gone right), which is a necessity in today's scientific age. An equally valid explanation for the dead coming back to life to prey upon the living lies within mysticism and magic, a realm often dismissed.

Zombies do not have to be dumb brutes, incapable of anything but destruction (whether intended or not). While they are clearly less intellectual than their live counterparts, they have been shown to have the ability to learn from each other, mimicking mankind's no doubt clumsy first steps at practicality.

So what is a Zombie? A Zombie, is awesome.


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The Dead Times © Tom Clark 2013 onwards

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