The Evolution of the Zombie

Posted on 06/06/2010
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There is nothing so typically terrifying, nothing that so perfectly contains all the characteristics of the nightmare, of revulsion, and very little that has the same history in horror and Gothic as the zombie. The zombie is the perfect embodiment of the abject; a term coined and developed by literary critic, Julia Kristeva. According to her the abject represents anything that is removed from or situated outside the symbolic order, and being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience. This includes such things as a corpse, along with rot and excrement, reminds a person of their own fragile mortality. It puts us face to face with the stark reality that we are to die. But it doesn’t stop there with the zombie. The walking, groaning, disease and death spreading walking corpse takes abjection even further. It is a corpse, a body that once was alive and to us should be alive, however it is dead and yet it is a corpse that remains animated and without any trace of humanity. It is a million miles away from the symbolic order. Not only does it remind us of our own mortality, but it also threatens to bring our mortality to an end.


The Ancient Zombie

Representations of the flesh-hungry undead have been common throughout world mythology. While this includes the deformed and cannibalistic, though still living, ghoul and the blood draining vampire, the zombie in its more common, modern form has appeared in tales dating all the way back to 1000 BC. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest known works of literature, which was recorded on twelve clay tablets, written in Mesopotamia, now modern day Iraq. Like most epics it records a struggle between a hero, Gilgamesh, and the Gods, as he undertakes quests which displease his spiritual overlords. It is in the sixth tablet that the zombie is alluded to when the Goddess Ishtar threatens to raise the dead who will outnumber and devour the living. The dead do not actually rise in the epic; however it is the first overt mention in recorded literature of the zombie we know today.


But it isn’t just in literature that we come across the ancient and old zombies. Zombies have always been a common fixture in the West African Voodun tradition. There exists within this the ‘zombi astral’, where in which a bokor, or sorcerer, can capture a part of a human soul in order to enhance their own power. This leaves the body as an empty, soulless and thus zombified entity that can die only when God retrieves the soul, which is kept by the bokor in a bottle. In addition to this, legend has it that a bokor can raise the more widely recognized version of the zombie, a reanimated corpse. Using voodoo, the corpse is revived but with no soul or will of its own, thus remaining completely under the bokors control.


In 1937, renowned American folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston travelled to Haiti. While completing fieldwork on the folklore of the area she came across the case of a woman who had appeared in a village despite claims by her family that she was dead. According to her relatives the woman, named Felicia Felix-Mentor, had died and been buried in 1907 at the age of 27. She was apparently found wandering the streets near nude in ragged and torn clothing before wandering toward a farm she claimed belonged to her father. It was upon reaching the property that her family and widower both identified her to be Felicia. She was then sent to a government hospital where she was interviewed by a doctor, he said of her:

Her occasional outbursts of laughter were devoid of emotion, and very frequently she spoke of herself in either the first or the third person without any sense of discrimination. She had lost all sense of time and was quite indifferent to the world of things around her.

Apparently Felicia had died of a sudden illness, the type that Haitian belief finds to be characteristic of a person who is to be made into a zombie. Hurston, however, pursued the rumour of a powerful psychoactive drug that could induce this zombie state, though she was unsuccessful.

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.

Decades later, Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist who studies the relationship between humans and plants presented a pharmacological case for zombies, supporting Hurston’s theory.


The Classical Zombie


While not a zombie novel per se, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the tale of a walking and ultimately murderous corpse. It is an entity that is resurrected to be a more dangerous and violent version of its former self, much like the zombie of today. How the monster from the novel deviates from most modern versions of the zombie is its ability to create coherent thoughts and speak like the living. What Frankenstein is essentially about is the issue of nature vs. nurture in the creation of evil. Where the Mary Shelley’s work and the modern zombie really coincide is over the issue of misguided scientific process, with Doctor Frankenstein playing God in the creation of his monster while, in films such as 28 Days Later and Resident Evil man-made diseases, viruses and chemical weapons have become a mainstay cause for zombie outbreaks in modern films and literature.

Other zombies from this period seem to have more in common with vampires and ghouls. It wasn’t until H. P. Lovecroft’s Herbert West – Reanimator that we encountered something that truly helped define the modern zombie. In this short story, published in 1922, this Frankenstein inspired series tells the story of Herbert West, a mad scientist that looks to reanimate corpses in much the same fashion as doctor Frankenstein. However, instead of creating an essentially self-conscious and thinking being, West’s creations are primal and extremely violent from the outset. These stories also include the first case of a zombie bite, although it does not cause the victim to join the ranks of the forever wondering undead. While the name ‘zombie’ doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the story, it is clear to see their relationship to the modern zombie. They are the creature not yet named and just because something isn’t named, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend is another story that is thought to have influenced the zombie genre of today. However, the infestation that wipes out so much of the population does not reanimate its victims into the flesh-hungry undead, but rather leaves survivors that are mutated. The creatures are really closer to the modern vampire than the zombie. They suck blood rather than eat flesh and they still possess the ability to think, rather than being mindlessly violent. It would seem that the effect that the novel had on the modern zombie is rather on the spread of infection, which has become a characterizing factor in the zombie fiction of the 21st Century.

The Modern Zombie


It would be rather sacrilegious to dispute that the undisputed godfather of the modern zombie is and will always be the renowned horror writer and director, George R. Romero. His seminal films have defined the zombies that we know and love to fear today. Hordes of walking, mindless dead, wandering with one purpose in mind, to find and devour the living, all the while uttering their terrifying groans. So influential is his work that the modern zombie has come to be known as the ‘Romero Zombie’.

You have to imagine the chorus of groans, the echoes of shuffling feet and most importantly you have to imagine the stench of the horde of walking, decomposing corpses as the close in on you. They may be slow, but there is no escape. What Romero really brought to the table, as far as zombie fiction is concerned, is the idea of the zombie apocalypse. Where ever you run, no matter where you hide, you will never be too far from the predator. The walking dead now take the place of humanity as the top of the food chain.


What makes Romero’s films and his breed of zombie so scary is that the ranks are comprised of all the recently deceased. Any corpse that still has the composition still able to move returns to life in order to hunt its prey; the living. These are the first zombies to have a deep desire to actually consume the flesh of their victims, it is a fusion of the horrors of cannibalism with the model of the zombie that had been developed up until this point and it is this gruesome splicing that really gives the zombie its horrific edge.

In the early Romero films, known as the cc series, the story seems to focus more on localized attacks. It is not until Dawn of the Dead that we really get a true sense of a world after a zombie apocalypse (Class 4 Outbreak). The world as we know it now has ceased to exist. Social order and all the protections that it affords us and that we take for granted have crumbled. We now live as prey, attempting to survive in a hostile world, only, unlike in the animal kingdom, the predators outnumber the prey.

It is in the Dawn of the Dead film that Romero perfected his social commentary. The cumbersome hordes bent on consumption mirror the modern human race, feeding on commodity and the world around us, even on each other. It is no accident that the main body of the film takes place in a huge shopping mall that acts as a fortress for the survivors.

Although not fully elaborated on, the reason behind the outbreak in Dawn of the Dead is put down to radio waves from space, which almost marries aliens and UFOs into the mix. While it is an interesting idea, it may be seen as a little too farfetched for modern horror fans. As such, the zombie seems to has, once again, taken a turn more toward the scientific, with an emphasis on the fears we have of ourselves. It has essentially turned full circle, returning to the issues explored by Shelley and Lovecroft.


28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later revolutionized zombies once again. Taking from popular video games of the zombie genre, such as Resident Evil, now rather than the outbreak being universal and effecting all the recently dead, it became a virus that was spread by the infected. In fact, in the 28 Series, the infected weren’t even dead, but rather driven to become primal, homicidal beasts. Essentially, in the Resident Evil and 28 series, the afflicted become a walking embodiment of the virus, wishing to do no more than spread. Both films played on the fear of weapons that we could create, that developments in biological and chemical weapons do not actually protect us from our enemies, but rather threaten us with our own self destruction.


What’s more, in the 28 series, as was picked up on by the Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004, the infected zombies had increased mobility, being able to power after their pray rather than shambling. Naturally this has upset some zombie purists, who believe the slow moving mass body of so many stench filled zombies slowly engulfing its prey is more intimidating than the fast moving shock attacks of new. However, there are very few scenes that are quite as frightening, and thrilling, as the opening scene to 28 Weeks Later, which sees Robert Carlyle’s character running from a huge swarm of sprinting infected as he desperately tries to make it to a boat on the river, his only escape, leaving his wife to face her fate with the infected. Perhaps it’s the perfect music and perhaps its style over substance, but nothing in any other zombie movie seems to have the same effect.


What the zombie now brings to horror fiction is apocalyptical fear. It goes beyond the fear of personal safety that you get in slahers where escape is, no matter how difficult, at least possible. But zombies pose a threat to the safety of the world. It fears the fact that we can do this to ourselves. It takes the subject matter of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear destruction and magnifies it. It creates killers out of anyone unlucky enough to become infected, turns them into the embodiment of a virus. In essence it highlights that fear that has been expressed by numerous physicists; when speaking of the possibility of life on other worlds; many scientists have stated that there may well be life on a great number of planets out there, yet their ability to travel the distances are unlikely. Once they develop the technology to destroy themselves they won’t last too much longer before they do it and the hordes of the walking, consuming, man-made, viral dead are, it would seem, the metaphor.

Author: David Crudge Copyrighted © One page article

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